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How To Raise Kids Who Can Handle Whatever Life Throws at Them

Children are more resilient than we think.


Every time the hockey puck slips past my 13-year-old daughter and into the net during a game, my insides clench. My heart drops. It’s all I can do to keep from rushing onto the ice and giving her a big hug. Instead, I tap on the glass surrounding the rink, nod my head, and tell her it’s OK. By this time, of course, my daughter has moved on to the next play. She’s been a goalie since she was eight. If there’s one quality she’s refined over the years, it’s the ability to shake things off, learn from her mistakes, and move on. She is one of the most resilient kids I know.

Most of us have a hard time seeing our children fail. We want to rescue them from any discomfort or pain and to keep them safe and secure. But perhaps one of the biggest lessons parents need to grasp is that learning how to fail is one of the best things kids can do in order to become successful adults.

“It’s so tempting to just leap in and say, ‘I’ll fix this for you,’ when we see our children struggling,” notes Eileen Kennedy Moore, Ph.D., author of Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience, and Develop Real Self-Esteem and a psychologist based in Princeton, New Jersey. “But when we step in to handle a problem that they should really learn to solve themselves, we are undermining their coping skills.”

Indeed, developing resilience is an important part of growing up. Learning how to extend yourself, even when confronted by a challenge, is key to helping children ultimately find success. Want to help your child learn to better cope for him or herself? Take a look at some common challenges children face. Think of how you can turn them into learning opportunities for all of you.

The Challenge: Your preschooler can’t solve the puzzle they’re working on.

Sure, you could sit down and put all those pieces together in less time than it takes for your coffee to brew. But when you take the initiative rather than simply guiding your child, you’ll ultimately take away her confidence, says Natasha Beck, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. “Stepping in and doing something for your child can lower their self-esteem. Kids have to learn how to deal with their frustration.” Instead, sit down with your child and ask her how else she might try to solve the problem. Maybe try turning the pieces in a different direction. “Ultimately, it will be a lot more rewarding when your child figures something out for herself,” adds Beck.

The Challenge: Your son got a bad grade on his math test.

Academic challenges are part of childhood, but just telling your child to try harder won’t do much good, says Kennedy Moore. “Most kids have no idea what that really means and ultimately will resist it.” Rather, focus on the relationship between effort and success. “Give your kids many small opportunities to say they tried something and got better,” she adds. That means keeping your hands off the science fair project or overediting an essay for English class. “The goal is to help kids develop their own sense of competence. If we do everything for them, they ultimately will know the work isn’t theirs,” says Kennedy Moore.

At some point, of course, parents may need to step in and talk to a teacher about academic issues. “It can be helpful to talk to your child’s teacher about what she is seeing. A teacher is best able to explain whether this is a temporary or an ongoing situation,” says Kennedy Moore. That way, you can formulate a plan together to help reduce classroom struggles and build success.

The Challenge: Your daughter got into a blowout fight with her best friend.

It may be tempting to try to jump in and fix any friendship problems your child may have, but your best bet is to stay out of it. Ask questions, make observations, suggest possible options, and even practice some role-playing, but ultimately, your child needs to be the one who takes action. “As parents, we have to help our kids understand that conflict doesn’t have to mean the end of everything,” says Kennedy Moore. “Teach them that part of being a good friend is learning how to forgive, not necessarily just wanting to retaliate and make the conflict bigger.”

The Challenge: Your son got cut from basketball tryouts.

“It hurts, and [you feel] disappointed to be cut from any team,” says Kennedy Moore. Empathize with your child and describe the feelings that you see — you know he must be upset, discouraged, even embarrassed. Let him live with those feelings for a while. Then, when the time is right, talk to him about what he might do differently at the next opportunity. Remind him that he’s overcome other challenges, whether that was learning to ride a bike or figuring out a difficult drill in practice. Remind him it’s not the end of the world and that this is a lesson in dealing with adversity. “Helping to deal with these challenges like this will help your child build a sense of self-support so he can overcome even bigger struggles down the road,” says Kennedy Moore.

The Challenge: Your kindergartener took a tumble on the playground.

Supna Shah says that the other parents give her a funny look when one of her kids trips and falls on the playground while she calmly keeps her seat on the bench. “The other parents look at me, but I give my kids a moment when something like a skinned knee happens,” she laughs. “I ask my son or daughter if he or she needs help, and of course, if it looks serious I will go to them — but I want them to learn that they need to have a process for handling tumbles both big and small,” says the childhood development advisor. “Resilience starts at a young age.” Overcoming the small stuff will ultimately help your child develop the resilience she needs to conquer bigger challenges in life.

10 Ways to Build Resilience

Try these strategies from the American Psychological Association to help your child develop key coping skills:

  1. Make connections. Having close friends and family helps your child build empathy when others go through tough times and find support when she needs it.
  2. Help others. Age appropriate volunteer work or having your child help out can make him feel empowered and confident.
  3. Stick to a routine. It helps children of all ages — especially young ones — feel secure when things aren’t going right.
  4. Take a break. Plan unstructured time together when your child can relax, unwind, and just be — even if things aren’t always going right.
  5. Maintain healthy habits. Sticking to regular bedtimes, offering balanced meals, and being active will help your kid fight stress.
  6. Set goals. Help her move forward from setbacks by coming up with a plan that includes setting reasonable goals. Then give her positive feedback for each goal she achieves, whether it’s prepping for a test or being able to run a mile around the track.
  7. Give him a pat on the back. Remind your child how he’s overcome hardships in the past, and grew stronger. Helping your child develop a positive self-view is crucial toward building and maintaining self-confidence and self-esteem.
  8. Have some perspective. A challenge can seem overwhelming, whether it’s not getting into the college your child wanted or missing out on getting a big part in the school play. Help your child maintain an optimistic outlook to see all the good things in life, even when times are tough.
  9. Find self-discovery. Some of the most surprising personal insights are uncovered when we face our biggest challenges. Talk to your child about what she’s going through and what she can gain from the experience.
  10. Embrace change. It can be scary, but change is part of life. New goals can help replace those that have become unattainable. Discuss some of the changes your child has gone through over the years, and how he has been able to grow and thrive because of them.

A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine The Science of Raising Happy Kids.

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