Tuesday, December 13, 2011

7 Ways to Raise Resilient Kids

December 8, 2011                
Brandie Weikle
ParentCentral.ca Editor

You don’t need to be on a playground for long before you hear the choruses of “Good job” and “Careful!”

Yes, ours is a generation of parents fully indoctrinated in the powers of both healthy self-esteem and a complete set of elbow and shin pads.

The only thing we like more than catching our kid at the bottom of the slide – lest her tender bottom hit gravel? Telling her that was the most awesome sliding job we’ve ever seen in our lives.

And can you blame us? We’re presented with so much information not only on our child’s secure sense of self, but on how to parent, how not to parent and the various toxins, predators and superbugs that threaten our children’s wellbeing every day.

But as the first generation of kids raised on a steady diet of praise and “everyone’s a winner” trophies reaches university, we’re hearing some sobering stories about the risks associated with sweeping every challenge out of our children’s way.

Alissa Sklar saw this play out time and again when she was an assistant professor at Concordia. “I have seen the consequences of kids who have been over-praised,” says Sklar, now an education consultant and blogger. “Some of these kids just crumple at the first sign of adversity. They can’t handle a D on a paper. They don’t know how to handle themselves when things fall apart because everyone has always told them how wonderful they were.”

If we focus too much on ensuring our kids have good self-esteem, kids don’t get a clear picture of how their skills stack up and where their strengths truly lie, she says – think shattered NHL dreams and ear-splitting Canadian Idol auditions.

Does that mean we should never praise our children?

Of course not. But there’s something called “necessary social pain,” says Sklar. “Kids need to know what it’s like to occasionally fail at things and to dust themselves off and get back at it again.” This extends to preventing every little scrape and bump, too. “Sometimes we need to bite our tongue when kids are running down the hill and not yell ‘be careful’ because sometimes they need to scrape their knees.” With the lesson learned, next time they might opt to go a little slower.

As the consequences of “helicopter” parenting become clear, there’s a movement afoot to reframe thinking about self-esteem, shifting focus to raising kids who have resilience.

What does that mean?

“The idea is to prepare our kids to go out in the world to be competent, confident adults capable of handling the things that life throws at them,” says Sklar.

Laurel Crossley, a parent educator and life coach, says a big part of making that happen is modeling resilient behaviour ourselves.

Say your car breaks down when the kids are with you, says Crossley. “Sometimes mom starts to scream and cry and then the whole car is filled with drama,” she says. That’s a missed opportunity to demonstrate some coping skills. Instead, she says, why not try something like “‘Oh, for heaven’s sake there’s something wrong with the car. Let me get on the phone with the garage, and let’s play a game while we’re waiting.’”

Looking for more tips on raising kids who can weather a storm?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has outlined what it calls the 7 C’s of Resilience.

Competence Everyone needs to have something they’re good at, which is why competence is the first pillar of resilience. “It could be anything from helping your baby brother to stop crying or being good at playing hockey,” says Sklar. Parents can help cultivate competence by letting little kids get dressed on their own, for instance, and by spending time on the activities that children truly enjoy and can master.

Confidence The next step is having confidence in one's abilities. It’s not enough just to be good at something; you have to get a chance to prove to yourself what you can do. For Sklar’s oldest daughter, that meant being allowed to take her little sister to the playground at the end of the street. For others, it could be having the opportunity to work out a problem with a friend before Mom or Dad swoops in.

Connection Close ties to family, friends, school and community provide kids with an important sense of security and shared values. Those go a long way down the road to reduce the chance that kids will seek choices that are self-destructive, says Sklar.

Character A fundamental sense of right and wrong helps children make wise choices, contribute to the world and become stable adults. Teaching your kids about character can start young with the lessons from storybooks and progress from there, says Sklar. Being kind to an animal, making sure no one feels left out on the playground and speaking up when a friend’s being bullied are all good opportunities demonstrate character.

Contribution Children who have the opportunity to make a connection between their actions and the betterment of others are more likely to make altruistic choices. Plus, the sense of purpose that brings is like money in the bank kids can draw upon in harder times. Your child doesn’t need to start his own charitable foundation, but could you work together to collect some canned goods this year? Or have your child select a toy for a toy drive?

Coping Let’s be real. Adult life throws us all kinds of hurdles from everyday annoyances like flat tires to big life events like the loss of a parent. Children who learn to problem solve and manage stress will be better prepared to face these on their own. Here’s the rub – kids can’t learn coping skills unless we demonstrate some at home. So if we lose our cool when the plumber is late, for instance, our kids will be sure to bring the histrionics when Luke’s lightsaber goes AWOL. The good news is that kids are perfectly willing to accept that none of us are perfect. What’s more, knowing how to acknowledge mistakes and start fresh is a decent coping skill itself.

Control It’s important to teach kids impulse control, because they don’t often arrive on this earth with a keen sense of delayed gratification. Think of the famous marshmallow experiment in the 1960s, says Sklar. Hundreds of 4-year-olds were offered one marshmallow now or two marshmallows if they could wait a few minutes. The kids who could wait for the bigger pay off did better in school, attended better universities and were considered more dependable by parents and teachers. So how do you bring these lessons into everyday life? Teach your kids to try some deep breaths when they’re frustrated. Set a maximum amount of TV time and let them decide whether or not to save a half hour for their favourite show. “When they realize they are in control of their own decision making, they’re more likely to make the right decisions down the road,” says Sklar.