I was once out to dinner with a friend when she told me something she had recently learned: resiliency is one of the most important character traits a child can posses. My initial reaction was one of discomfort. Immediately my thoughts went to my firstborn son and I tried not to squirm too much in my seat. A movie reel played in my head of all the hardship and pain he had endured and was still enduring. Was all that junk really worth it? Just to prove or establish resiliency in him and us?
For a while I hated his scars, his medical equipment, and navigating life with a disability. My first and strongest instincts were to protect and nurture him. It was heartbreaking to see those jagged harsh lines on the perfect silk that is newborn skin. I even wanted to protect him from the often rough but necessary medical procedures. I wished for freedom for our family from the bondage of critical medical conditions. I longed for the beautiful everyday moments of bonding and milestones that so many other families experienced.
While I don’t see the things that happened to him as good in and of themselves, I began to warm up to the idea that maybe he had not only survived but also thrived because of his and our family’s resiliency. And conversely, perhaps resiliency was strengthened within each of us as we confronted the situation upon us. Sure my son experienced more in a few short years than many experience in a lifetime, but no one is immune. Most people, including children, will experience some form of trauma or adversity at some point in their lifetime.
Resilience is a capacity to overcoming damaging effects of catastrophe, stress, or adversity. Displaying resilience does not mean an absence of strong emotions and feelings such as grief, loss, sadness, or anger. Rather, resilience is the ability to work through the effects of stress and its resulting emotions. Components for resilience include close supportive relationships, hope, self-worth, a sense of purpose, self-control, the ability to ask for help, healthy risk taking, and problem solving.
Since resiliency is so vital in determining how effectively we and our children can weather a storm, here are some ideas about building resiliency in children.
1. Offer a safe, loving environment.
It’s difficult to be resilient if you are in an environment where you are constantly beaten down or discouraged. Offer a safe, loving, and understanding environment for your children. Even if you don’t understand your child’s feelings, fears, or joys completely, they need a safe outlet so they have the courage to continue growing into the healthiest person possible. Listening and seeking to understand our children is a big part of fostering a safe environment.
2. Accept them.
Accept your children for who they are—their temperament, their weaknesses, and their strengths. I never wanted my son to feel like he wasn’t enough because he hadn’t arrived at a certain point or standard. Acceptance does not mean there are no limits or boundaries within a family setting. Accepting our children without harsh judgement and criticism to be different or better helps them develop self-worth and relevance.
3. Give/Allow challenges.
It’s okay for situations to challenge children as long as they do not overwhelm them and are within a safe environment. Allow children the freedom to explore and take risks within your family’s boundaries. Even a child’s failures are opportunities to learn. When we were working with our son on different therapies, if certain exercises were too overwhelming, I learned to take a step back and stop pushing so hard. I knew the way of progress meant confronting challenges, but if I pushed him too hard, it only served to push him in a direction I didn’t want to go. I learned to be content with a pace that challenged him but didn’t cause him to despair or become defiant. Certain things were scary for both of us, but confronting challenges helped both of us to overcome fears.
4. Give responsibilities.
Give your child opportunities to be responsible so they can develop skills and the attribute of responsibility. Responsibility helps a child feel in control. It also builds a sense of purpose in children.
5. Praise effort as well as accomplishments.
It’s good to praise accomplishments, especially big ones. It’s equally important to praise effort. Praising effort teaches a child that it is okay to fail, but the important aspect is to keep trying even when something is hard. We never once told our son he couldn’t achieve a milestone, even though that is what some doctors told us regarding him. It took our son five years to learn to eat orally. Along the way we praised his accomplishments and his everyday efforts. This gave him the motivation to keep pursuing something that was difficult for him but was natural for others. Eventually his five years of effort paid off!
6. Help them problem solve.
Don’t make all the decisions for your child. Allow your child to have a say in the solution. This will help them to develop critical thinking skills, responsibility, confidence, and autonomy. By guiding them when they are young to find healthy, achievable solutions, they will be equipped as adults to make their own resilient decisions in difficult situations.
7. Develop strengths or hone a talent.
When a child understands he is good at something, he will feel competent and successful. These traits can help when confronting difficult situations. Therefore it is valuable to develop strengths we see in our children. Our son couldn’t always keep up with other children physically. We worked on those areas but also focused on things he could do well such as relational skills and creativity.
8. Model resiliency.
Many times over the past five years, I was sure I would crumble under the financial, emotional, and physical pressures of raising a child with special needs. I often felt discouraged and overwhelmed. Many nights I even fell asleep crying because I was clueless on how to proceed. But eventually I always came around to the fact that I couldn’t give up. I had to keep pushing forward to make the best of the situation we were in. Your children will be looking to you to model resiliency. Seeing how you cope with and overcome adversity teaches them more than almost anything else. Although, the same can be said for parents, for as I watched my “helpless” newborn boy fight hard just to live, I knew I could do no less.
I don’t hate my son’s scars anymore. Many of them are still visible but they have healed. They do not define him, but they do tell me about him. They are a part of his story. They are a reminder of everything he has faced and overcome, a reminder of his determination and resiliency. A display of our many hours of partnership, working towards a hope for a better future. A reminder of what can be left behind and conquered despite circumstances and expert opinions.
Many children may not carry visible scars like my son, but they may still experience trauma from divorce, bullying, poverty, etc. Resiliency offers such children hope for a brighter tomorrow.
Do you believe resiliency is an important character trait? If so, how do you help your child(ren) develop resiliency?
Author’s Note: This will be my last regular blog post so that I may focus on family and home life more for a while. Part of my focus will be on a new addition. We are expecting baby #3 mid-April! I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you (our readers) more and letting you into my life in a small way. If you have a medically ill child or a special needs child and would like someone to talk to or connect with, please contact me. I would love to hear your story!