Building resilience in young children
Strong resiliency skills can make a big difference in people’s lives and is a skill that is developed early in life.
April 5, 2018 - Author: Tracy Trautner, Tracy Trautner, Michigan State University Extension
Resilience is the ability to cope with and recover from life’s difficulties. It is something all human beings have the potential for, but is not a skill we automatically have without lots of practice. We work on it throughout our life and it should start at a very early age. Parents have the opportunity, and are the most important people, to build resiliency skills in their child.
Children learn from what they observe, and watching their parents cope with everyday stress in a calm and flexible manner will help them learn to respond in a positive way to stressful events in their own lives. They are also closely watching the negative way we handle life’s challenges as well.
Research shows people who respond to hardship with resilience are:
- Healthier and live longer.
- Happier in their relationships.
- More successful in school and work.
- Less likely to get depressed.
There are several ways to build resiliency in your child. However, the most important thing to build resiliency in a child’s life is a strong, secure attachment with a caring adult. It can be a parent, grandparent or other caregiver, as long as that relationship is reliable, loving and trustworthy. A child will thrive in many areas of development when they feel loved, understood and accepted, and building strong resiliency skills is no different.
Feeling loved and wanted helps all of us get through the hard times in life and this is true for children as well. It is through these secure relationships that they can learn to regulate their feelings, thoughts and behaviors. The child will also need exposure to positive role models and opportunities to learn this new skill as well.
Michigan State University Extension offers the following suggestions for building caring relationships.
- Play. This is a great way to connect with kids of all ages
- Comfort. This helps children feel they are not alone with their big feelings. They will learn to comfort themselves as they get older, but young children need their supportive, caring adult to be there for them
- Listen. This simple technique shows children that what they’re saying about their feelings is important.
- Show empathy. This is seeing an issue or problem from another’s point of view. You, as the listener, do not have to agree. Just let the child know you understand how they feel. This makes it easier for them to try to understand others. This is the foundation for developing caring relationships with other people.
- Identify feelings. “You look frustrated/angry/mad/happy/sad.” This will help them socially identify how they are feeling and be able to use their words versus body parts to settle disputes, but also helps them realize other people have feelings too. “I am frustrated because my car won’t start this morning and worried I might be late for work.”
- Identify and express emotions.
- Reduce TV time. Children under 2 years old should not be allowed any screen time. Children 2-4 years should watch less than 1 hour per day. Instead, read or go to the park.
- Read or tell stories. Books are a great way to read about characters that show compassion, kindness and understanding for others.
- Don’t rush to their rescue. Let them attempt to solve problems on their own when the outcome isn’t big and life-altering. When they are younger, let them have opportunities to problem-solve and make good choices, such as negotiating a turn on the swing or falling off their bike because they need a little more time with training wheels. As they get older, the decisions they make will involve driving, relationships and other circumstances that could result in a harsher punishment than when they were younger.
Children will have different ways of responding to and recovering from stressful situations. The behavior they exhibit will be different when the demands upon them outweigh their capacity to cope. Some typical behaviors of a child feeling overwhelmed include becoming defiant, angry, resentful, emotional or withdrawn from others.
Remember, there will be times that even children with well-developed resiliency skills will feel overwhelmed. Be supportive and refer back to the suggestions for building caring relationships listed above to help them through difficult times. Most important, however, is to not “brush off” their feelings or underestimate the struggle your child is experiencing.
A person is never too old to learn the skill of being resilient, however the older they get the harder it is to develop and internalize. It is inevitable that all children will face challenges at some point in their life. It is important we help them develop skills so these challenges are not able to break them. Resilient children are braver, more curious, more adaptable and more able to extend their reach into the world. Anyone in the life of a child can make a difference including, but not limited to, family, teachers and coaches.
To learn about the positive impact children and families experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our 2016 impact report: “Preparing young children for success” and “Preparing the future generation for success.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.