As parents, we want to raise resilient kids. If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that life can throw some startling curveballs our way. And if we want our kids to handle the setbacks that will likely be part of their lives as they grow, then we need to teach them how to do so positively.
Yet teaching resilience is easier said than done. One of the reasons for this is simply down to the fact that parents are too ready to shield their children from negative emotions.
Truth is, if given a chance, most parents would stop their child from ever feeling pain or sadness. Yet surprisingly, they wouldn’t be giving them the lifetime of happiness they probably think they would. Rather, they’d be preventing them from experiencing life to the fullest and actually making them less resilient in the long run.
So what should you as a parent do if you want to help your child become more confident and capable in the face of challenges?
The answer is pretty straightforward and it’s the one thing that practically all parents who raise resilient kids know to do – step back and let them struggle.
Disrupting healthy development
The need to protect your young is a biological instinct. But, if you’re always stepping in to ensure their safety, it can disrupt the development of powerful skills related to their personal agency and emotional control and flexibility.
Allowing your child space to solve their problems, doesn’t mean that you’ll let them sink if it’s obvious they can’t swim. Children must be aware and confident of the strong support they have from their parents or caregivers.
But as the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University points out, there are numerous opportunities in every child’s life to experience “manageable threats” that, when they deal with them on their own, can be growth-promoting.
This could be something as simple as learning to apologize to a sibling after a fight over toys, or a toddler figuring out how to climb onto the sofa.
Over time, the child learns that not only are they capable of making good decisions on their own but also they can cope with life’s obstacles, both physically and mentally.
The real reason you’re stopping your child from becoming resilient
Of course, stepping in to stop or help your child when you should be stepping back is not only about your concern for your child’s wellbeing – It’s also about your fear of dealing with it.
Often when you prevent your child from going on the high swing or playing with the big boys, it’s because you’re actually protecting yourself from the potential worry of something bad happening to them.
In addition, this might even extend to fearing your child’s tears and not knowing whether you’d be able to soothe them effectively or escape the judgemental eyes of others who you’re sure will see you as an unfit parent.
Believe it or not, these aren’t such weird worries. Many parents don’t feel up to the job of parenting and imagine others are doing it much more competently than them.
Also, you are a human who brings your own experiences into all the decisions you make. Maybe you were rejected by the “big boys” when you were a kid and now you’re trying to avoid your child feeling that painful rebuff from their peers.
Or perhaps you fell and badly hurt yourself and your parents weren’t there at that moment to calm and comfort you.
So now, you are trying to avoid your child experiencing those same things. But how do you know for sure that what happened to you will be repeated? And even if it is, you don’t know how your kid will react and manage the situation.
Neither do they, and that’s why they have to learn.
When you think you’re protecting them, deep down you’re really protecting yourself from feeling powerless to prevent any pain that might come their way.
But it’s not fair. You’re also taking away your child’s chance to live through a wide range of emotions that can help them build resilient behaviours.
These behaviours can include asking for help when they go on the high swing because they remember they fell off the last time.
Or realising that they don’t need to play with the big boys because they have other options such as more age-appropriate friends.
The less you allow them to make these decisions for themselves, the more you’re hampering their cognitive and social skills and their ability to respond adaptively to challenges and hardships.
Of course, it’s not easy to just let go. Yet as Virginia Clinton Kelley, an American nurse anaesthetist and the mother of Bill Clinton, rightly said: “ Children are like a mirror; They help you see yourself and all the flaws that you … might have avoided looking at earlier”.
So, if you’re really committed to raising a resilient kid, then it’s time to move some of your attention away from them and on to yourself.
Here are three places to start:
1 – Work on your own fear
Can you recognise patterns of avoidance or over-protection in your parenting? Be honest.
Write down some of your child’s regular social settings such as the playground, back yard, school classroom, etc, and make a list of some of the hurtful (but non-life-threatening) things that you really wouldn’t want happening to them here.
What do these things mean to YOU? Can you accept the risk? And if they did happen, how would you deal with the risks and offer support to your child?
2 – Reparent the fear
Whatever fears you have for your child, think about what you would tell them if they came to you with this exact issue.
What is it that you would have liked to hear from your parents when you faced these challenges in childhood?
What are the reassuring words you need to hear to feel seen, worthy and to know that you matter?
3 – Think about your role as a parent
Finally, think about your role as a parent and how you can support – rather than protect – your child when they are sad, angry or hurt.
How can you let them know that you love them and are there for them while at the same time allowing them to navigate some of the negative feelings and situations they’re experiencing?
We love our kids and we want the best for them. We would do anything to make sure they don’t feel sad, abandoned or rejected. But by being over-protective we prevent them from learning essential life skills that enable them to become more resilient and capable in the face of life’s challenges.
Over-protecting our children sends the wrong unconscious message that they are not good enough, not capable on their own.
But loving, supporting and modelling healthy behaviours for our children, does the opposite and significantly improves the odds that, if you park your over-protective attitude, you’ll start raising a resilient child.