Want resilient kids? Here’s what you need to say
You want resilient kids, right? I mean, that’s why you’re here. We ALL hope our kids are going to grow up to be resilient, confident and capable adults. But knowing what to do or say to help our kids develop resilience is not easy. There’s a lot of conflicting and confusing information around. It seems like every day I’m seeing articles talking about “mollycoddling” kids. Wrapping them in cotton wool. The “snowflake” generation. And helicopter parents.
And I can hear parents around the world groaning and rolling their eyes, and thinking, “Great! Here’s one more thing I’m doing wrong.” Right? Because we want to support our kids. Of course we do. We don’t want them to struggle or feel hurt. We want to be there for them. But we also want them to develop independence. Competence. And grit. We want them to be able to manage difficulties when they arise, because this is a part of life. And it’s hard to strike a balance. Sometimes it feels downright impossible. But it isn’t. And you can both support your child AND help them develop independence and resilience.
What is resilience?
Simply put, resilience is our ability to bounce back from difficulties and manage challenges in life. We can’t protect our kids from every difficulty that comes their way. But we can teach them skills that will help them navigate obstacles and manage their emotions so that they can more effectively cope with those challenges when they come up.
If you’re interested in knowing more about exactly what resilience is, and how the brain is involved in the process of building these skills, check out my blog post on building resilient kids here. And if you simply want to know what to say to your child to help them through challenges, I’ve got you covered right here and now, so let’s dive in!
Here are 12 phrases you can say to your child that will help build their resilience. These loosely correspond to the 12 resilience boosting strategies I wrote about in this blog post.
12 phrases that build resilient kids
1. I love you no matter what
Resilience is built through relationships. Perhaps the most important thing we can do to build resilience in our kids, is to love them unconditionally and make sure they know it. When children feel safe, secure and loved, they are able to learn, explore and take risks that help them build resilience and develop effective coping strategies.
2. How do you feel about that?
Resilience is ultimately about the way we manage emotions. It is the ability to experience emotions like disappointment, frustration, anger, or sadness, without being overwhelmed by them. To feel them, process them, and then use them to guide our behaviour, our thinking and our decision making effectively. It is important that we give children the language to identify, label and talk about their emotions, as well as skills for managing them.
3. Let’s take 5 deep breaths together
Mindfulness is a fantastic way to manage emotions. Practicing mindfulness helps to strengthen the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain responsible for logic, decision making, reasoning and planning. When we experience big emotions, our stress response is triggered and we become unable to think clearly. The stronger our prefrontal cortex, the easier it is to switch off that stress response and think rationally again. Next time you notice your child feeling worried or beginning to experience overwhelm, encourage them to practice some mindful breathing with you. I like Take 5 breathing – a simple and effective strategy for kids of any age.
4. What’s your plan?
Resist the urge to immediately jump in with a solution when your child experiences a problem, and instead, encourage them to come up with a solution themselves. Resilient kids are effective problem solvers – they are able to weigh up the pros and cons of a range of possible solutions and choose the one that best fits their situation and circumstances. Every time they solve a problem effectively, children learn that they are capable and they feel more confident to face challenges again in the future. And if their first plan doesn’t succeed? They can ask someone for help.
5. What can I help with?
Resilience is not about coping with difficulties alone – it’s about using effective strategies to manage challenges. Resilient kids know that sometimes that means asking others for help. If you see your child struggling with something which is beyond their capabilities, ask them what you can do to help. We often jump in and ‘rescue’ our children without consulting them first, which can damage their confidence and prevent them from reaching out for help in the future. But offering up your help and then allowing your child to remain in control of how (and whether) you help, lets them know that you are there for them if they need it and that it’s ok to ask for help. It also gives them a positive experience of help seeking, so they are more likely to do it themselves in the future.
6. Do you need to take a break?
Sometimes when we feel frustrated or overwhelmed, we simply need to step away from a situation and take a break so we can think clearly again. If you notice your child getting increasingly frustrated or overwhelmed, check in with them and encourage them to take a short break. Movement is a great way to work through emotions, deactivate the stress response and calm down. Check if your child wants to go for a walk with you, kick a ball around, or even do some jumping jacks! Eventually, they will be able to recognise the signs that they need a break without any reminders from you.
7. Is there a different way to think about this?
When we feel stressed, it is easy to become overwhelmed and stuck in negative patterns of thinking. Kids are the same. They might say things like: I can’t do this, it’s too hard, I never get things right, everyone hates me, I’m not good at this. These kind of thoughts lead to kids feeling more overwhelmed and frustrated. Instead of allowing this to continue, encourage them to have a growth mindset and remind them that they can face (and overcome) challenges, because they’ve done so in the past. So, “I’m not good at this” could become, “I’m not good at this yet.” “It’s too hard” could become, “I’ll get better with practice”, or “This is hard, but I’ve done hard things before”. Every time they practice this kind of self talk, they strengthen the belief that they are someone who is capable and can cope with difficult situations.
8. That looks tricky, but I believe in you
Risk taking is important for the developing brain. Encouraging children to take age appropriate risks provides them with opportunities to learn new skills, feel confident, and practice coping skills. Encourage your child to take risks by acknowledging the difficulty of the situation, but letting them know you believe they can do it. This sends them the message that they are capable and that they can do hard things. And the more they practice taking risks, the stronger their belief in themselves becomes.
9. Do what you can, and I’m right here if you get stuck
Often children are afraid of trying new or challenging things for fear of failing. And if we push them to try things that are too difficult, or that they are still lacking the skills to do alone, they probably will fail. And then they’ll feel even more afraid to try again in the future. But if we allow them to avoid things they find difficult, this also leads to more fear, as they never discover that they can do it! Instead, encourage them to try but let them know you’ll be there to help if they need you. Knowing they have your support, and that you can keep them safe, will give them the confidence they need to approach the challenge.
10. Can you help me with this?
Asking your child for help and allowing them to contribute at any age, helps build their confidence and self esteem. It sends the message that they are a competent, capable and valued member of the team! It is also a great way to model to your child that it is ok to ask for help, and that no one can do everything alone.
11. That was really hard for you, but you did it!
If your child completes something difficult, or has worked hard to achieve a goal – acknowledge it! Often when kids learn something new, adults will say something like, “Wow, you’re a natural!” Or, “How easy was that? You’re so good at that!” But these comments are dismissive of the effort that went into learning the task. When we acknowledge the difficulty of a task, and the hard work that went into completing it, we help to strengthen our child’s self belief and their view of themselves as someone who can do hard things and overcome obstacles!
12. I feel really frustrated right now, so I’m going to…
Modelling resilience for your child is one of the most important things you can do to help them develop it themselves. As adults we often believe we should hide our “negative” emotions from children. This is not the case. Talk about your emotions in front of your child often, but be sure to demonstrate effective methods of managing them at the same time. This will help them learn that everyone (even grown ups) face challenges but there are many things they can do to overcome them.
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.