Life Coach, and Author, Eileen S. Lenson shows us tools that can help children to develop resilience when dealing with adversity.
Resilient children grow up to become resilient adults. But how do we instill in our children that confident “I-can-do-it” attitude; the refusal to surrender and instead, to persist even when making mistakes, experiencing failures and ongoing problems?
Despite our desire to protect them, it is 100% guaranteed that our children will encounter adversity at some point in their lives.
Attempting to cope successfully with some obstacles is a daunting task. Many become overwhelmed by their distress and give up.
Fortunately, there is much that we can do to ensure that our children have enough tools in their toolbox to push forward and persevere during difficult times.
Following are suggested exercises for parents to use with young children to help instill resilience.
Manage Frustration, Blame and Anger
Our children need help to learn how to work with their strengths and persevere, rather than allow frustration, anger, and blame to direct their future. Often, when trying to cope with adversity, children are also struggling with the loss of structure and predictability in their lives, leaving them frustrated and blaming others. Stuffed feelings can cause them to become cynical, passive-aggressive, or openly hostile. Or they can lash out, taking out their anger on someone else, retaliating, or ruminating about their hurt.
1. Journaling: Journaling is the process of working through a problem by recording one’s feelings down on paper for private reflection. For older children, journaling can reduce stress by examining their uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. It helps writers come to terms with some of the stressors in their lives, develop insights, and track their experience of personal growth over time.
2. Reframe Problems: Teach children how to reframe problems so that they can interpret challenging situations to be more ‘user-friendly.’ You can point out to them what they have achieved. Using logic and facts, they can learn how to view situations as energizing rather than debilitating and establish alternative approaches to achieving goals.
3. Have your children draw five faces, ranging from very sad to very happy. Now have them number each of them, from one to five, with the saddest face being number one and the happiest face being number five. Keep these faces for future reference for when your children appear to be having difficulty managing their emotions. Ask them to assign a number to one of the faces that expresses how they are feeling. Talk about that face, and how it must feel to be that face. Explore with your child what options might exist to bring that face up one number higher in happiness? Or up two numbers in happiness?
None of us delight in uncertainty, and uncertainty tends to trigger stress, making us less able to cope with obstacles in our lives. But dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical that is naturally released from our brain, is associated with providing the motivation, curiosity and eagerness to learn that helps us want to achieve a goal.
Raising the dopamine levels in our children is good because it makes them want something. The motivation of wanting something helps them be more flexible and open to new thoughts and behaviors and provides our children with the drive and incentive to want to seek answers. Dopamine is everyone’s ally, reducing self-doubt and the likelihood of quitting before reaching one’s goal.
1. Change Your Point Of View: Encouraging your children to look at a situation in a different way will allow your children to change their perspectives about a challenge and increase their ability to persevere. They may need to de-emphasize one aspect or remove assumptions they have that are interfering with the facts. By looking at the same situation in a different light they can begin to feel good or more hopeful about it. Their dopamine level will increase with practice, and they will experience more energy to tackle the matter at hand.
2. Music: Drive and willpower are a large part of perseverance. Start your children’s day by listening to music. End their day by practicing an instrument. Dopamine levels will rise in response to music. They will be happier and more motivated to exert the effort needed to achieve their goal, and the willpower to see it through.
3. Visualization: It is difficult for your children to persevere when they view a goal as a chore to be endured, or are uncertain about their capabilities. Visualization prepares their brain for an experience and can increase your children’s success because it helps clarify what they want, and gives them an opportunity to reflect on the experience and correct mistakes.
Have your children spend 5-10 minutes each day visualizing themselves going through the steps to reach the goal. What will they be seeing, hearing, feeling and doing as they undertake a goal they have set for themselves? This process will help them feel better about working toward the goal, which can trigger their neurotransmitter, dopamine, and even more pleased when they achieve them.
In an experiment in the 1960s, one group of high school basketball players was instructed to practice shooting free throws each morning. A second group was to engage in just visualizing themselves making free throws. Both groups improved their free throw shooting, even though the second group did so without touching a basketball!
Create Good Habits
Good habits are a panacea for overcoming adversity, and parents are in the driver’s seat for ensuring the development of good or bad habits in children. Children with good habits have less luck in their lives and more well-deserved success. Children develop healthy habits by being able to continuously learn from their mistakes, reducing the chances that they will make similar mistakes in the future. Good habits beget more good habits, keeping children on track to attain their goals.
1. Encourage A Growth Mindset: Help your children develop the habit of viewing negative feedback as something from which they can benefit. Incorporate it into discussions at the family dinner table. Children can learn from observing parents that they need not be perfect, and that learning from a failure and being able to keep moving forward is what will help them feel best about themselves. Remind them that mistakes are a necessary part of learning.
2. Mindfulness: Mindfulness is the ability to train our brain to be fully present so that we are not overwhelmed by our stresses. Sometimes harmful habits such as thinking negative thoughts or reacting physically can be replaced with beneficial ones, such as being better able to select words, actions, and thoughts. There are many ways to practice mindfulness, but a good one for young children is to focus on their breathing.
Their attention is on the sensation of their breath coming in, how it moves through their body, and how they exhale. Focusing on breathing helps them to let go of thinking about the past or what will happen in the future. With practice, mindfulness can help your children feel comfortable, less anxious with uncertainty in their lives, and find it easier to avoid distractions that impair their ability to pursue goals.
3. Reward Good Behavior: Reward your children for good behavior. It will help them stay motivated when working on a challenging task. They also will likely put out their best effort because they will associate this positive behavior with the emotional rewards from you.
Children with grit don’t withdraw from challenges. They ignore the message that “good things will come to those who wait.” Instead, those who persevere push forward and take on challenging endeavors, even when they stumble and encounter disappointment time and time again. Rather than quitting, they get up, wipe off the dust, assess what they have learned from these mistakes, and rethink how they will improve the likelihood of reaching their goals.
1. Learn To Take Care Of Matters Today: Parents can use every day experiences to help children recognize that they have the ability to persevere and that doing so makes them happier in the long run. For example, children can be reminded that even though they do not like bothering to pick their bikes off the lawn and put them away before dinner, they are benefitted because the bikes are then not at risk of being rusted, damaged or stolen. I call this explanation ‘the back story’ to why we think or act as we do, which helps with comprehension and compliance. Too often we expect others to simply know why.
2. Role Model: Parents can use themselves as role models to teach perseverance. Parent in a way that models high values and encourages learning solid values. Share examples of how, even though you have made mistakes and suffered frustration when learning something new, that by not giving up you succeeded in solving a problem or acquiring a new skill. Describe how you learned from your mistakes, how it helped you in the future, and how good you felt about having the willpower to not give up on your goal.
3. Identify Leaders With Struggles: Think about a leader, present, past, or fictional, who had to endure and persevere in his or her life. Help your children write down their thoughts about this person and the struggles this person faced. Now have your children reflect back on their current life struggles. Does this reflection help your children find a deeper commitment to persevering? Do your children’s adversities seem less difficult knowing that they are not alone in life struggles?
Use Healthy Coping Skills
Healthy coping skills are life skills. They help us regulate our emotions when dealing with life’s challenging moments. They increase our distress tolerance and open up more opportunities to achieve success. When we employ life skills, they help provide us with self-confidence and self-esteem. We feel empowered to problem-solve in times of crisis. We will be better able to manage disappointment, anger, fear, loss and grief.
1. Positivity Craft: Crafts can serve as visual reinforcement for children that they can tap into their own strength in difficult times. Below are instructions for making a wire hanger mobile that will help provide children with confidence when they feel discouraged.
a. Have children cut any five shapes out of cardboard for their mobile.
b. On the first piece of cardboard write the words, “I will continue to … (add a positive attribute that you want to continue to do”). On the second one write, “With hard work and belief I can…”, on the third shape write, “My higher power (or God) supports me in doing (add your statement) so that I can…..”. Continue writing as many as you want. Have children elect topics that will remind them of their strengths.
c. The last piece of cardboard will only have the word, “Persevere” written on it. Make this last shape the belle of the ball. Add glitter, lots of colorful drawings, shells, or anything else the children select to glue on to this special shape.
d. Cut five pieces of string (or yarn or ribbon or anything else you find to be of creative interest) in slightly different sizes. For instance, if one is a foot long, then cut the second string two inches shorter than the first, and the third two inches shorter than the second, and so on.
e. Punch a hole in the top of each of the cardboard shapes and thread the string through each shape. Apply the longest string to the shape with the word Perseverance.
f. Glue the ends of the string to the hanger. Spread them out so they are balanced, with Perseverance being placed in the center of the mobile.
g. Your children can add more cardboard shapes by cutting more string or ribbon. Simply suspend them in a way so as to create balance.
h. Hang your children’s mobile on the wall or from the ceiling.
2. Help young children develop the language for what is upsetting them. Ask them how they are feeling. You may have to provide some suggestions like ‘mad, sad, scared, and embarrassed’. Ask them what they are feeling. Again, you may need to make suggestions as to how their tummy is feeling, if their chest feels tight, or head is dizzy. And finally, ask them if they understand what happened, why it happened, and what they would like to do to feel better.
3. Make a coping skills toolbox with your children. Put items in the box that your children identify will reduce their feelings of being upset, and store it where they can easily access it if need be.
Humor is a gift of kindness for those struggling to persevere. It helps to broaden our perspective and not be as inner-focused but also to be able to consider our situation from the viewpoints of other people. Adversity is burdensome, and not taking ourselves so seriously from time to time provides a release from the chronic tension. An occasional dose of humor can help distract children from their day-to-day problems, and make the adversity feel more manageable. This broadening of perspective provided from laughter is an opportunity to be less self-critical and expand the way they think, feel or act.
1. Books: Read books in which the character has calamities happen to him but finds a sense of humor in it. These books can influence children’s perspective about how to manage challenging life events. Examples for very young children include: Maynard Moose by Juan Babo, Send the Pig to Mass by Willy Claflin, The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywlk, and The Pigeon Needs a Bat, by Mo Willems.
2. Use pretend play to conjure up real situations that can occur in your children’s lives. Encourage imagination and humor as a way to problem solve.
3. Model the use of humor in your day-to-day problems. Your children will see how humor makes a situation less threatening and reduces everyone’s level of anger or anxiety.
Optimists perceive that life is good and even if things go wrong, that good things will happen to them in the future. Because optimists have positive expectations, they are better at managing stress. When faced with adversity, optimists will be creative in using both positive and negative information for their benefit, have better coping skills, more satisfaction in relationships, be more flexible, and not give up as quickly.
1. Focus On Positives: Concentrating on negatives sets children up for failure because that is the direction in which they are looking. If they instead focus on the positives, our children will find their mood improves and stress decreases. They will have more hopefulness for the future, be able to push forward, and persevere in difficult times.
Moods are infectious, so it is helpful for children to surround themselves with the company of positive people. Others who believe in them, provide encouragement, and avoid focusing on problems help children experience a positive mindset. Removing from their inner ‘self-talk’ any words that reinforce their feeling powerless and like a victim, such as ‘cannot’ and ‘difficult’ are important steps as well. It frees children to put their focus on positive thinking.
Sometimes learning to reframe their view of a situation is sufficient in helping children remain positive. It helps them reappraise the situation, allowing them to modify how they think about a potentially emotionally upsetting event, and to see their strengths rather than weaknesses. The change for the children will be increased feelings of confidence that they can persevere in times of adversity.
2. Laughter: Laughter is a bonding experience and will enhance your relationship. Sit down with your children and watch a favorite sitcom or read a funny story, and watch the production of dopamine being triggered. Children need dopamine to feel motivated to make changes in their lives
3. Practice Gratitude: Gratitude is like driving a car. How often have we heard the phrase, “Keep your eyes on the road?” If we fail to do so, we will swerve off the road, have a collision, and never reach our destination. If children think about things for which they are resentful, they will “drive” in this direction, and their negative thoughts will cause them to ‘collide’ with unhealthy decisions. Instead, if they “drive” towards that for which they are appreciative, their spirits will be lifted and will be motivated to keep going in a positive direction.
Benefit From Physical Activity and Nutrition
Perseverance requires maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This is because stress resulting from adversity can have a detrimental impact on our thoughts, emotions and on our body. Anyone dealing with personal challenges knows that they need to channel all their energy into moving past obstacles in search of their goals. Physical activity is a catalyst in making this happen.
Physical activity increases the blood supply to the brain, promoting the growth of new brain cells. When this happens our brain grows in cognitive ability, including memory and learning, enabling us to keep up our drive and determination, and work at our optimum capacity. Good nutrition helps fuel physical activity. They work hand in hand together in achieving optimal decision-making and stress reduction for resiliency to be achieved.
1. Get moving. Consider starting an exercise program for your children if they tend to be passive. Even walking daily will reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression, help increase their sleep, and boost their self-confidence. While walking, they might discover an unintended benefit such as enjoying an observation in nature, or exchanging pleasantries with a passerby.
2. Select nutritious foods that will enhance their dopamine. Fruit and vegetables elevate dopamine. Caffeine creates dopamine bursts, but will die out quickly. Foods high in sugar, cholesterol and fat tend to lower dopamine. Make a point of having healthy foods to snack on readily available in your refrigerator.
3. Children can be picky eaters, so getting healthy food is important. Have your children read the ingredients on the food packaging (or read it to younger children) and then together look online to see what these ingredients are doing for or against the human body.
Self-control is the yellow brick road that leads our children to perseverance. It is an excellent indicator of impulse control and being able to delay gratification. Being able to forgo short-term distractions and indulgences for the purpose of keeping their eye on the prize will help them avoid a host of impulsive, shortsighted behaviors, and increase the likelihood of overcoming adversity.
1. Read About Others Who Have Persevered: Remaining steadfast on a journey tasked with overcoming adversity can be lonely. Reading stories about famous people who have had difficulties but persevered can provide the motivation we need to not give up.
Some suggested readings for age Preschool to 4th grade are as follows: The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper, Little Red Hen retold by Diane Muldrow, and Knots on a Counting Rope by Bill Martin, Jr.
2. Create List Of Cues: Create a list of words or phrases that will keep your children on track, and to which he can turn to that will remind him of his goals. Suggestions include sentences such as “I can do it,” or “This will pass.”
3. Games That Teach Self-Control: Games have rules, which encourage the development of self-control.
When children have a strong sense of self-efficacy, they believe they have the skills to accomplish a goal, even if they experience disappointment along the way. If they believe they have the attitude, ability, and intellectual skills to experience success, they will be more likely to persevere with their struggles. They will welcome taking on difficult tasks that can help them overcome adversity, motivated in part because they view success as being within their control.
1. Anticipating Success: Experiencing success with small tasks will increase the likelihood of our children succeeding with more challenging tasks in the future. Vicariously watching others thrive helps them believe that they, too, can succeed when facing problems. Visualizing success, and being able to see themselves as accomplishing their goal will help build self-efficacy. Preparing ahead for the inevitable problems, and having a plan for addressing them, will also contribute to building self-efficacy.
2. Join A Group: Help your children join an age appropriate group, sports team or class that holds meaning for them. It may be civic, faith-based, or activity oriented. Good relationships can be developed from group membership, out of which self-efficacy reclaiming support is provided.
3. List Positives: When your children are feeling low, they are likely to focus on all the things they can’t do and what makes them feel bad. Dwelling on the negatives is a drain on their positive view of themselves and will reduce their ability to find strength on those challenging days. Help your children make a list of all their positive qualities and accomplishments so they can build their inner strength. Consider posting this list on the bathroom mirror so they can see it when brushing their teeth each morning and evening.
Focus On Self-Kindness
Sometimes children make mistakes that prevent them from being able to persevere. Learning to be kind to themselves means accepting themselves for who they are, and not beating themselves up for being human.
When they understand that it is acceptable to make mistakes they will begin to see that they can learn valuable lessons from these mistakes. Recognizing why this happened will enable them to learn from their experience and make better choices next time. Sometimes, they simply did not have enough information. Perhaps they needed information wasn’t available at that time or perhaps they needed to identify other ways to seek it out.
1. Break Long-Term Goals Into Short-Term Goals: There is a riddle that goes like this,
Q: “How do you eat an entire elephant?”
A: “One bite at a time.”
If depressed and lethargic, or if your children find that they have been procrastinating, taking on a monumental long term goal can feel as overwhelming as being expected to eat an intact elephant. In such situations, they’ll feel frustrated and likely give up trying. It is possible their dopamine levels are in the dump, but they can be jump-started once they learn to celebrate each of the smaller goals they successfully accomplish along the way. By breaking down a large goal into several smaller goals and recognizing each achievement that provides them with interim success with a pat on the back before continuing on to the next small task, they will avoid becoming discouraged and remain dedicated to reaching their ultimate goal.
2. Experience The Growth Of Perseverance: Have your children place seeds or small plants in a garden prepared with soil that is rich in vitamins and minerals that will help them grow strong. When done, water it well. Encourage your children to think about how these plants will have to have deep roots to be able to survive the wind, rain, and harsh sun. Comment how they will not only water the plants regularly to survive.
Involve your children when tending to the plants, reflect on what they are doing to nourish themselves so that they, too, can develop strong, hardy roots and grow, despite the obstacles.
3. Re-Evaluate Your Beliefs: Young children often do not have the developmental ability to consider perspectives from another person’s point of view. Help your children re-evaluate any beliefs that make them unhappy and block them from accomplishing what they would like. Sometimes these are beliefs that no longer work for them and need to be discarded.
Develop A Social Network
When our children feel overwhelmed, it is wonderful for them to know they can turn to others in their social network for support. They might be too young to identify it as such, but they intuitively will know that their support system is often the ‘go-to’ first responder when they don’t feel they can cope. Family, friends, teachers or others in the community can help them develop a positive perspective of themselves, making them feel less helpless and able to cope. They can provide our children with the reassurance that they have strengths and value regardless of what is occurring in their lives, and at times offer a cultural and spiritual or religious identification.
1. Draw A Support System: Have your children draw a detailed picture of what they look like when persevering. Be sure to encourage them to add expressions and pay attention to size. Now have them add into this picture others in their social network who are supportive of them that do not want them to quit in their efforts to move forward. Have your children reflect on how different the picture looks and feels to them when they are taking on difficult challenges alone versus with the support of others.
2. Social Connections: Help increase children’s motivation to face challenges by providing them with a solid foundation. Ensure they are experiencing social connectedness and a sense of belonging at school, as opposed to bullying. Encourage them to engage in academic, social and athletic activities that provide them with a sense of competence.
3. Surround Yourself With Friends That Foster Growth: Have your children make a list of the most supportive and successful people in their lives. Schedule these people into your calendar so that your children are spending time with one of them at least weekly. Your children are influenced by the company they keep. Avoid those who are dishonest, drain them of energy, and treat them poorly, as they will pick up their negative energy. Instead, ensure they associate with people who are supportive, nurturing and encouraging. Your children will find their positive energy to be contagious. They will find themselves to be empowered: calmer, healing faster, learning, growing, and better able to persevere.