Our parental instincts drive us to protect our children. Given a choice we’d bubble wrap them. But we can’t. We can, however, prepare them to navigate the world. We can support them to develop the character strengths and human connections that allow them to thrive in good times and rebound (maybe even grow) in challenging times. In other words, we can build their resilience.
No Bubble Wrap Needed
Resilience is better than bubble wrap because it is about developing internal strength rather than relying on an external shield. Think of resilience as a process of bouncing back — of rising above adversity. And to do so ideally, with lessons that enable you to better handle the next bump in the road.
It is a mistake, however, to only think of resilience as something that enables us to respond to adversity. The very same characteristics that allow someone to rebound from difficult times will position them to get the most out of life. We want our children to become their best selves, to experience healthy relationships, to make their unique contributions to our communities — to succeed.
Some people are more likely to be resilient in the face of adversity. But resilience is not something you are born with. Instead, it is something that can be built and nurtured as a part of development. Dr. Ann Masten, one of the nation’s leading thinkers on resilience, describes it as “ordinary magic.” She underscores resilience is not about extraordinary events or heroic measures. Rather, resilience is built when we’re offered meaningful support and love from others.
Why Love Matters
Love is seeing someone as they deserve to be seen, as they really are, not based on a behavior they might be displaying or what they might be producing. When you express love, you are helping your children understand that they are worthy of being loved and that has lifelong implications.
Decades of research point to factors that build resilient children and adolescents, and the results are empowering to parents! Young people grow to be resilient when there’s at least one adult (more is better!) loving them unconditionally and supporting them to be their best selves by holding them to high expectations.
What does it mean to love without condition? It means that your presence has to be unwavering and reliable. It does not mean approving of every decision or saying, “Good job for trying those drugs!” Instead, when you communicate with your consistent presence, “I’m not going anywhere,” that assurance allows your children to take needed (safe!) leaps of development. They leap because they know they have somebody who will have their back.
The fact that our loving presence itself is so vitally important should help parents draw a deep breath. We worry so much about finding the perfect words (and words can matter). But what we say is less important than how we listen, or that our kids know we stand by their sides no matter what. We communicate with our presence a solid commitment to making sure they’ll get through challenges.
Have High Expectations
What does it mean to support our children to be their best selves by holding them to high expectations? It does not mean demanding high grades, scores, or trophies, though we certainly can expect effort. The roots of our high expectations stem from knowing our children’s character. You know best those strengths they have shown from a young age. Honesty, commitment to fairness, sense of humor. Strength and stick-to-it-ive-ness.
These traits you have noticed from the time your child was small develop further during adolescence. When you celebrate their strengths and see them for who they are, they will have a highly protective grounding. If they stray, hold them accountable and they will return to their better selves.
We’re not saying, “Expect an A, they’ll get an A,” or “Demand a goal, they’ll score one.” Those kinds of expectations backfire by making young people feel like they’re never good enough even though these measures are often out of our their control. Your support, however, can help your children reach their unique potential.
Resilience Doesn’t Mean Invulnerability
As we build resilient children, we mustn’t believe resilience means invulnerability. Everyone has limits. And we actually don’t want to build invulnerable beings. Why? Because we want our youth to be passionate and compassionate. We want them to experience joy. To be committed to lifting others up and building a better world. To do so, they must have emotions — even though feelings set them up to experience pain.
Our goal is not to suppress or deny emotions. Rather it’s to help them learn to benefit from emotions, while knowing which ones may undermine their well-being. With that said, we must fully protect our children from “toxic” stressors, those challenges that can be threatening to developing brains and bodies, such as drugs, abuse, neglect, and violence.
Resilience is Uneven
We want our children to be able to bounce back in every setting, but realistically, they’ll be able to handle different settings with varied levels of resilience. That’s because resilience is uneven. In fact, it might be that precisely because they are showing extraordinary resilience in one setting, that they will “let go” in another. For example, school may present so many challenges that it takes all your children’s energy to keep it together there. That may make things more fragile or explosive at home. In this case, take it as a sign of security and trust in the reliability of your love and support that home is where they can display vulnerabilities.
Teach and Nurture Resilience
We can nurture and teach resilience in a variety of ways, including when we demonstrate positive coping strategies to manage stress. Or when we teach skills that help our children navigate their world. We model resilience when we choose healthy coping strategies. Or when we keep things in perspective, and grow from life’s challenges.
But some elements of resilience can best be learned through experience. Resilience is solidified when people learn for themselves how to rebound from a bump in the road and how to grow stronger and wiser by drawing lessons from overcoming challenges. We support resilience when we allow for mistakes and recovery within safe boundaries. And when we act as a non-judgmental sounding board as our children learn through experiences.
What to Say (and Not to Say) to Encourage Teen Problem-Solving
Treating teens as experts in their own lives empowers them to build skills needed to solve problems. Trust in their abilities. Read these suggestions to build your “Language of Resilience.”
Talk About What They Know, Not What They Don’t
Say This: Tell me what you understand. Not That: You're too young to understand.
Talk About Their Perspective, Not Yours
Say This: What do you think about the situation? Not That: I think you should handle the situation this way.
Talk About Their Needs, Not Yours
Say This: How can I support you to handle it? Not That: I need you to handle this now or I’ll handle it for you.
Talk About Their Problem-Solving, Not Your Solutions
Say This: What ideas do you have to improve your grade? Not That: You just need to study more and focus.
The Seven C’s Model of Resilience
The seven C’s model of resilience was first published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2006. It draws from a framework originally presented by some of the great leaders of the positive youth development movement. It adds to their model by emphasizing “coping” which prepares one to recover, and “control” which gives one the sense that choices make a real difference.
Each “C” is a critical element that parents, schools, communities, youth programs, and professionals can support in youth. The C’s are all interrelated — forming almost a net of resilience-building strategies. To learn more about each “C”, follow the links provided.
Young people with confidence will have the belief in themselves that they will ultimately succeed. They’ll be more likely to take the chances needed to learn about themselves. They may be willing to try harder and have less fear of failure. More importantly, they’ll rebound from failure, seeing it as an opportunity for growth rather than a catastrophe. Confidence is not gained from an abundance of unearned praise. Rather, it comes from adults authentically noticing effort and nurturing and supporting skills (or competence).
Youth need to possess real skill sets to be able to navigate the world. Those include communication skills, self-advocacy skills, peer negotiation skills, and academic skills to name a few. Young people also need to be able to make wise decisions if they are going to make the kind of choices that will contribute to, versus undermine, their health and well-being.
Adults can teach and model effective competencies. We can listen to them as they work through solutions to problems. Support their ability to manage school and peers. Talk with them instead of at them. On the other hand, we undermine competence by telling our children what to do, or by talking to them in a way that shuts down their ability to come up with their own solutions. In other words, lectures backfire! Similarly, saying “Let me do that for you,” says, “I don’t think you are capable of doing it yourself.”
Human connection allows us to more fully celebrate during joyous times and to recover during challenging times. It is the connection with your children — based on knowing who they really are — that is the most protective force in their lives. Hopefully, your adolescent will develop amongst many other protective connections as well. The more, the better.
Young people with strong core values make the strongest contributions, have the best sense of self, and have the most secure and healthy relationships. Think of character strengths as those things that ensure we do the right thing – even if nobody is watching. We need people who know how to do the right thing!
Adults must notice and nurture children’s inherent character strengths and teach and reinforce others. We also must never forget that our actions speak so loudly that sometimes our kids can’t hear a word that we are saying. In other words, they are watching what we do. We must uphold those character traits that we hope to see in them.
Young people want to matter. Ultimately, they want to have a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. When children and adolescents are given an opportunity to make a difference they also gain strong protections for themselves. They learn firsthand of the joy of giving. This means that ultimately when they need to receive from others they can do so without shame. Why? Because they’ll understand that the person supporting them does so out of pleasure not pity. When they contribute to other lives they gain appreciation. Youth surrounded by gratitude rather than condemnation thrive. Plus, they earn an extra set of protective eyes to watch over them.
Life is about making choices. Stress is a part of life — an uncomfortable reality. We do what we can to minimize discomfort. The choices we make to cope with our discomfort can be negative or positive. Negative ones can work in the short run, but bring great harm to us and our communities in the long run. So many of the quick-fix behaviors we hope our children never choose are negative coping strategies. Telling our children what not to do barely makes an impact and sometimes backfires. Instead, when we raise them with a range of healthy coping strategies (and model them as well), they make wiser, healthier choices during challenging times.
Core to resilience is knowing that your actions matter. Without a sense of control we cannot possess hope. And without hope, we crumble in challenging times. How we parent makes a large difference in our children’s sense of control. Young people who know that their parents are pro-development — supporting all stages of their growth — understand privileges are earned with demonstrated responsibility. Young people raised being told, “You’ll do what I say, because I said so!” do not learn how to make their own choices. We must let tweens and teens understand that they have control over their lives.
The protective forces that allow us to recover after difficult times are the same ones that prepare us to flourish in the best of times. They challenge us and enable us, to get the most out of every opportunity.