As parents, we try our best to meet our children’s needs and prevent them from being disappointed. We know this is an almost-impossible task, as life is full of situations over which we have no control.
Children will experience disappointment in school, sports and their social lives. You cannot always provide certainty and comfort for your children. The question is how much to protect them from the disappointments and challenges they will face during the ups and downs to life and situations out of their comfort zone. You can try to overindulge, overpraise and do your best to make your kids happy, but you may be cheating them out of the resilience and problem-solving skills they will need to function in their everyday lives.
Dealing with disappointment, emotional hurt and stress from difficult situations is a part of life. Most kids experience varying degrees of setbacks. Some may be minor, such as not being picked for a team, but some are life-changing, such as illness or death. Some kids adapt to disappointment, stress and crisis, and bounce back. They have a quality called resilience.
Resilience isn’t about reacting to every setback with acceptance, as your kids may still feel sad, angry or frustrated, but they find ways to move forward, to cope with the situation successfully and to adapt to the stressor. Resilience is not a trait that people either have or don’t have, but behaviours, thoughts and actions that can be developed and learned. Resilience begins in childhood, and the patterns children and teens develop will continue in how they deal with problems in the future.
Some kids are flexible and adapt more easily, which helps them cope with stress and hardship. This is part of the natural abilities and personality traits that help them cope with adverse situations. Resilient children have social and emotional competence, which enables them to understand their feelings, be aware of their emotions, solve problems, make good decisions and confront stressful situations with confidence.
You need to know your children and understand that what they find stressful varies. What is stressful to one child may not be stressful to another. Children and teens who lack resilience become overwhelmed by certain experiences, are slower to return from setbacks and may dwell on problems. When you see these behaviors in your child, there are ways to help develop resilient behavior.
Teaching Resilient Behavior
One of the major ways you can teach resilience is to acknowledge that life is full of challenges and that there are many areas over which we have no control. Kids need to learn problem-solving skills and maintain a sense of perspective with the challenges they face. They need to look at the problem and plan a strategy to deal with this challenge and envision a successful solution.
A good starting point is to ask, “Why is this situation challenging or stressful, and what skills do my kids need to achieve the outcome they want?” Children and teens can use a trial-and-error approach and role-play how different solutions may or may not work for a particular challenge.
Kids need to realize they may not have control over what happens but they have a choice in how they handle and respond to the challenge. They need to set reasonable plans and goals and take steps to solve the problem. When a child or teen faces uncertainty, and problem-solving skills are needed, you should not provide all the answers. You can facilitate the problem-solving steps to work through stressful situations. A follow-up chat about what happened afterwards can also help reinforce the learning and remind your child that what started out as a stressful situation can still work out well.
Model positive coping skills in stressful times so that your kids can observe and take cues from your behavior. Share with them the times when you felt overwhelmed because things did not go the way you had planned, and how you were flexible and adapted to a new situation.
Always let your kids know that family and friends are a very big support in life, not only when things are good but also when times are hard and stressful. It is very important to teach them when and how to ask for help, and that they don’t have to do everything themselves or have all the answers.
Resilience can come from an adult other than you who believes in the worth of your child. This adult may be a special family member, a coach or a teacher. All interactions make your child feel special, convey love and acceptance and provide strength. You should encourage such special bonds, as they help kids feel safe and appreciated, and give them the strength to deal with the many demands and challenges they may encounter.
You should also let your kids make mistakes. It may be painful to watch, but it helps them work on areas that need improvement and make better decisions next time. Children need to experience everyday failures and hardships and confront them when they occur, as this will prepare them for different types of challenges in the future.
You and your kids need to understand that mistakes are expected, that each mistake is a chance for growth and that pushing to meet unrealistic expectations may set them up for failure. Do not smooth the path for your kids, as they have to experience disappointment and failure. They must learn that they are responsible for their actions and that their actions have consequences. An important part of parenting is to help children experience success in areas of their life and to promote success. If children know that there are certain areas in which they excel, it may help them cope with the areas of their life that are more challenging and demanding.
Each child’s path is influenced by many factors — including family structure, values and beliefs, temperament and coping style, educational experiences and exposure to the broader community. Exposure to different types of people and experiences is vital, as kids can learn from everyone and become more comfortable with their changing world.
Sheryl Zang, EdD, FNP, CNS-BC, is an associate professor at Downstate Medical Center, College of Nursing. A nurse for 38 years, she is presently running groups for diabetic children and teens.