Raising Resilient Kids

Teach your child to take risks and overcome adversity


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Life for little ones isn’t as easy as it looks. Imagine what it feels like to be clumsy and small — frustrated with tasks that seem so simple for everyone else.

Kids face an endless amount of challenges every day. But whether at school, at home or on the playground, giving children the tools to overcome the obstacles they face in their everyday lives will benefit them for years, even decades, to come. Here’s how to help your child bounce back from failure and face whatever life throws his or her way.

Let Them Make Mistakes

The only way to be great at anything is to make plenty of mistakes along the way. In “The Little Book of Talent,” Daniel Coyle writes that improving your skills means working at the edge of your ability every day. “When it comes to developing talent, remember, mistakes are not really mistakes — they are the guideposts you use to get better,” he writes.

Unfortunately, getting better at anything means facing failure over and over again, and no one enjoys watching that less than a parent. It’s why you instinctively try rescuing your kids the moment you see them on the cusp of a misstep.

But in “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” Carol Dweck writes that verbal cues from parents and teachers can have a major effect on the way they interpret situations. These hints can either encourage children to try out new challenges, or avoid obstacles altogether due to fear of failure.

Dweck goes on to explain that kids rise to more difficult challenges when they’re praised for their effort. However, when praised for their sheer intellect, they become risk averse.
There’s no doubt about it: Failure can feel crushing, to you and the young ones you love. Even though your child’s mistakes aren’t easy to watch, they’re pivotal to his or her development. And instead of waxing poetic about your child’s intelligence, choose to compliment his or her efforts instead.

Be a Role Model for Your Child

Rachel Bowman, a child clinical psychologist at the Dogwood Psychology Center for Children and Families in Hillsborough, says kids look up to parents who take their own risks. It can be in small ways, like watching you try a new food or play a new instrument. She says it’s beneficial for parents to discuss their risk-taking experiences with their children, too.

“Even if you didn’t like it, just [talk] about how glad you were that you took a risk and tried something different — that it’s fun to learn,” she says.

Bowman suggests that parents encourage their children to take healthy risks. For example, encourage your child or teen to try out for a new sport or role in a play, or to ask a friend he or she likes to the upcoming school dance.

“Kids are watching us — even our teens are watching us,” Bowman says, adding that parents should model safe ways to take risks and avoid modeling unsafe risks, like driving too fast, texting while driving or drinking too much at home.

Help Them Own Their Struggle

Jennifer Reid, director of the Early School at Lucy Daniels School in Cary, stresses the importance of parents allowing kids to struggle on their own when facing challenges, and being careful not to step in or take over when they spot a potential opportunity for failure.

She advises parents to think about the answer to this essential question: “Is my child working through something, or is my child in desperate need of help?” She says it’s worth it for parents to understand the distinction, and sit through the discomfort that can benefit their child in the end.

Not every challenge your child attempts will be successful. Though you may feel eager to offer reasons for why they’ll do better next time, kids aren’t always so keen to hear clichés of guidance such as, “Just try again” and “Don’t be a quitter” so quickly after defeat.

Help Them Take Risks and Reflect

Both Bowman and Reid recommend that parents let their children feel the loss and hurt after taking a risk that didn’t go as planned. Discuss the unpleasant feelings that come with risk-taking, and tell them how proud you are that they tried and faced their fear, even if it didn’t go well.

Say your child is figuring out if she wants to take a risk. Whether in an art class, an academic subject or a physical sport, there are always pros and cons to consider. Too often we focus on what could go wrong if we ourselves, or our children, take a risk. Shift the conversation the other way: What could go right? Let your child know that even when failure feels impossible to overcome, it’s not as bad as what we imagine in our minds. The people who truly care about our growth and development will see us as heroic, even when we fall flat on our faces.

Reid says one of the greatest gifts a parent can give his or her child is the ability to reflect on experiences in a way that encourages progress. “That’s what fuels the child’s knowledge to enter the next situation,” she says.

She advises parents to ask their child questions that encourage reflection: “Let’s think together about what went wrong. Where do you think you could have done something differently?”

No, you can’t make every challenge easy for your child, and there isn’t a perfect formula to avoid the pitfalls that come with failure. But when parents offer guidance and love, children learn how to keep their eyes on the prize, even when it’s out of their small, determined hands.

Elizabeth Kane is a writer, content strategist and music instructor. She shows parents how to steer their young musicians toward success at practiceforparents.com.

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