Helping our Children Build Resilience
Rivkah Weiss, Family Therapist
If your child comes home from school looking sad or distracted, most parents would react with concern and ask, “What happened today?” Your child might respond as follows: “I failed my math test. I stink at math and I’m giving up. I don’t care about school anymore.” A typical parental response would be to tell him he doesn’t stink at math, that he shouldn’t give up, that he could study a little harder and that you’re certain he’ll do better on the next test. It’s hard for us as parents to hear that our child is hurting inside and we’ll do or say anything that will quickly put a smile back on that face we so love. While our comments are certainly well-meaning, they may not be the best way to help our children grow.
As parents, we are naturally uncomfortable with our child’s expression of hurt. Their statement triggers our need to protect them from feeling incompetent. Furthermore, we get anxious when they threaten giving up on a task related to school. We address their distress by reassuring them that the next time things will be better. While this approach may be helpful on the surface, it carries an underlying message that can be destructive.
There are two messages that, as parents, we don’t want to impart. One is that we cannot hear or join our child during his or her time of pain leaving them feeling alone when they most need our understanding. In effect, we’re telling him not to feel what he already feels, which is very alienating. Furthermore, we’re conveying the message that it’s not OK to fail and that tomorrow he must do better while suppressing his negative feelings.
Alternately, if we are able to convey unconditional acceptance of his emotions without trying to sugar coat or deny them, we begin to help them develop resilience. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from setbacks or failures and move ahead with self-confidence. A resilient child understands that failing is a normal part of life, not something to fear or avoid. He or she is able to face failure, to accept their feelings of frustration and to then get up and try again. A person who can learn from their mistakes has the greatest potential for growth.