Written by Dr. Shannon Odell, clinical psychologist in Lake Oswego, Oregon.
We’re excited to welcome you to a new series from child psychologist Shannon Odell. Doctor Odell is here to help us debunk, navigate, and normalize the challenges of those teenage years that many of our kids are facing.
One of the new buzzwords in child and adolescent development is the concept of resilience. We all want to raise children who are resilient, or who can bounce back from difficult situations, because resilient children inevitably become resilient adults. Over the last 10 years, there has been a large increase in children and adolescents who struggle with mental health issues, largely either an anxiety or depressive disorder, suggesting that maybe we’re not doing the best at instilling resilience in our kids. The increase in these disorders is a complicated issue, and it has far more to do with being able to bounce back from adversity, but incorporating some parenting strategies that foster and facilitate resilience can be an important buffer from the stress that can ultimately lead to mental health disorders. Please remember that sadness is normal, and anxiety is normal, especially in response to stress. But when they’re so sad or so anxious that they can’t go about their normal lives, it’s time to get them some help.
One of the primary reasons why our kids aren’t learning resilience is because of one factor that we can place squarely on our shoulders as parents: to build resilience, we have to let them fail. We do not like it when our kids fail! We don’t want them to experience that heartache! We want them to feel successful all the time, so we try to hand pick situations where they won’t fail, or we interfere with a less-than-desired outcome by emailing teachers or whoever it might be that can turn the failure into a success because our kids feeling successful all the time is ultimately what leads to success, right? Wrong. If we look back on our experiences, I would bet that for a majority of us the most enriching times in our lives, the times when we learned the most about ourselves and became stronger, weren’t during good times. We grew through the adversity, through the struggle, through the hardship. In every single one of our lives, there was a time when we expected one thing, and then something else happened, and we had to deal with it. The more practice we have at adapting, the better we are at it.
And so, to build resilience in our children, we have to let them fail. We have to let them get the C, or the D, or the F (or in some cases the B: failure means different things to different kids). We have to let them try out for the play they might not get into, or audition for the dance team that exceeds their skill level. WHEN they fail (not if, it’s a matter of time for all of us), here are some tips for building resilience
- VALIDATE!! Always always always validate their feelings. Make room for the negative emotions like hurt, disappointment, sadness, and shame. Don’t shy away from these feelings, don’t try to make them immediately feel better, this lets them know it’s OKAY to feel bad! Caution: the heat of the moment is not the time to talk about larger life lessons, what they could have done differently to prevent the outcome, or how much they’ll grow from this experience. Now is the time to let them know you see them suffering, and any emotions they feel are okay.
- Make sure they know they are loved, no matter what. Do this often, but especially after a failure. Knowing someone is crazy about them, success or failure, acts as a giant buffer for stress.
- Focus on consistency. Bedtime is still the same, homework still needs to get done, chores still need to be completed, Friday is still pizza and movie night, etc. Consistency through stress is a sign that the world keeps on spinning and no matter how bad things get, I can count on my home life to stay stable. It’s a calming message (though the pushback will likely be big and loud).
- Try not to let them disappear into their phones or allow them to isolate or too long. Disappearing into their phones means they’re escaping from feelings they probably need to grapple with, and isolating themselves isn’t what’s best for them in that moment.
- When you can, after the storm has passed, narrate what you observed. Putting the entire event into a verbal “story” can have the effect of helping kids feel more in control, and it’s in these in-between times that they’ll be more open to learn from what happened. Here’s an example of what I mean:
“When you got the D on your math test, I saw you were really sad and frustrated, and maybe even kind of ashamed. It’s so hard when we expect one thing to happen, and then something else happens instead. Then I saw something really amazing. I saw you try to calm down and get through those tough emotions by taking a shower, and then it seemed like you felt calm enough to come talk with me about it. And I’m so glad you did, because your feelings are really important to me, and it gave me a chance to remind you that I love you no matter what. Knowing you, you’ve probably already beat yourself up for all the things you didn’t do that you feel like you should have, and I think that’s really normal in a situation like this. Please know that I’m always here to help if you need me, and you don’t have to figure it out alone.”
A lot of this language can be awkward at first, especially if it’s not usually how you talk to your kids. But letting them know that they matter, their feelings matter to you, and that you can contain whatever negative emotions they might be experiencing, helps them to feel safer, more in control, and that they can get through the stress. And that is what ultimately builds resilience.