September 5, 2014

Four steps to foster resiliency in kids

We want to raise children who are resilient and can adapt well in the complex and sometimes challenging world we live in, but they don't become this way automatically. There are four basic steps parents can focus on to help their kids cope effectively with difficult situations they will encounter whether in school or as they navigate social interactions with peers.

Validate feelings

Keep open lines of communication with your children. One way to do this is when they share a worry or upset, don't immediately discount their concerns by saying things like, "don't worry," "don't be upset," "you're not scared," or "everything will be fine." They may be worried about facing bullies or feeling "uncool" or trying to cope with academic pressure or managing relationships with peers.

Remember to validate the experiences and emotions by saying something simple like, "it's okay to be afraid, a lot of kids experience this, too," or "it makes sense you would feel upset." And then pause, listen and give them space to share their thoughts. This helps them feel safe and comfortable to talk with you and more likely to discuss challenges and difficulties in the future.

Help them learn to problem-solve

There are always going to be obstacles to overcome and challenges to face. Maybe it is peer pressure to do something like shoplift at the mall. Or, it could be watching peers treat another student poorly. Take the opportunity to create teachable moment to help your children learn critical thinking and resourcefulness through problem-solving.

Remember, it's not about you solving the problem for them. It means helping them think of ways to solve their own problems. You could say, "Let's think of some ways you could handle this situation" or "if someone says a mean thing, how could you react?" It's ideal if they can generate some solutions, but sometimes you can also offer different options and ask, "What do you think might happen if ...?" This also gives you an opportunity to teach them life skills of how to cope with any difficult situations they may encounter in the future.

Practice relaxation and mindfulness together

It is a stress-filled world and it's never too early to introduce children and teens to mindfulness techniques they can use to calm and center themselves. For kids, it's not necessarily about establishing a formal practice. Instead, it's about learning simple exercises to help when they are feeling anxious or stressed.

Encourage compassionate self-talk

Many kids struggle with negative thoughts and self-criticism. Parents can help their kids build a positive sense of self. Focus on their strengths more than on their shortcomings. Help them focus on their positive attributes and the good aspects of a situation. Communicate that you see what is right with them, no matter what they have done in the past, no matter what problems they are currently facing. Your belief in your child's capacity to handle any difficulty is a powerful one. Share it with them and give them a lot of positive attention when they do manage something difficult. This helps children believe in themselves and builds up a supportive inner dialogue.

While it can be challenging to get kids to open up and talk with you, you can try a few different strategies to help. Make family meals a priority to help create a calm, relaxed space where you and your child can talk about the day. Many parents of teens also find that car rides, even just to run errands, create an environment where kids may open up more and not feel "put on the spot" And when your kids finally do open up, try to remember to remain neutral, even if your child tells you something that may be upsetting.

Kids, especially teens, may be reluctant to share in the future if you react strongly when they do. Keeping calm and non-judgmental during the conversation can help create a sense of trust that you'll listen and hear what they're saying. That's not to say there shouldn't be consequences if their actions or behavior warrant it.

But, set the stage for that conversation to be had at a later time. Helping kids develop deep, strong roots now will carry them successfully and independently into the future. And remember, if your child shows signs of anxiety over a longer period, or even show a change in behavior or personality, don't hesitate to seek professional help.