Ontario’s Minister of Education, Lisa Thompson, recently announced that the average high school class size will increase from 22 to 28 students, saying that that one benefit of doing this will increase student resilience. It is unclear how larger class sizes in high school will improve resilience and it seems to me that the teen years are a bit late to be addressing this particular trait.
First, let’s look at what resilience is. According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is defined as the “ability to bounce back from stress, adversity, failure, challenges, or even trauma.” A person’s resilience determines the way they handle the curve balls that life throws their way. While resilience is an innate human quality, and some people tend to exhibit a natural ability to “roll with the punches”, for others, resilience can be developed, and this development can start in the early years of a person’s life.
A parent plays a large role in fostering a child’s resilience. As a child grows, parents can provide the framework for cultivating resilience. In an effort to protect children, your instinct can be to jump in and prevent them from experiencing adversity or failure or to fix any issues or problems they encounter, but this can do more harm than good. If children don’t encounter any negativity as they age, then they have no skills to deal with it when it does eventually occur (and it will) and the parent is not there to manage it. This could result in an inconsolable teen or young adult when faced with common life events, like the break up of a romantic relationship, losing a job, or having a major injury or illness. Luckily, there are many things you can do to nurture your child’s resilience.
Build a strong emotional connection
Studies have shown that children who have a strong emotional attachment to at least one parent grow into well-balanced teens and young adults, and those who don’t have a much more difficult time in life. Parents need to be seen by their children as a “safe haven” by providing support and understanding. Physical closeness is an importance factor in fostering this feeling, but of course must be adjusted according to the needs and preferences of the child.
Promote healthy risk taking
No one is suggesting that you take you 8 year old skydiving, but children need to develop the ability to try something “scary” and learn that they can not only live through it, but come out on the other end better for having had the experience. This could take the form of trying a new activity, going to the park with friends, or talking to a new student at school. Even if the outcome isn’t what your child wanted, they learn that they will be okay regardless.
Resist the urge to fix problems and ask questions instead
This can be really difficult for some parents to do. The term “helicopter parenting” has been coined to describe parents who continually step in to solve their children’s problems for them, in a misguided attempt to help them have a smooth go of it. By “helping” their children, helicopter parents are denying their children the opportunity to figure out how to solve problems themselves. To build resilience, you can ask your child directed questions to help them come up with their own solution. For example, you could talk about past incidents (like forgetting their gyms clothes) and brainstorm what the consequences of this would be and how your child could remember them in the future.
Emotions are neither good nor bad, but they can cause discomfort and feelings of bewilderment. Parents can help their child work through them by first labelling them by saying something like, “You look frustrated that you can’t do up your zipper” or “You must be sad that your friend doesn’t want to play with you anymore.” By putting words to these feelings, we are helping children to identify what the emotions they’re experiencing. The other part to this is that children need to understand that emotions are a part of living, that it is okay to feel them and that they will usually go away after a while. Once emotions have been labelled and children can see them for what they are, parents can move on to helping children cope with them.
Demonstrating coping skills
Everyone can have a bad day and experience negative emotions like anger, fear, frustration and sadness, but children don’t always have the capability of knowing how to move through them. You can show children how to cope by modelling coping techniques yourself. You can even label your own emotions for your child. “Mommy is really angry that she dropped and broke all the eggs. She’s going to take a few deep breaths to calm down before she cleans up the mess.” When your child is in a calm mood, you can discuss coping methods with your child and find one that could work with them, like deep breathing, counting to ten or spending some time alone. When a strong emotion is experienced, you can guide them through the coping mechanism.
Mistakes are okay!
Let’s face it: none of us is perfect - we all make mistakes. And when you’re learning something new (as kids are doing all the time), you’re bound to make mistakes as it’s part of the process. How you respond to the mistakes that you make and the mistakes that your child makes helps to set them up to realize that mistakes are a no big deal. For your own mistakes, laugh them off or tell yourself, within earshot of your child, that it’s okay. When a child makes a mistake, focus on the positive, like how much they’ve improved since they first started trying the skill. If you show them that it’s not a big deal, then they will internalize that.
Resilience is a trait that comes naturally in some, but needs developing in others. By modelling resilience yourself and giving your children the tools they need to develop their own resilience, they can grow into adults who can take the hard knocks that life sometimes delivers.