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Harvard Health Blog
Resilience: A skill your child really needs to learn (and what you can do to help)
- By Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
Follow me on Twitter @drClaire
It’s the end of the school year, the time of graduation speeches, of looking back at accomplishments and making plans for new ones. It’s a time when many parents think about their hopes and dreams for their children, whether they are graduating or just learning to walk.
As parents, we tend to think about getting good grades, excelling at athletics, being popular, getting into good schools, and getting good jobs. All of this is great, of course. But there is something that children need if they are going to truly succeed in life, and that’s resilience.
Resilience is the ability to overcome hardship and be okay. It’s the ability to navigate life’s inevitable bumps and still be happy and healthy and stay on track. What worries me sometimes is that our current parenting culture of achievement and obsessing over safety — and the way that electronic devices have become so ubiquitous — may get in the way of learning resilience.
According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, there are four factors that help children develop resilience. They are:
- Supportive adult-child relationships.This is crucial. All it really takes is one supportive, nurturing relationship to make all the difference. This gives children a buffer, and helps them know that they aren’t alone and that they matter to someone. While all parents want to have a good relationship with their child, the demands of daily life can get in the way. Try to spend regular time with your child when they have your undivided attention. Ask about their day, get involved in activities they enjoy, spend time doing things together. Make sure your child knows that no matter what, you have their back — and you will love them.
- A sense of self-efficacy and perceived control. Basically, you want to help a child learn that they can manage, and that even if things go wrong, they can figure a way through. You can’t do this just by telling your child that he is smart and capable; he needs to learn it himself. Bit by bit, giving independence, letting children make decisions and take risks helps them learn to weather life’s storms. It’s not always easy to let children take risks —we never want them to be hurt, emotionally or physically — but with you at their back, and in a gradual way, most children can and do manage just fine. Learning this also involves shutting off the screens and being active. Learning to be physically capable is important. In being active, in running and climbing and other such activities, children learn not just their strengths and limitations but how to plan and troubleshoot.
- Strong adaptive skills and self-regulatory capacities.This is what we call "executive function." It’s like the air traffic controller functions of life: the ability to prioritize, not get distracted, make a plan, negotiate, get along with others, and manage emotions. These are not easy tasks, and there is no way to learn them without practice. One of the best ways for children to practice is through unstructured playtime, either alone (so they can find ways to entertain themselves) or with others (so they can learn how to work with others). Consistent discipline, not giving in to tantrums, and helping children manage sadness or frustration rather than just fixing things for them, can also help. The Center on the Developing child also has suggestions on activities to support executive function at different ages.
- Being able to mobilize sources of faith, hope, and cultural traditions.It helps to be part of something bigger, to have community, to have traditions that help you through difficult times. This doesn’t mean that you need to join a faith if you don’t belong to one. But if you do, maybe you could go to services a bit more often. If you don’t, spending time with extended family, joining a community group, taking part in service opportunities together… these activities can help give your child a perspective on life, as well as strategies for handling challenges. Because ultimately, the ability to keep perspective and handle challenges is what gets us through and helps us succeed.
About the Author
Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
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No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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