Editor’s note: GreatSchools is partnering with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence to help parents support their children’s social and emotional learning.
Protecting our kids is an impulse deeply woven into our parental DNA, but no parent can shield their child from every disappointment. Whether it’s personal —a failing grade or the death of a grandparent — or misfortune on a wider scale — Hurricane Katrina or atrocities in Syria — loss is an inevitable part of the human experience. You can’t protect your child from every setback, but you can help her develop skills to navigate and even learn from them. According to Robin Stern, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, resilience is essential for success in school and the workplace — and it’s also a key ingredient for life. Stern’s book, Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit From 9/11 Survivors, studied the nature of resilience in the wake of tragedy.
Why is resilience so important?
Life is uncertain. There’s a lot of fear and worry. Resilience enables people to pick up the pieces and go on after they face adversity, loss, or trauma. It allows people to move on from the inevitable disappointments we all encounter. Resilience is essential in today’s world, and it’s a key factor in living a long and satisfying life.
Do you think kids today are less resilient as a result of helicopter parents?
Parents don’t like kids to be uncomfortable. This makes sense. But when you swoop in to help whenever things get tough, it’s hard for them to build resilience. Going through a disappointment and finding resources to get themselves through, this is how children build resilience. Invoking a positive outlook on life is another key way to build resilience.
How can parents help kids build resilience?
When your child faces a challenge, talk about what happened. Listen carefully, and don’t immediately jump in with advice or brush off your child’s concerns.
Say your child fails a test. If your child feels discouraged, help him reframe the situation. Ask questions like, “What do you think you could have done differently?” The goal is for your child to take responsibility and learn from the experience. Encourage him to come up with a strategy: “Maybe I didn’t study enough. Next time, I’ll study more.” That’s how you develop resilience: by incorporating the difficult experience into your life and making meaning of it.
Resilience has a lot to do with how you appraise a difficult experience and learn from it. For example, if your child’s pet dies, encourage your child to have her feelings of grief, then slowly shift to a more positive place: “My pet died and I’m sad, but I’m also grateful for the time I had with my pet and all the memories I have.” It’s important for children to realize that grief is not an illness but a part of loving others.
I know a teacher who keeps a Book of Death in her classroom. When students experience a loss, they can talk about their loved ones and put pictures into the book. This is great because it helps children bring their loved ones into daily life.
Gratitude is also very healing. You can emphasize gratitude when your child experiences a loss: “I am so grateful we had that time with Grandma. She loved you so much.” This helps your child recognize other feelings along with sadness.
Is it important for parents to model resilience?
Modeling is everything. Your kids are watching, whether you realize it or not. Think about how you handle your own difficult situations. Say you’re fired from a job. How do you react? Your language is important. Are you saying things like, “This is the worst thing that ever happened” or are you saying, “This is hard, this is disappointing, but I know I will feel better tomorrow”? It’s important to show your kids that you have optimism and hope.
There’s a difference between just coping with a situation and genuinely healing. You can’t just bury your feelings. Healing comes from bringing the pain or disappointment into your life and making meaning of it— and relating to yourself in a forgiving way. As a family, talk about what you’ve learned from your mistakes. This will help your kids see that mistakes can be our teachers.
Do you think that resilience is genetic or learned?
Some people believe there’s a “hardiness” gene that makes some people more resilient than others. I don’t agree. I believe that resilience is a process, that resilience develops over time – versus a personality trait, you’re born with.
Some people may find building resilience easier, maybe because they are more open to new experiences than others, adapt easily to new situations, or are naturally more optimistic, and thus have an easier time bouncing back.
But everyone can build resilience. Everyone can learn to manage their feelings, cultivate an attitude of compassion and self-compassion, and learn to be more optimistic.
How do you recommend talking about resilience with kids?
I’d teach them to think of resilience like a muscle you build every time you face a challenge. Remind your children that they’ve been through difficult experiences before – and survived. “It’s a disappointment that you didn’t pass that test. But remember when you didn’t make the team and you were so disappointed? You worked hard and made the team the next year.”
You’re not going to erase disappointments in life. But every time we manage a difficult experience, it helps us realize we can do it again. Developing resilience isn’t something you do overnight — it’s the work of a lifetime.