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18 Aug, Thursday
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Montreal Families

7 tips for teaching resilience

Some kids seem to have it all – a loving home, all the support and material advantages a child could want – and yet they fall apart at the first sign of adversity. They’ll insist on dropping out of soccer after losing a game, or more seriously, turn to drugs or alcohol to deal with the emotional highs and lows of the teen years. Yet other children who come from difficult or disadvantaged family backgrounds may rise above the stresses and strains, showing true grit and making good choices. What accounts for the difference in these two groups?

It’s called resilience: a set of distinct and important personal qualities that help people successfully cope with life’s adversities. The good news for parents is that there are simple and effective ways to build and nurture resilience in our kids so they are equipped to face the unpredictable aspects of life.

In the workshops I give about risk prevention and bullying, parents and teachers often ask about raising resilient kids — and many are surprised by my advice. I tell them that to raise kids who don’t crumple at the first sign of pressure, you must let them struggle at times and yes, even experience some pain. Over-protective parents who try to shield their kids from every scraped knee or mean classmate are depriving their children of opportunities to learn from the experience.

You can’t learn how to handle adversity by reading about it in a book. The relatively small social and physical pains of childhood offer incremental lessons on how to dry your tears and come up with a snappy comeback to an insensitive remark.

I don’t mean to suggest we let our kids sink or swim. We should be there to offer advice and support, and intervene when there is danger of real harm to themselves or others. As the mother of three girls, I know how difficult it can be to hold your tongue and let children deal with certain struggles on their own. But there have to be limits; when we cancel a business meeting to drive our child’s forgotten backpack to school or get excessively involved in the minor friendship dramas of contemporary childhood, we are sending our kids the message that they can’t handle these things on their own.

What else can we do to encourage resilience? Well, the American Academy of Pediatrics has broken the concept of resilience down into seven parts, each beginning with the letter C. As parents, we can try to develop and reinforce each of these traits as our kids grow.

Here are some ideas and suggestions for using the seven Cs to build resilience:

Contribution is about developing a sense of purpose in life and feeling that your presence and actions make a difference. Ideally, we will give our children opportunities to contribute on a personal scale (through actions like setting the family dinner table or feeding the dog) and a material one (giving part of their allowance to charity).

Coping is about how to effectively handle the challenges life will throw at us. Passive coping, such as turning on the TV or mindlessly surfing the Internet, is not the solution. Instead, it’s important for everyone — children and adults — to learn active coping mechanisms that help us process stress. These might include talking to a friend, going for a run, shooting some hoops, writing an angst-filled poem, keeping a journal, playing guitar or making cookies. As with all these qualities, parents must be mindful of how they model coping strategies. If we constantly lose our temper or turn to alcohol when life gets tough, we are showing them poor ways to cope with problems.

Competence means the ability to handle situations effectively. Competence at anything requires practice. It can start with not making a fuss every time our little ones experience minor falls and bumps. It means allowing our children to master things in small, age-appropriate increments, even though it can be faster and easier if we do it ourselves. Let them tie their own laces, do their own homework, make their own school lunches. When they are old enough, let them take babysitting courses and care for younger children, or keep score for their baseball team.

Confidence is a strong belief in one’s own abilities. We help our children build confidence by showing them we believe they can do things for themselves and others (which is why we need to let them wear to school the ill-matched outfit they may have thrown together). Building confidence also means giving them the space to do age-appropriate things without hovering over them, whether it’s walking the dog around the block, cleaning up their room or doing homework without our interference to make it “better.”

Connection is about developing close ties to family, friends, school and community. A solid sense of connection provides a sense of security and values that prevent them from seeking destructive alternatives to love and attention as they get older. While connection to family is the ideal, there are many cases of kids from dysfunctional homes who find this sense of connection with members of a sports team, a teacher or coach or at a place of worship. Research has also shown that these kids are less likely to become bullies and, if they are bullied, they at least have the support needed to escape or overcome it.

Character is about building a fundamental sense of right and wrong that helps children make wise choices, contribute to the world, and become stable adults. As parents, we most effectively teach good character by modelling it ourselves. Are you a good friend? A supportive spouse? Do you lie or feel entitled to break rules that apply to everyone else? Show respect to your children’s grandparents and other seniors? Donate to charity or contribute in other ways to your community? Of course, nobody is perfect, but knowing our children are learning from everything we do can help keep us grounded.

Control is about helping children take responsibility for their actions and to avoid blaming others for their mistakes.  Some kids are naturally better at controlling their own impulses and behaviours, while others need to be taught how to do so. This could mean asking them to save up for an iPod or a particular pair of jeans or insisting that they wait for everyone to be seated before beginning to eat at meal time. Research has consistently demonstrated that kids who learn self-control tend to get higher marks, are more likely to get a post-secondary degree and grow up to have more successful marriages.

Of course teaching all of these qualities requires a fair bit of commitment and follow through. It isn’t always glamorous and it isn’t always fun, so prepare yourself for some eye-rolling and attitude. But stick it out: as an investment in our children, teaching resilience has a guaranteed payoff.

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