Forget helicopter parenting, teaching your child resilience will prepare him for life both mentally and physically, writes Rachel Goodchild.
In the almost 14 years since I became a parent, I’ve taught my children so much more than I ever expected to. All the little skills we pass onto our toddlers, preschoolers, children, ‘tweens and teens are taught quite naturally in day to day life, without us really thinking about them. And as our children grow, we discover the lessons don’t stop.
It’s easy to get stuck in the “how-tos” of teaching a child to sit at the table, eat food effectively (and yet cleanly) and be toilet-trained, while forgetting the bigger life lessons that will help them not only learn these skills, but far more.
Out of all the skills I’ve taught my children, the one I’m most proud of is their ability to show resilience. They have varying levels of this skill but this one ability helps them to adapt to change, learn new skills independently, solve problems, negotiate conflict and survive living with their parents!
Some children are born with a natural tendency toward resilience, as it is in part a skill that is shaped by temperament. Alternatively, some children are born with a fragile skin that only just covers their ability to manage stress and change, and these children need to be taught additional skills to help them manage their stress in changing environments.
Resilience is a key part of learning, but it is increasingly neglected by parents in the western world, with a drop off in physical activity and the push towards formal learning happening earlier.
The first step in developing a resilient child is to start his life in an atmosphere of love and trust. By attending to a young baby’s needs when he cries, by focusing on being calm and unstressed when comforting him and by at least appearing to know what you are doing, you help him build trust. Children need this to feel safe to explore and discover.
Many parents do this well, but it’s hard to stop that protective urge, particularly when your child becomes mobile and more adventurous.
The term “helicopter parents” describes a parenting style where adults hover constantly around the child, stressing that they will fall or hurt themselves.
Julia is a New Zealander living in Luxembourg. Her son Casper has osteogenesis imperfecta or brittle bones. If he falls the wrong way he can break one or more bones.
Julia and her husband had every reason to hover around Casper but wanted him to move naturally and without fear, so he would learn to fall less often. So instead they taught him to shout “Hooray!” and clap when he fell.
“It was incredibly hard for me to step back and trust that this was a good call, but we knew being fearful would be worse long term for his health than him moving. He needs to know how to explore and get back up again,” explains Julia.
The result is a child who moves more confidently and does not stress about whether he’s hurt himself every time he falls. Since focusing on changing Casper’s reactions, he’s had fewer injuries.
A well-used term in New Zealand is “cotton-wool kids” – kids who are over- protected and can move and explore only in very safe, narrow parameters.
“We struggled for seven years to conceive, so when Tom arrived, I just wanted to make sure nothing happened to him. It was a pleasure to do things for him, and make sure he was safe. But when he started school it began to become a problem,” explains Angela, a mother of two from Palmerston North.
Initially Tom struggled as Angela began to pull back, instead encouraging Tom to do some of the jobs she’d always done for him.
“It definitely made his first year of school hard as we unlearned my cotton-woolling. I still feel guilty when I ask him to do something like put on his shoes, or pack his bag. I know it’s crazy, but I just want what’s best for him, and it’s been hard to realise that what’s best is sometimes to let him do things himself.”
Teaching safe life skills alongside letting children explore is the best way to develop a resilient child.
Make a list of the life skills a seven year old would need to have on board to survive alone in your house for a week. These are the skills you can teach a child gradually and they all help foster independence and build confidence. Best of all, the process of learning helps a child come face to face with frustration and he begins to learn how to manage the emotions around it.
If we rescue children every time they express frustration, they won’t develop an understanding of just how much they can do themselves.
Megan, a mother of two from Pukekohe admits stepping back is something she finds very hard to do. “Especially if they are struggling over something I know I can do for them in just a moment. But I’m learning to almost sit on my hands, to allow them to work things out.”
Between allowing children to grow in independence, and deal with the curve balls life can throw us, there are plenty of opportunities for children to develop resilience.
If we remember that each lesson learnt early will help them become a child who can persevere at school, deal with challenges as a teen, then later as an adult, it becomes easier to learn to “sit on your hands” a little more often, allowing your child to see exactly just what he is capable of, regardless of circumstances.
TOP TIPS FOR DEVELOPING RESLIENCE
Anxiety – the enemy of resilience:
Maggie’s daughter, Ella, had a problem. She would get terrible separation anxiety and would cry when Maggie tried to get her ready for kindergarten. It got so bad that Maggie started to regret ever going back to work and wondered if she was doing Ella long-term damage by leaving her at kindy. The teachers told Maggie that Ella was fine once she left every day, but something felt wrong to her.
We all have moments where we feel fear or worry, especially in new situations. When we feel fear, the resilient among us will learn to talk positively and not focus on it. Those who struggle often give their fears a large amount of attention and may try to help their child by talking through the issue at length which, in fact, ends up drawing more attention to the issue.
If your child has issues with anxiety, try to adopt a “fake it till you make it” approach. No matter how you’re feeling about leaving them, simply look and act as if it’s not a big deal, and you know your child can do it.
The child will take your lead and quickly become more settled.
Adjust your child’s mind set:
The Happiness Project (gretchenrubin.com) was started by former New Yorker Gretchin Rubin who decided to up her happiness quota by recording three good things every day for a year. The simple act of recording three good things consciously rewires our brains and helps us to discover more positive outcomes when faced with change or stressful situations, as well as helping us celebrate life.
This is a fantastic thing to do as a family every night. At the dinner table or before bed, have each family member share “the good things” that made their day.
For toddlers and younger children, help them select these by giving them a run- down of the best bits of their day before they go to sleep.
Resilience needs a positive “I can do this” mindset to work best. So teaching our children to see the good in any situation is a good way to build this skill.
Why excessive praise can hurt:
Jason, from Onehunga in Auckland, was trying to help his son Matt climb up a wall by praising his efforts. However, every time he praised his son, Matt would stop and come down. Matt took the praise as a sign that he’d achieved what was needed. When Jason switched off the instinct to acknowledge every step, and instead allowed Matt to push through the areas of challenge, with just a few verbal cues of where to move his body instead of a continued stream of “well done,” Matt finally managed to get to the top.
Children (and adults) succeed more when they can positively self-talk themselves, rather than expecting others to fill their praise tanks up for them. Moderate your praise levels, make it meaningful, and about real achievements.
Change is a friend of resilience:
Change helps us develop resilience. Ironically, some of the stressful changes we feel guilty about putting our children through (such as moving home or family changes) can naturally help our children adapt and learn resilience.
Much of what they first learn is from us. If they hear us speaking positively about the change and see us walking through it confidently, they will imitate that. If however, they see us having regular meltdowns, that’s what they’ll learn to do.
While we don’t need to manufacture situations where our children’s life will change, it is good to both model and teach them that ups and downs are part of life, and it’s our attitude that counts.
Great quotes for building a resilient attitude:
(As reported back to me by my three children)
• Change is normal. Sometimes we can control it, sometimes we can’t.
• It feels like you won’t make it, but the truth is, you will.
• Let’s take a break then come back to this later.
• Things will get better, we just need to keep going.
• Even change we don’t like can have some good parts.
• After we get through it, it won’t feel so bad.
• It’s happening regardless of how we feel about it, so let’s find the good in it.
• Trust me.
• Sometimes I need to make decisions for you, because I can see the big picture, and I always consider your needs in there, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
Rachel Goodchild is a parenting and education coach and author. She is the mother of three girls. Read more from her at rachel-goodchild.com