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Raising a Resilient Child

The night after our 4-year-old got bucked off a pony was definitely a ten-Beanie Baby affair. A visit to the doctor had ruled out major physical trauma, but Eva still had to face the emotional toll. Fortunately, she'd discovered the soothing power of stuffed animals as a toddler: The tougher her day, the higher she piled the cuddly critters onto her bed. At first, I'd protest, "There's no room for you in there." Then I realized that she'd found a tangible way to handle life's letdowns  -- not just the physical bumps and bruises but the inner ones, whether taunts on the playground, suspicions about creepy shadows in the corners of her room, or vague fears about frightening events in the world.

Today I can recognize Eva's self-coping mechanism as a sign of resilience. "Resilience" became a buzzword of the 1990s after researchers studied the character traits of people who emerge relatively unscathed from childhood traumas, such as abuse, the loss of parents, or extreme poverty. Further studies of kids showed that these qualities are crucial not just in overcoming severe adversity but in navigating everyday challenges  -- the healthy struggle to learn and grow, adapt to new situations, rise above an unkind word or personal failure.

The debate in recent years has been whether we can actually teach our children to be resilient. "Some people believe that kids are either born that way or not," says Byron Egeland, Ph.D., professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. "But research clearly shows that children who learn early that they're worthy of love, and that they can trust others to help when needed, develop resilience. It's this foundation that enables them to deal with adversity."

Luckily, most of us instinctively equip our children with at least some of the characteristics they'll need to handle life's setbacks. To strengthen their emotional muscles even more:

Contributing editor Jessica Snyder Sachs is a health and science writer whose most recent book is Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death.

Be There From the Start

Joy Alex of Pittsburgh got an earful of advice from her relatives about letting her baby daughter, Elena, cry: "'You'll spoil her,' they'd tell me when I'd pick her up. 'No way,' I told them. 'Babies cry because they need us.'"

Studies show that infants allowed to cry it out in the first three months of life cry significantly more at 1 year than those whose parents consistently comforted them. "There's plenty of data to support the idea that when parents are responsive early on, it's a major factor in laying the groundwork kids need to cope in life," says Egeland. "When babies cry, they're signaling distress. When someone reacts, the baby gets the message 'I'm worthwhile and can trust others to be available when I need them.'" In fact, researchers have found that the ability to reach out to friends and family for support is one of the key traits of emotionally resilient people.

Reassuring words and a hug not only teach babies that they can rely on others but also help them gain a sense of inner emotional control  -- another quality of the truly resilient  -- as they gradually learn how to soothe themselves as well, says Stanley Greenspan, M.D., author of Building Healthy Minds.

Finally, infusing young children's worlds with some predictability  -- establishing a fairly consistent bedtime, naptime, and meal routine; reading favorite books again and again  -- instills in them a sense of ease and confidence. And, says Dr. Greenspan, that's just what they need to bounce back from hardship.

Don't Foster Frustration

Young children are on a constant quest for independence, whether it's feeding themselves, mastering a toy unaided, or taking their shoes off without help from you. But since their motor skills often lag behind their intentions, they frequently wind up frustrated.

Thankfully, such situations provide a wonderful way to stock the resiliency toolbox, says Edith Grotberg, Ph.D., author of Tapping Your Inner Strength. The key, she says, is to begin a dialogue like this: "I see you're struggling with your shoes. You're doing a good job of untying the laces, but you may want to loosen them a bit more. That's it. You can do it. Let me know if you want a hand." This combination of reassurance and measured assistance promotes what Grotberg calls the three cornerstones of resilience:

    I have support around me.

    I am both competent and worthy of help.

    I can communicate my needs.

You should also try to keep tasks within your child's abilities whenever possible. A shape sorter that triggers frustration and tears, for instance, should be shelved for a few months until your little one can master it with pride  -- and little assistance.

Help Him Face His Fears

A sudden noise, a big dog, a newfound fear of the dark  -- the world can be a scary place. The best way to help kids maneuver through it is by providing refuge  -- but in a way that empowers them. So when your child comes to you, commend him for seeking help. Say, "I'm glad you talked to me about this," not "There's nothing to be scared of."

Kwame Smith of Lithonia, GA, recalls the day he found his 4-year-old sobbing at her daycare center. From teachers, he learned that minutes earlier Afriyie had pulled her book away from another girl who was leaving with it. Surprisingly, the girl's mother told her daughter to give Afriyie a whack, which she did. "Afriyie wasn't the type to cry because another child hit her," says Smith. "But she couldn't understand why an adult would do something like that. It truly frightened her." Smith assured his daughter that the woman's behavior was unacceptable and that he would speak with her. The next day, he met both of the girl's parents and, with Afriyie present, calmly explained that though he was big enough to beat them both up, that wasn't an appropriate action to take. The mother realized what she'd done, apologized to Afriyie, and the young girls soon forged a friendship.

Some situations  -- such as those involving physical danger or badly behaving adults  -- demand that a parent take charge, as Smith did. At other times, you can better foster resilience by serving as an empathetic "consultant" rather than a rescuer.

"Too often, we rush in to comfort without listening," says Ron Goldsmith, the former director of the Family and Community Resiliency Project at South Dakota State University, in Brookings. "Instead, we need to patiently find out what frightens a child and offer to help him think things through and find his own solution." Goldsmith recently worked with a first-grader terrified of a certain part of her house. Rather than dismiss her fear, he invited her to mentally walk through the house to see what scared her. It turned out to be some bare windows. Her solution: She would ask her parents to hang curtains.

Challenge Change

Twin brothers Will and Luke celebrated their sixth birthday on their first day at a new school, after moving from Pennsylvania to Georgia. "Will had a great day," says mom Kathy Cioffi. "But Luke's teacher sent home a snapshot of him taken as the class sang 'Happy Birthday,' and you could see he was ready to burst into tears." That evening, Cioffi asked Luke if he'd like to call some old friends he'd left behind. "They were so glad to hear from him, and he just ate it up when they made a fuss about his birthday," she recalls.

A change in environment  -- whether a new caregiver, neighborhood, or school  -- can be difficult for children, since they lose their sense of mastery over the familiar and have to adapt to new ways of doing things at the same time, says Lesia Oesterreich, an early-childhood specialist at Iowa State University, in Ames. Certain things can help a child make the transition, such as a well-loved blanket or teddy or the familiar voices of family and friends.

Still, while an outgoing kid may quickly recruit new pals, one with a quieter personality may need to withdraw into a creative outlet, such as drawing. Some children may regress to old habits, like the 4-year-old who returns to sucking his thumb or the 8-year-old who suddenly needs lots of laptime. These behaviors are all forms of coping.

You can also help your child handle big changes, including the arrival of a new sibling or even divorce, by eliminating the element of surprise and providing opportunities to talk it through. Change will always be more stressful for some kids than for others, but each passage successfully navigated bolsters confidence in the ability to cope with future events.

Foster Self-defense

When my own daughter was 3, she fell prey to a playground tease. Admittedly, Eva was the perfect victim, as she had a tendency to withdraw from the entire playgroup at the girl's first "nanananabooboo." When ignoring the teasing (my advice) didn't work, I asked Eva whether she might come up with an equally ridiculous reply. She decided on something like "goobygoobylooloo," which proved the perfect foil, empowering her with magic words of her own while generating giggles all around.

I've long marveled at how certain kids seem able to shrug off teasing and occasional rejection from their peers while others limp away wounded or respond with overblown anger. Though some parents advocate the "let them sort it out on their own" approach, child-development experts advise a careful balance of intervention and encouragement.

For a child who withdraws, that may mean offering to stand nearby while he returns to the group to tell his nemesis he doesn't like to be teased, says Grotberg. For a child poised to retaliate by hitting or escalated name-calling, it may mean helping her calm down enough to find a more useful response.

Experts agree that it's also important to create opportunities for your child to make friends with a wide variety of people, including other trusted adults. With a large support network to draw on, a child has an easier time putting a temporary rejection in perspective while seeking the company or sympathy of others.

Don't Overprotect

As a social worker, Goldsmith has helped countless children deal with loss, whether it's a favorite teacher moving to another city or a grandparent's death. "Lots of kids feel mad, sad, and scared all at once," he says. "Often, mad comes out easiest. So they get crabby. That's when you need to say it's okay to let the sad come out too. It's okay to cry and to ask someone for reassuring hugs."

For kids, another aspect of the process is to figure out why a loved one is gone, says Goldsmith. "And part of trying to find an answer is to blame themselves." So children need to be told, in no uncertain terms, that they don't cause these things. Sad events just happen, as do happy ones. Airing such feelings can set the stage for a child to bounce back more easily, as can having extra time with family and close friends and reminiscing about the fun they had with the special someone.

Parents can also use these occasions to teach kids that there is more than one way to handle fear, sadness, or uncertainty. You can, say, offer to take a photo of the relocating teacher so your child can look at it whenever he likes, or make a memory book together to honor his deceased grandparent. Says Grotberg, "This kind of flexibility, learned in childhood, can translate into an adult who understands that going for a walk is a better option than drinking after a stressful day at work."

While we can't guarantee that our children will sail through all of life's low points with ease, we can foster their ability to recover from them. By being there when your kids need you, helping them regain calm, and offering the right kind of assistance, you nurture their trust in the world as well as in themselves and give them the courage to tackle challenges head-on  -- and bounce back from them as better, stronger people.