ColumnsOne Man’s PoisonHow to build resilience in young people

How to build resilience in young people


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Instead of trying to smoothen their path in life, help your children understand that problems are to be expected and managed

Resilience is a continuum; it is not so much whether someone is absolutely resilient or not, but rather, whether he or she is more or less resilient at any given moment. There are prerequisites which make one more likely to be resilient; the same things that make one physically healthy can also contribute to one’s level of mental fortitude.

Adequate rest. This age of high stress, multi-tasking, countless deadlines, and unfettered social media has produced a society that is chronically sleep deprived.  In fact, the issue of sleep deserves a more in-depth discussion, given the all-encompassing effect the lack of it is having on society today. For now, suffice it to say that people with a sleep deficit can find it much more difficult to be resilient.

Nutrition. Professor and author Michael Pollan studied the link between food and health and came up with the simple rule: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”  Stick to a main diet of healthy whole foods—fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and nuts, healthy proteins—and treat processed, sugary foods and drinks as rare indulgences.

Exercise. The many benefits of regular exercise are well-documented: more energy, improved sleep, clarity of thought and concentration, increased blood circulation, improved stress management, and better mood regulation, all of which contribute to adaptability and mental toughness, i.e., resilience.

Resilience is defined as the ability to recover quickly after a setback. Resilient children face life with optimism, confident in their ability to navigate life’s unexpected detours.  Following are some of the strategies we can employ to help children build resilience.

1. Be their supportive grown-up

Our unconditional love will help our children accept themselves and know that they are special and appreciated.

Our children may be different from what we expect.  Perhaps their passions are different from our own.  Maybe what they want is not what we want for them.  Supporting them does not mean we always agree with them. But we can still support them through effective communication in a way that makes them feel heard and understood.  And we can help them identify their interests, set realistic expectations and goals, and identify opportunities to develop in their chosen areas.

2. Provide opportunities to contribute

Children can handle being given responsibilities at an early age.  Whether they take the form of household chores or the chance to help others, these responsibilities build their sense of self-worth and confidence.

In a similar vein, and to further promote self-control and self-discipline, we can also involve our children in setting household rules and consequences.

3. Normalize problems and problem solving

Instead of trying to smoothen their path in life, help your children understand that problems are normal; they are to be expected and managed, not dreaded and avoided.  They are also tremendous opportunities for growth and learning.  Avoid assigning blame to steer them away from the self-pity victim mentality. Instead, help your children calmly and rationally assess the situation without judgment, then focus on finding solutions. Help them determine the root causes of the issue and view it from different perspectives before brainstorming as many possible solutions as they can and choosing the most appropriate solution.  Being allowed to take charge of the process, albeit with adult guidance, helps children feel a sense of ownership and control, which in turn reinforces resilience.

One further note about problems: it would be an advantage for your child to be able to discern which problems to tackle.  It can be your child’s problem if the solution is within his/her control.  If the solution is obviously beyond his/her abilities or sphere of influence, then it is someone else’s problem, someone who has the ability and influence to solve it.

4. Help them deal with disappointment

Corollary to allowing children to encounter problems is giving them room to be frustrated or disappointed, to make mistakes or sometimes fail, and helping them work through the resulting emotions.  As parents, sometimes our role is to stand back and let failure happen (in controlled settings, which pose no danger to the child) even if we can see it coming.  Then, we can be there to sympathize with our children and validate their disappointment, allow them time to process, learn, and forgive themselves, then watch with quiet pride as they climb back up and try again.

5. Value effort and persistence

Research on neuroplasticity shows that the brain continues to grow and change throughout one’s lifetime in response to experiences and stimuli.  We all have varying degrees of basic traits—intelligence, talent, ability; we each learn some things readily, while other things can be a struggle.  But if we are willing to persevere, we can improve even in the areas which are a struggle, all the while growing new pathways in the brain.

Recent research by psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth has found that successful people are not necessarily the smartest or the most talented, but rather those who exhibit grit—the discipline to practice regularly, the stamina and determination to persist and persevere—in pursuing long-term goals about which they are passionate.

In related research, psychologist Carol Dweck advocates cultivating the growth mindset in lieu of the fixed mindset.  People with the growth mindset believe that their ability to learn is directly related to the effort they put in.  As a result, they will work longer and harder on overcoming obstacles than those with the fixed mindset, the belief that the ability to learn is fixed and immovable. In other words, people who have the growth mindset are more likely to develop grit.

Instead of praising traits over which the child has no control, we could praise effort and perseverance, the part of the equation which they can influence.  Perhaps this is particularly important in terms of schoolwork, where grades are the currency of academic success.  Effort is hardly emphasized; a good guess on a test gets the same credit as actually understanding the lesson.  Partial learning and partial understanding rarely get credit.

Ideally, as we raise our children to be resilient, we would also be modeling the desired behavior to them.  But what if we ourselves are not as resilient as we would like to be?  As it turns out, it is never too late to practice and develop the skill of resilience, though it is necessary to be intentional and self-aware, and to change our perspective.

Accepting that challenges are an integral part of an interesting and memorable life is a good first step.  Though we may not learn to welcome challenges, we can reframe how we think of them; instead of thinking of them as unpleasant obstacles, we can view them as opportunities for self-improvement.

Since when did it become unacceptable to make mistakes?  This belief, coupled with the fear of failure or of looking foolish, is what stops many of us from trying anything new.  It is just not realistic to be able to do everything perfectly the first time every time.  The learning curve shows that we can get better at just about anything if we practice.

Social media contributes to the myth of “the natural.” Videos of virtuosos and experts abound online, effortlessly performing masterpieces.  There are hardly any videos of them starting out, practicing for hours, making mistake after mistake, steadily improving until one day, an “overnight” success!  It is no wonder that we believe perfection comes naturally to those with talent and genius.  The danger is in thinking that, if it does not come naturally to us, we must not be talented and should give up that activity.

We can consciously cultivate our own growth mindset by tuning into our internal dialogue, catching the times when we limit ourselves with labels or self-deprecation (I’m shy, I’m no good at Math, that’s not the way my brain works) before they become self-fulfilling prophecies.

In the long run, it benefits everyone to believe that there is always room for learning and improvement.  What achievements might we be capable of, if we all believed that and behaved accordingly?  And it is absolutely worth the trouble to develop resilience in our children and in ourselves, because resilience is closely related to satisfaction, longevity, and happiness in life. AD


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