Helping Children Develop Resilience: Teaching our kids to cope

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I am frequently asked to speak to parenting groups on a variety of topics. When invited to speak, I typically ask, What would you like me to talk about? Without question, the most frequently requested topic these days is helping kids to manage stress. I think that parents are tuning into a valid concern, and I agree that kids today are overscheduled and over-stressed. I often find that parents are focused on the wrong end of the equation when it comes to helping kids deal with stress, anxiety, challenges, etc.

More often than not, parents I talk with are more focused on changing the environment (i.e.the things causing stress and anxiety) than on helping their child develop effective coping skills for dealing with difficulty. On the other hand, I have had many parents who actively inquire about how to help their children deal effectively with anxiety, stress and challenge. Unfortunately, they are really asking me how to help their children deal with difficulty in a way that enables them to perform and achieve at the highest levels of academic or extracurricular activities.

I believe that our focus should not be on making the world a less stressful, challenging, or scary place. Neither do I believe that we should help kids deal with difficulties in order to maximize their athletic performance or GPA. Instead, I suggest that we focus our efforts on helping children to develop resilience in response to adversity, challenge, anxiety, and stress. Lets face itas much as we would like to protect our children from difficulty, we simply cannot. I have two boys of my own. I would like nothing more than to promise them a world that is free of stress, fear, adversity, unfairness, bullies, etc. However, the world we live in is full of all of these. There is no community I can move to; no private school in which I can enroll them; no church we can join that will shield them from the difficulties they are sure to encounter.

Resilient Children
If stress, adversity, failures, setbacks and challenges are all part of our experience in this life, what can we do to help prepare our children for the road ahead? I believe that part of the answer is to help them develop resilience. In their book, Raising Resilient Children, Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein define resilience as, ┬Žembracing the ability of a child to deal more effectively with stress and pressure, to cope with everyday challenges, to bounce back from disappointments, adversity, and trauma, to develop clear and realistic goals, to solve problems, to relate comfortably with others, and to treat oneself and others with respect.

Every good counselor is trained to ask early in the process of counseling, What are your goals for treatment? I think Brooks and Goldsteins definition of resilience can be easily turned into wonderful goals for our children. If you read their book, you quickly realize that helping our children develop resilience is not synonymous with helping them to have high self-esteem. For example, children with a resilient mindset are aware of their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, but they also recognize their strong points and talents. This is not the same as thinking they can do anything. I sometimes hear parents tell their children, You can do anything you believe you can do. This is simply not true. My nine-year-old cannot throw a 90 mph fastball; I dont care how much he believes or says he canhe is simply physically unable to do this.

Resilient children dont think they can do anything, but they accept this and are aware of what they can do well. A resilient mindset in children is also defined as knowing the aspects of their lives over which they have control and focusing their energy and attention on these areas rather than on factors over which they have little, if any, influence. Despite all of the attention and focus parents give to developing high selfesteem in children, the research simply does not support the emphasis. For example, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., did an exhaustive literature review in the area of self-esteem and found that there is no evidence that self-esteem causes or results in good grades, more popularity, less teen pregnancy, etc. However, self-esteem does seem to be a symptom of, or correlate of, how well a person is doing in the world. Take help from a telephone counselor.

In other words, self-esteem is more of a meter that tells how one is doing rather than a determinant. Therefore, it appears to be a mistake to focus our efforts on getting our children to feel good about themselves as the cure of all problems. I strongly recommend that parents and professionals shift their focus from promoting general selfesteem to helping children develop resilience as a response to adversity. I would propose that helping children develop resilience is one of the most important things parents can do over the course of their childrens youth development preparing them to function effectively and competently as adults. In fact, resilience may be more important than IQ, raw talent, education, who you know, etc. in predicting effective coping in life.

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