While you may not be able to completely shield your kids from pain and hardship, there are steps you can take to help them face difficulties with a can-do mind-set.
A while back I walked up to a group of kids at church and asked them how their week went. When they answered, I was caught off guard by their candor: “Someone I thought was a good friend spread a lie about me at school.” “I flunked my algebra test.” “My dog died.” “My parents told me we’re selling our house, and I’m going to have to change schools.”
That short interaction got me thinking. As adults, we often view childhood as a carefree period of life. And certainly, most youngsters are under less pressure and have fewer responsibilities than their parents. But childhood is hardly stress-free. At times kids struggle with schoolwork, deal with family problems, get teased, encounter bullies, feel excluded, are let down by friends, perform poorly in games, get sick and get injured.
To one degree or another, all kids face difficulties, disappointments and setbacks.
What helps young people overcome hardship is the same character strength that helps adults: resilience. Resilience is generally defined as the ability to rebound, recover or bounce back in times of adversity. It means getting up after being knocked down and moving forward with optimism and confidence.
According to child psychologist Caren Baruch-Feldman, Ph.D., resilience is not only a matter of snapping back to one’s former state after an ordeal. It can also mean coming away stronger.
“Resilient people understand that ultimately they will be strengthened by the problems and challenges they face,” explains Dr. Baruch-Feldman.“Resilient people understand that ultimately they will be strengthened by the problems and challenges they face,” explains Dr. Baruch-Feldman, author of The Grit Guide for Teens (2017). “When we push ourselves and we learn from our mistakes, that’s how we grow.”
She says resilience not only gets us through difficult times, it develops best in the midst of adversity.
Our natural inclination as parents may be to try to protect kids from pain and hardship. There are times to do this, but we can’t do it all the time, nor should we. Difficulties are part of life, and kids and adults alike have to be ready for them.
Peter tells us, “Do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you” (1 Peter 4:12). Youngsters need to build resilience not only so they can navigate present challenges, but also to prepare for the inevitable trials they’ll face as adults.
Some individuals are naturally more resilient than others. However, this ability can be developed and learned. Whether your children are preschoolers or in high school, it’s never too soon or too late to teach them about resiliency.
Here are four ways you can help them build this vital character strength:
- Teach them problem solving.
When kids know how to tackle challenges, they become more resilient. If they make a mistake or something doesn’t turn out as they had hoped, they’re able to take it in stride, realizing there’s often another opportunity to make improvements.
The best way to instill good problem-solving skills is by taking advantage of teachable moments. So if your child comes to you upset about something that happened, brainstorm possible solutions together. Ask him or her, “What do you think you should do about that?” or “How do you think you could turn the situation around?”
You may share your ideas, too, but present them as steps to consider rather than directives. Help your child evaluate all the options, pointing out the pluses and minuses of each, but let your child be the one to decide on the best course of action.
“While you should always be available to offer guidance and support, you should encourage your children to figure out what to do on their own,” advises Dr. Baruch-Feldman. “This tells them you trust them to solve their own problems and encourages them to take ownership of what happened.”
As kids get experience working through problems, even relatively minor ones, they’ll be better prepared to face larger roadblocks down the road, she adds.
Obviously, the type of decisions you allow your kids to make and how much latitude you give them depends on their age and maturity and the severity of the problem.
- Don’t try to shield them from adversity.
No parent wants to see his or her kids hurting or discouraged, which is why it can be tempting to try to fix their problems for them. But unless they’re facing something that’s too big to manage on their own or could cause serious harm, we should resist the urge to intervene.
“If you overprotect them, they’re going to become dependent on you for solving their problems, and they’ll feel powerless to do anything on their own about the situations they face,” warns Debbie Pierce, a licensed professional counselor in private practice in Texas.
Remind yourself that someday they’re going to be on their own. Now is the time to teach them how to face challenges. Very often it’s when kids are at their low points that they’re the most motivated to address problems.
- Nurture an optimistic outlook.
Resilience and optimism go hand in hand. “A positive attitude empowers us; it takes away some of our stress; and we feel more energized to do the hard work, because it is hard work to keep going,” Dr. Baruch-Feldman says.
We can help kids maintain a hopeful outlook by pointing out the positives when they’re discouraged—what things are going well, what they have to be thankful for, the lessons they’re learning in their trials—so they don’t get caught up in all the negatives. If your youngster has endured a difficult situation for a while, compliment your child on his or her tenacity.
One teen shared how she keeps a “blessings journal.” “Every night, I write down three good things that happened that day,” she explains. “Then, when I’m down about something, my parents will encourage me to read my blessings journal, to remind me of all the good in my life.” This helps her stay upbeat.
On the other hand, don’t downplay what your children are going through. The heat of an agonizing ordeal is not the time to tell them, “Keep your chin up” or “Look at the silver lining.” Such statements can make them feel like they’re being corrected for expressing their very real feelings of pain. Most kids are not going to be ready to look at the positives until they’ve first worked through their emotions.
Saying instead, “I can see this is really difficult for you, but I also have confidence you can get through it,” validates their feelings and tells them you believe they have the abilities to address the problem.
“You want your kids to know that you recognize they’re in a tough situation, but it’s not impossible to deal with and you’re confident they can get through it,” Ms. Pierce says. This boosts optimism, which leads to resilience.
- Point them to God.
Of course, our No. 1 source of strength is our relationship with God. Ultimately, God is the One who carries us through trials, who gives us the courage and ability to navigate life’s stormy waters and helps us bounce back and grow. But while you may know this, you shouldn’t assume your kids already have that understanding. Pass these precious truths on to your children.
Help your children understand that God uses trials to build resilience, courage, longsuffering and other strengths in us, and to teach us to trust Him.An effective way to do this is to share your own experiences. After you’ve faced a trial—whether a health or financial challenge, a problem at work or the consequences of a mistake you’ve made—open up about it with your kids. Obviously, how much you divulge depends on their ages, but be willing to talk about the lessons you learned and how God saw you through.
Consider having a family Bible study on the topic of how God strengthens us in times of adversity. The book of Psalms is an excellent place to start—in particular 18:1-2, 32; 27:1; 31:21-24; 37:39; 46:1; and 138:3—along with Ephesians 6:10; Isaiah 40:29; 41:10; and Philippians 4:13.
It’s also helpful to address why God allows us to go through trials. Romans 5:3-4 tells us that tribulation produces godly character. Help your children understand that God uses trials to build resilience, courage, longsuffering and other strengths in us, and to teach us to trust Him. It is easier to hang in there when we focus on the big picture of what God is doing in our lives.
Read the stories of resilient Bible heroes like Moses, Joseph, Gideon, David, Hezekiah, Job and Peter—people who made mistakes and faced serious hardships, yet with God’s help endured suffering and stayed the course. Remind your children that God will also help them.
When your kids face their own trials, teach them to pray for strength, resilience and God’s guidance and intervention. Let them know you will pray about it too.
Jesus Christ told us we would experience trouble and hardship in this life (John 16:33). It’s important for us as parents to prepare our kids, through the relatively small hardships they face right now, for the bigger trials they’ll encounter as adults.
Remind them they’re not alone, they always have our love and support, and that God will be with them through thick and thin.