Skinned Knees and Elbows: How to Raise Resilient Children
Parenting isn’t easy. It’s hard enough just making sure your child eats healthy, gets enough sleep, takes baths, and that he or she is physically safe. These are all basic needs parents must meet. This gets harder as children grow because they become more emotionally complex and their needs change. But you can’t hold their hands forever. There will come a day when a child must face life’s challenges alone. Raising healthy children means raising resilient kids—teaching them how to overcome adversity.
Resiliency is the ability to deal with these difficulties and recover in an appropriate amount of time. Everyone faces difficulties in life. But being resilient means those difficulties don’t define you. Call it grit, fortitude, tenacity, or whatever you’d like. But resiliency is about trying and failing, and then getting up and trying again.
This is easier said than done though. Building resilience in kids often means not rescuing them from uncomfortable (but not actually dangerous) situations. As parents, your instincts are to protect your kids at all times. And when you see them struggling, it’s hard to resist the urge to step in.
What follows are reasons why, and advice on how, to raise resilient kids.
How the Brain Deals with Stress
Let’s start with the basics about uncomfortable, stressful situations. The brain and body deal with stress and adversity differently than they handle normal situations.
Your heart rate and blood pressure go up. Cortisol, a stress hormone, floods the body. Adrenaline gets pumped into the blood. These are all evolutionary holdovers from your ancestors, when stressful situations could literally mean life or death. But this fight-or-flight response was only meant to last a short amount of time. When these chemicals are continuously released, detrimental effects can take place.
It starts in the amygdala—the part of your brain responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and memory. The amygdala responds to the stressful stimuli by sending a distress signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus sends a message to the autonomic nervous system that signals a messaging cascade that triggers the release of a chemical cocktail (including adrenaline and cortisol). This response often impairs the prefrontal cortex, which controls executive functions. That includes problem solving, attention, impulse control, and emotional regulation.
In the short term, this is an extremely powerful survival mechanism. There are times when you can’t think about what happens next, and you don’t need any check on your ability to act quickly. Long term, you want your prefrontal cortex running smoothly.
If you were to define resilience on the physiological level, you would say it’s the ability to activate the prefrontal cortex following adverse situations. This also means stemming the release of the chemical cocktail. If this occurs, an individual can increase their ability to recover from or adapt to stressful situations and adversity.
How to Model Good Communication and Coping Strategies for Kids
There are many ways to build resilience in children, but it starts with you. Your children are always watching. And they’re constantly absorbing information during their developmental years. It doesn’t make much sense to preach to children about dealing with difficult emotions if you struggle with them yourself.
Everyone makes mistakes. Having a level head when plans go off the rails can show kids how to handle failure. And if you don’t handle something the way you wish you could have, own up to it. It’s OK to admit a mistake, and in doing so, subconsciously give your child permission to do the same. Have a conversation about it. You can say something like, “I’m sorry I got so angry earlier. I made a mistake. Next time, I will try to be more patient.”
Communication and support are key to coping with stress and raising resilient kids. It’s not necessarily rugged individualism that builds independence in kids. Instead, it’s the unconditional love and support of an adult in their lives.
Relationships are the single most important thing in a child’s life for emotional development. If your kid is having trouble, they have to know they can come to you for help.
So, ditch the phone and spend some quality time with your child. When you’re home together, make it a priority to focus on them. Talk about the issues kids are facing. And let them know it’s OK to ask for help. Also, don’t be afraid to show them your stress coping strategies when you’re going through tough situations.
Raising Resilient Children Means Honoring Their Emotions
Before you had children, you may have had a rosy outlook on parenthood. The media is quick to sell the joys of parenting. And your friends post pictures of magical days at the beach and park where everyone is happy and smiling.
That’s not always reality. It’s hard to prepare for epic meltdowns, temper tantrums, and the refusal to sleep. But these are all a normal part of growing up, and are NOT the exception.
Sometimes parents view these difficulties as problems that need to be fixed. Maybe you chastise your kids, send them to their room, or blame them for simply feeling an intense emotion. Whatever your reaction, it can be easy to teach your kids that sadness, frustration, or anger are not tolerated.
Being resilient means understanding that some emotions, particularly those often tagged as negative—like heartbreak, despair, and anger—are all very human. These aren’t emotions you should run away from, or try to stuff down because they’re too tough to deal with. Rather, try to honor the emotions, and understand why you’re feeling a certain way. Teaching kids to feel and understand these emotions in a healthy way is paramount to children’s mental health.
Labeling emotions can be a useful way to develop emotional intelligence and resilience. Let kids know it’s all right to feel anxious, afraid, or sad. Although they can be powerful in the moment, these emotions usually pass—especially if you can talk about them with someone you love.
Establish Reasonable Boundaries with Empathy
You’ve probably heard the term “boundaries” in relation to parenting. And you may have had a difficult time dealing with what happens when your child crosses them. What’s important is that boundaries exist in the first place.
A predictable routine and a firm set of rules in the household creates a structure children can rely on. Whether it’s around bedtimes, eating dinner, homework, or screen time, structure reduces uncertainty and can help reduce anxiety. You can’t hope to be an effective parent without boundaries. But establishing these guardrails doesn’t mean you can just ignore how your child is feeling.
Kids tend to learn quickly what behaviors get them what they want. So, when the inevitable happens, and your child tries to see how far she can push, you have to hold the line. But that doesn’t mean you can’t approach those moments with compassion.
You can still be there for your child and listen to how they’re feeling, while continuing to say “no.” Talk about the feelings both of you are having, and explain why having the boundary is important. This can go a long way towards teaching emotional intelligence and strengthening your relationship.
Let Kids Skin Their Knees
When your children first start to walk, you tend to never stray too far from their side. It can be hard to let go of this instinct as they grow older. You might follow them around the playground, making sure they don’t fall off the ladder or be there to catch them every time they go down the slide.
In the short term, this is great. And it can’t be emphasized enough how important being there for your child is when he or she is facing a serious crisis. Sometimes you need to help your child stand back up.
The trick is to not do it every time. Learning early on to deal with pain and discomfort that doesn’t have dire consequences makes kids more likely to develop the ability to handle more serious difficulties later in life. A study from Cornell University in 2017 even suggested that early exposure to manageable stress can increase activity in the prefrontal cortex.
Mitigate, But Don’t Eliminate Risk
Dealing with fear is one of the most difficult and empowering skills you have. As a parent, you want to keep your kid safe, but not at the expense of exposing them to new—and, therefore, potentially frightening—experiences.
It can be hard to resist the urge to hover over your children, and offer up solutions to all of their problems. You want to protect your children from feeling pain, even if pain has much to teach. A scary experience can make your child nervous about risks he or she may face in the future. But most failures aren’t life threatening. If kids approach risk with cautious optimism, often they will find themselves better prepared for challenging situations that may arise.
Sometimes children will take risks and experience a negative outcome. Maybe they fall off the ladder on the playground, or crash their bike. They learn that skinned knees and bruises can hurt, but the pain doesn’t last a long time. As a result, resilient kids dust themselves off and try again. Scrapes and bruises don’t become a roadblock for learning a new skill and having fun. The anxiety children might have felt before becomes manageable.
Without this exposure to risk, even small fears can paralyze children. Sure, it might be fear of physical pain at first, but it can easily expand to anxiety around school, social issues, and money when a child grows up. By facing risk and the consequences associated with it, children learn the coping mechanisms needed to confidently and rationally manage risk.
They might have a hard time differentiating something that is dangerous from something that is simply unknown. Kids may never see how truly strong, confident, and resilient they’re capable of being. So, let the kid ride a bike, and take off the training wheels when he’s ready—even if it means falling down and getting angry. Just make sure he wears a helmet.
Develop Kids Executive Functioning Skills
As children grow older, their prefrontal cortex develops more and more. As this happens, kids learn to control their behavior and feelings. They also develop new ways of dealing with adversity. It is possible to jumpstart this process and set them on the path to being a happy, healthy young adult.
Exercise is one of the most important components in developing executive functioning skills. This helps develop the brain and supports growing cognitive functions. During exercise, the brain releases neurochemicals that can help calm anxiety in times of stress. Getting kids outside and moving is always a good idea, especially when it will contribute to their problem-solving skills.
Playing board games is also a great way to develop the prefrontal cortex. Board games require patience, strategy, memory, and mental dexterity. It’s also a great way to bond with your kids. Just make sure to let them win every once in a while—and make losses teachable moments.
Find opportunities where kids can make their own decisions and exhibit leadership. Maybe one night they choose what the family has for dinner, and even help cook! Have children choose and plan a weekend activity. Let them choose what instrument or sport they want to play. Even give them input in the classes they take. The possibilities are endless. Just make sure that once kids make a decision, stick with it.
Encourage children to think independently. This doesn’t mean encouraging arguments with you all the time. But make sure to welcome a discussion when you may have a different opinion than your child. Occupying a position where kids have to think critically is a wonderful exercise for executive functioning. As long as they’re being respectful, it is OK for children to question authority and offer up different points of view.
Always Stay in Their Corner
Raising resilient kids can be just as challenging for the parent as it is for the child. You will both fail. That’s OK! But no matter what happens, love your kids unconditionally, and always be there to support them whatever happens. Taking a step back and letting them find their own way can be difficult. But in the long run, this will lead to a more resilient, confident, capable, and fearless young adult.