Resilience: Nine Things Children Need to Be Resilient
The best parenting advice I’ve ever heard came from a six-year old girl named Trina who went to school with uncombed hair and mismatched socks. Trina was caught stealing candy from a corner store next to her school, pilfering gummy worms and sour tarts so she’d have something to give the other children on the playground to make them want to play with her.
When gently asked what changed when she stole the candy, in a small voice she said, “I have friends.” It was a simple answer that reminds us what the research on resilience has been telling us for decades. Change a child’s world and give her what she needs to do well and she will almost always accept our invitation. In Trina’s case, the solution was to give her a space in her school where she was needed and others could see her as important. Once a week, Trina’s consequence for stealing was helping teach younger children their numbers in the Kindergarten. It might not have looked like a very serious consequence, but it was really a strategy to help Trina find many of the sources of resilience other children already had in their lives.
Here are nine things that call children need to succeed:
- Structure: Our children feel most safe when they experience reasonable expectations and the structure that makes their lives predictable. Overwhelm a child with choices before she is ready and able to make decisions, and we create an anxious child who would prefer to throw a tantrum than admit she is feeling uneasy. A good parent provides just enough age-appropriate structure for a child to feel safe while offering the child opportunities to make decisions about things that matter. A younger child, for example, may not be able to choose what she eats, but she can choose between eating cucumbers (which she likes) and tomatoes (which she doesn’t).
- Consequences: Children need their caregivers to let them make mistakes, then help them to correct what they’ve done wrong. Good consequences let children fix problems they have the means to fix. I’ve seen children suggest clever ways of sharing toys, or asking for time alone, as solutions. The point is that children need opportunities to be held accountable for what they’ve done wrong and caregivers who are patient enough to let children find solutions everyone can live with.
- A close and caring relationship with a parent: Children do best when they have someone in their life to whom they really matter. It may be a parent, but it can also be a grandparent or other extended family member. Too often, though, we think this person has to be the child’s mother, or father. When a family is in crisis because of some terrible news, it is unreasonable to put all that responsibility on a parent alone.
- Lots and lots of positive relationships: After Wanda and Peter’s divorce and move to different cities, they needed to decide where their eight-year-old son was going to live. When I was asked to help, I took the time to find out which relationships meant the most to the boy. He was close to both his parents, but his school, his hockey team, and his extended family were much nearer to his Dad’s home than his mom’s. I recommended the boy spend as much time with his father as possible, not for the sake of his relationships just with his father, but also to ensure the boy didn’t lose other important sources of support. It was a very tough decision to make, but in the aftermath of a divorce or any other family crisis, children have taught me they can weather a crisis as long as they have plenty of people in their life who can help. Coaches, uncles and aunts, peers, and other adults can all play a role in ensuring a child’s resilience.
- A sense of control: According to ten-year-olds like Caitlin, a little say over our lives goes a long way. As Caitlin became progressively more visually impaired, her parents insisted she change schools. However, it was Caitlin who made the choice to stay right where she’d been all along and fight for a learning support worker to help her.
- A powerful identity. After moving to a new community, five-year-old Ethan insisted on wearing his Halloween moose costume to school, to church and to bed every day for six weeks. A little inconvenient, but Ethan had found a way to get himself noticed and to tell everyone, “Hey, I’m here!” Children need powerful identities if they are going to feel good about themselves. Eventually the moose costume came off, just in time for the Santa hat.
- Fair treatment: Let’s hear it for strong-willed little girls who remind the boys that they can play the same games they do. Let’s celebrate the child who challenges racial and ethnic stereotypes. I am awed by children like these, and others besides, who fight for their rights and social justice for all.
- A sense of belonging. Five-year-old Alicia stopped her temper tantrums about the same time her mother asked her to start taking some genuine responsibility for her baby brother. A child who feels she belongs at home, at school, or within a faith community, is a child who is likely to feel good about herself and her contribution to the welfare of others.Belonging can also give a child a sense of her culture. Eight-year-old Amber was embarrassed to wear her traditional Pakistani clothes to school the day her grandfather drove her. She did it to please him, but she was dreading what her classmates would say. She needn’t have worried. That afternoon she proudly told her grandfather the other girls had thought she looked like a storybook princess. Offering children an opportunity to feel proud of their culture and heritage is a buffer against threats to their self-esteem.
- Safety. Even a delinquent 12-year-old like Campbell, whom I met after he’d run away from home, can be enticed to his parents’ dinner table by the promise of a good meal and the security of knowing he’s safe when he’s at home in bed. A child who gets his basic needs met is one that is going to feel good about himself even if he never says thank you to the adults in his life who make him feel that way.
Call it a nudge, or subtle manipulation, but the research is clear. When children’s caregivers provide them with nine essential ingredients for resilience, they are more likely to thrive.
Michael Ungar, Ph.D., author of upcoming book, Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the Path to Success (Sutherland House Books, May 2019) is a Family Therapist and the Canada Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience at Dalhousie University.
For the past two decades, Dr. Ungar’s work has influenced the way resilience is understood globally, helping to improve the capacity of children and adults to cope when faced with serious challenges. Dr. Ungar has written 15 books for parents, educators, researchers and policy makers, and authored more than 150 scholarly papers, all based on his research and clinical practice that has taken him to more than 40 countries. His blog, Nurturing Resilience, can be read on Psychology Today’s website.