Can a Child Be Taught Resilience?

In this episode: Janet responds to an email from a mom who says she is good about accepting her sensitive boy’s feelings without trying to fix them, but she also wants him to be emotionally resilient. She’d like Janet’s advice about how to “teach him to bounce back when others hurt his feelings.”

Transcript of “Can a Child Be Taught Resilience?”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m responding to an email that I received from a mom. She’s trying to raise her boys to be caring and empathetic, but she’s feeling like her 5-year-old is very sensitive, and she wants to make sure that she’s teaching him to be resilient when his own feelings are hurt.

Here’s the email I received:

“Hi, Janet. I recently discovered your podcast, and it has been transformative. Your insight and guidance have helped me be more confident in my limit-setting, and it has helped me and my boys tremendously. I’ve always had the tendency without realizing it to want to fix every problem. For example, this summer when leaving for camp, my 5-year-old would whine everyday and say, ‘But I don’t want to go to camp.’ My instinct would be to say, ‘I know you don’t want to go, but you’ll have fun.’ Instead I started saying that I hear him and that I understand that he doesn’t want to go, and I’d leave it at that. This transformed our mornings. The simple fact that I heard him and that I wasn’t brushing aside his feelings or trying to fix them made it easier to get out of the house and into the car. He’s happier about it.

Here’s where I’m stuck though. While I can see how important it is for me to be comfortable with his feelings, to accept them without trying to fix them, I do also want to start helping him understand the concept of resilience. He is a really sensitive boy, and we are raising our boys, 4 and 5, to be caring and empathetic. It’s tough though to try to teach him to be careful with other people’s feelings while at the same time trying to teach him to bounce back when others hurt his feelings. For example, one of his friends at school recently told him that he doesn’t want to be his friend anymore. I held him while he cried about it, told him I understood that he was sad and that his feelings were hurt, but I also wanted to give him advice on how to bounce back from that without making it feel like I was trying to fix the problem or that I was brushing over his sadness. How and when do I move beyond just acknowledging his emotions and taking the next step, giving him tools to overcome these sorts of emotional obstacles?

I hope this makes sense. I really look forward to hearing from you. Thank you so much for all you do.”

Okay, so first of all, thank you for your kind words. Sometimes I forget to say that part, so I want to make sure to let her know that I really appreciate her kind feedback and support. It’s a really important topic, and I believe there are a lot of misunderstandings around it. This mother is really getting it. She’s getting that what her children need when they have feelings is for us to allow those feelings to be and to trust that it’s okay for our child to go to those places.

What happens is, every time children have these experiences and there are millions of them throughout our children’s lives, just in these early years, millions of opportunities for them to learn this important lesson, that there’s times in life when you have feelings. Some of them are painful feelings, and they have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

They pass, and this is something that children can learn as naturally as they learn to walk or talk. They learn to walk, not by us trying to get them walking when they’re two months old, or at any time. They learn to walk because they practice it, they do all the steps that lead to walking, they work on all the different muscles that they need to work on, through rolling, and then belly-crawling, and then crawling, sitting, all of those things that they do lead them to walking naturally.

With language, they learn through our conversations with them. Right from the beginning when they’re infants, we start using words with them, we start talking to them normally, and they learn our language, or whatever languages we expose them to.

The other thing they learn when we allow them to learn naturally is, they learn that we trust them and we believe they can do it. That’s something we can take away from children very easily without meaning to, with being impatient or believing it our job to try to teach them a concept, even like resilience. We can actually end up teaching them the opposite, that they can’t do it on their own, and they need us to make it happen for them. Obviously we don’t want them to learn that. Resilience is all about, “I can handle feeling really down, and when bad things happen, when things happen that hurt my feelings or that frustrate me, it’s okay for me to feel that. Those feelings do pass and I do feel better, and I recover.”

These days there seems to be a lot of information being shared about techniques for calming children down. This can be even trying to hug our child or offer a hug when they’re in the middle of a full-on tantrum. I had this experience in my class the other day with a wonderful mother who’s new to me, and her child, just barely a toddler, was having a tantrum. I was helping to show her how just to let him have these feelings and go through this.

He was already gone. There was really no reaching him, and the mother expressed how hard this was for her because she felt like she was actually ignoring him by not trying to hold him, even though he was flailing all around and was hurting her when he did get close. He was knocking into her and thrusting his head into her chest and under her chin. It was very uncomfortable, but this mother still felt that it was her job, as I think we all do, I mean, I still feel this, it’s something I’m working on everyday to get past, that we are supposed to do something, we’re supposed to make this better, and if we don’t, our child won’t feel that we care about them and are doing the right thing. There’s something unsafe about our child falling apart.

That’s the message our child hears, unfortunately. Our child hears those messages when we’re trying to do the right thing. “You’re not safe, you need me to do this for you.” Do they need our support? Absolutely. They need our support in trusting them and allowing them to have these experiences.

What this mother does learn through her own experiment is that, this does help her child. This is the way that he will learn resilience. The bouncing back that she wants to teach him is something that he is learning organically, and maybe if she wasn’t doing this until recently, and now he’s 5, he may have a little catching up to do to really being comfortable on some level with the pain of life, the age appropriate disappointments he’s going to have and the issues he’s going to have to face, like all children do, like we all do in life. He may need a little more time to bounce back more quickly, but he will do it if she continues on this path of not trying to fix his feelings or turn them around or stop them or change them or shorten them or any of those things, if she really does allow him to go there. That’s a relief in a way, isn’t it, that here’s yet another thing that we don’t have to worry about teaching our child? Our child will learn this.

One thing we can do is model and share our own experiences with resilience, experiences where we felt very upset or sad or were grieving, and how that process felt, how it felt when we got to the other side, and what we did that helped, which is mostly I believe for all of us still, it’s really mostly feeling the feelings and how we felt so much better after we were able to share it with someone or just express it ourselves. That modeling of resilience will be the only teaching that we need to do.

The other part is allowing and trusting, which is very, very hard. I do actually presentations about this, about letting feelings be, because I believe it is our biggest challenge and it is connected to so many different things that are so important to our child, having boundaries, having self-discipline, emotional self-control, resilience, emotional health. In terms of the specifics that this mother is sharing about her son, his friend at school recently told him that he doesn’t want to be his friend anymore, this is a heartbreaking experience, I think even more for a parent than for a child, because as a parent we’re seeing it through a lens of rejection and seeing every boyfriend that rejected us or girlfriend that rejected us, all these adult experiences that we’ve had that were much deeper than a child saying hurtful words to another child, which is really mostly what this is.

When she says, “I held him while he cried about it,” so I would be available for that child to want to hold me, I would not try to hold him. The reason for that is that I don’t want to be saying to my child, “Oh gosh, you need a hug.” Even in that, I’m saying, “This is really bad.” This experience, that he might have actually a different feeling about that’s not at the level that I’m seeing it, hugging our child there can be projecting another level into that, which is digging a deeper hole for our child to go into there than he might.

I would be available but I would wait for my child to make that overture that they want a hug. I would not assume that this is a tragic situation, or a devastating situation anyway. I’m not sure what he said, but I wouldn’t say, “I understand you’re sad and that your feelings are hurt.” I would really only say what I know for sure, so that I’m not, again, pulling him down to another depth. I would say, “Wow, how did that feel? What did you think when he said that?” I would be open to what my child’s impression was, not coming from a place of concern to the extent that I think my child is now, he’s in over his head with something awful. I would be open, I would be interested, I would be inside calming myself so that I could be that person for that child. Calm, unruffled, interested, somebody that he can bounce this situation off of, that he can explore with, without him feeling worried about me, feeling worried about him, or any of that. That’s what I would try to protect against.

I’m not sure what he did show, if he was the one that said, “This makes me really sad,” or if he was crying, then I think I would say, “Oh, it seems you’re upset about that. That was hurtful,” but again, I would let my child lead the way and be the supporter.
Let’s say that he did fall apart over this. In terms of giving him advice on how to bounce back, I love this mother’s sensitivity, that she’s concerned about making him feel like I was trying to fix the problem, yes, that’s all really, really important. If he gave me something specific, maybe he would say, “When I see him tomorrow, I’m going to feel sad.” Then I think I would say, “Yeah, that is going to be hard. Maybe you can even go up and tell him, ‘That was hurtful,’ or maybe you can ask your other friend to go with you and sit with you so that you don’t have to feel alone there.”

There are possibilities, you can throw out things, but he may not need a solution. Chances are very good that he just needs to experience that and see, the next day, that he does survive it. That would be the best thing. Life goes on. The birds still sing, and he sees that there are other children to play with. Just allowing that life to happen. I know this takes a lot of trust, but trust is this very powerful way to give our child all the confidence he needs to navigate — trusting also that if he needs that navigation, he will ask for it.

Resilience is a great topic. It’s one of those things that if we try to force, if we try to make it happen, we actually make it harder for children to attain it, trying to get them to breathe, or whatever. It gets in the way. It takes a natural life event and turns it into a big deal, a big problem. Resilience is not seeing a problem in all the feelings that we experience in life, because we know there’s an end to this, this feeling will pass.

This mother says, “I hope this makes sense,” her note, well, I hope this makes sense, this advice. Thank you so much for listening, and I really hope it helps.

Please check out some of my other podcasts, they’re on my website, JanetLansbury.com, and I’ve written a lot of articles about emotional health and the importance of letting feelings be. You’ll find a lot of that on my website. It’s a favorite topic of mine.

Also, both of my books are available on audio at Audible. No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. Just follow the link in the liner notes of this podcast or go to the book section of my website. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.com.

Also, I have a limited audio series. It’s called “Sessions,” and these sessions are individual recordings of my private consultations with parents, in which they discuss their various parenting issues and we explore them together. These are available by going to SessionsAudio.com. That’s Sessions, plural, audio.com. You can order episodes individually or get them all, about three hours of audio, for just under $20. SessionsAudio.com.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

 

1 Comment

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. To share a story here, my 4-year-old constantly comes home and says, “who-and-who are not being nice to me, they don’t play with me any more, etc.”. I just say, “oh, that can be an issue.

    First, did you do anything that you think upset them?” If the answer is positive, we go from there to try to correct my 4-year-old’s behavior. If the answer is negative, I will say, “what do you like when playing with who-and-who?” Then we go explore alternatives that either solves the issue itself (making them friends again) or finds new ways out.

    Yes, he came home upset, but it is important to teach him how to approach the problem with tactics and strategies, breaking down what exactly is at core and what can be done about it to resolve it or make it better. His feelings at that moment became a specimen for him to examine and analyze, all of a sudden the negative emotions turned into something that sparks curiosity and willingness to tackle the issues at hand.

    Recognizing our kids’ feelings is important, empowering them with tools that we as adults have is also very crucial.

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