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The Secret to Raising a Resilient Kid

The ability to bounce back is more important now than ever; here’s how to impart it

In my early teens, my dad took myself, my best friend and our neighbor on a grueling backpacking trip connecting California’s Yosemite Valley to Half Dome to nearby Clouds Rest mountain and back again.

By the second day — halfway up Clouds Rest, on wobbly legs and besieged by mosquitoes — we finally mutinied. The three of us made it clear to my father that we were done. Nobody had heard of Clouds Rest and nobody had the juice to see the top.

“OK, I understand,” I remember Dad saying. “You guys stay here. Erik, let’s go.”

There was no point arguing. Even today, my only memory of the top of Clouds Rest is the blue sky I saw flat on my back, panting and praying for a speedy death. Later, of course, I described the hike as an epic victory of teenager over nature. Which, I suspect, is why my dad pushed me to do it.

Whether he knew it or not, Dad was a big believer in the concept of resilience, the ability to engage with a challenge, risk or impediment, and come out the other side with some measure of success. It’s a psychological principle blending optimism, flexibility, problem-solving and motivation. It’s the job you got through pure determination, the game you eked out against a far better team or the mountaintop that made you want to strangle your father. Dad called it “character.”

“It is about the ability to bounce back even when times get tough. But that implies it’s only about survival,” said Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, a pediatrician and the author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’s book “Building Resilience in Children and Teens.” “Resilient people not only bounce back, but also thrive in the best of times.”

Never has resilience — be it physical, mental, emotional or financial — been more important to our society than in the past year and a half, and never have I been so determined to pass it on to my son. He may not climb mountains, but life will always have a disaster, disappointment or pandemic to throw his way. If he can’t roll with the punches, his life will be very, very hard.

Thankfully, most experts say resiliency is something that can be fostered, nurtured and developed in children from a very young age. You just have to build a safe foundation, find challenges and watch kids thrive.

 

Build a stable, safe foundation.

Creating resilience in children isn’t just chucking them into the deep end of a pool to see if they can swim, it’s about the bedrock of support you give them every day.

“Having a relationship with a caring parent is far and away the most powerful protective factor for children,” said Ann Masten, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota and a pioneer in the study of resiliency in children.

Children need to feel they have a stable home base before they can take risks and learn to bounce back. If a child skins her elbow falling off a bike, the best way to help her get back on is to make sure she knows she’s loved no matter what.

Dr. Masten said resilience is less a specific trait and more a network of overlapping ones, like flexibility, confidence and even societal supports, like health care and schooling. But the crucial part is that children feel safe and supported. In order to weather a storm, you need a solid shelter.

 

Model behaviors for your kid.

Part of teaching your child to be resilient is first projecting resilience yourself.

“You’re on a plane, there’s turbulence — you don’t look at the guy next to you who’s hysterical,” Dr. Ginsburg said. “You look at the flight attendants, to see if they’re still serving snack mix.”

Losing your temper when a child refuses to go to sleep, breaks your grandmother’s heirloom teapot or just freaking can’t get out the door in the morning, only tells him that it’s useful to have a fit when something goes wrong.

It can be hard, especially when you know he’s misbehaving, but regulating your own emotions goes a long way to teaching your child to do the same.

“You are always teaching by how you handle things yourself,” Dr. Masten said. “What parents do when they get upset, their kids are observing that.”

 

Make the most of small challenges. If you put the word “resilience” on a poster, it would probably be under a photo of someone climbing a mountain, fighting a forest fire or perhaps tending to patients in a Covid ward. But, in fact, it’s the small disappointments or frustrating moments that truly build resilience.

Let’s say your child comes home from school with an “F” in math, and you know he didn’t work hard on that assignment. Rather than making it clear you think he’s lazy, focus on cause and effect — he didn’t study and was thus unprepared — and how he can do better next time. Cause and effect can be controlled, and having a sense of control is a core element of resilience.

 

Help your child stretch herself.

Once a kid feels safe, supported and has a good model of resilience, it’s time to challenge her a little.

For Tyler Fish, resilience is a delicate balance between success and failure. Mr. Fish works for the outdoor education company Outward Bound, helping set educational priorities for, say, youth backpacking, dog-sledding or canoeing trips across the world. A 25-year veteran of the company and former instructor, he said that resilience is a principle that helps them change the lives of kids from all kinds of backgrounds.

“It’s not just about being tough — that’s not resiliency,” Mr. Fish said. “It’s about doing things that you’re not sure you can do. And with other people.”

When teaching canoeing, for instance, he starts by putting a kid into a boat to see if she can figure it out. Then, after a little frustration, he gives some instruction and lets her try again. Then he repeats the cycle, so that she can balance success and failure. It’s the same for other lessons, like making friends, teamwork or leadership.

“One of the great skills of parenting is knowing how to challenge, when to challenge, how much to challenge,” Dr. Masten said. “There’s no one right way to foster resilience, just like there’s no one right way to parent.”

Three weeks ago I had a perfect opportunity to teach resilience to my 5-year-old son. We had reserved a campground in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park about four miles from the trailhead. I thought about my dad, and those mornings picking rocks out of oatmeal after two days on the trail.

When we arrived, we learned that the next 48 hours would be plagued with thunderstorms, downpours and even a flood warning. We could trudge for hours through the rain, set up a miserable camp and shiver in the tent to get warm — what a fantastic opportunity to build resilience!

But those treasured trips of my youth, my wife reminded me, were in my teens and our kindergartner just wants to be on vacation with his parents. So we canceled the hike, went to the zoo and spent a night in a nice hotel watching a superhero movie. We’ll save the downpour death march for another time. Teaching resilience, it seems, has its limits.

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