Prosilience #9: Building Resilient Kids
Some simple steps to help kids (and grownups!) lay the foundations of resilience
Resilience is a verb. We use a set of tools, skills, and mindsets to “resilience” our way through life’s challenges. The list of potential contributors to resilience is long. Where do we start to build our capability?
Today I’d like to share some thoughts and resources from a parent talk I gave on building resilient kids1 that inspired me to step back and think about the very basic first steps.
The Prosilience model describes four building blocks of resilience2. I’ve chosen one foundational skill for each of these building blocks, and have put together some practical advice for how parents, teachers, and community members can work with kids around each of them.
Self-regulation is a term used in psychology and in the social/emotional learning (SEL) world to describe how people can recognize when they're feeling disrupted and take steps to return to a place of calm. This is a very important skill for slowing or interrupting negative “symptom spirals.”
Research suggests that humans have three levels of response that we use to approach the world. At the highest level we're feeling safe and connected; this is the space in which we are able to learn and grow. This is the level that allows kids to fully participate in education, put their best into learning, and stay actively engaged. When we start to feel danger, we move into a second level in which our bodies and brains are mobilized for action—this is often called the “fight or flight” zone. If we feel in imminent life-threatening danger, however, we move into a third zone where we physically collapse and/or psychologically “check out”—just as an animal that is being pursued or threatened by another might do what we think of as “playing dead.”3
We move back and forth between these zones—threats to our self-esteem, conflict, and other stressors can move us down the ladder; as we notice this happening and take steps to move back up, we are better able to resolve issues, deal with problems, and return to a state of openness and connection.
Helping Kids Learn to Self-Regulate
Model it—be able to regulate yourself when you get disrupted.
Provide opportunities for co-regulation (hanging out with well-regulated people and having the experience of feeling safe and connected).
Teach them to recognize and use words to describe their internal state—do I have a knot in my stomach? Am I feeling tense? Angry? Happy? Help them talk about what they are feeling, and develop a language of emotions.
Listen to what they say—view their responses neutrally and with curiosity rather than judgment. Try to understand what’s going on. Rather than saying something like: “stop that crying; be a big girl and pull yourself together,” say “it looks like you’re feeling scared; can you tell me about it?”
Help them engage in calming activities—being in nature, listening to music, moving around, healthy touch (holding hands, etc.) One particularly effective strategy is breathing. Here’s a short, cute video I found:
Self-regulation is the foundation for all the other resilience skills. Practice in cycling through the process of disruption, dysregulation, and regulation helps kids learn how to move up into the zone where they can meet challenges most effectively.
Many of us assume that everyone else sees the world pretty much the same way that we do—humans are a bit egocentric that way. Perspective-taking is about being able to recognize that there are other points of view and to think about what those might be. This is a very important skill for developing relationships, as it enables empathy—being able to understand and connect with what someone else is feeling. It’s also very useful for the resilience technique of reframing—being able to look at a situation in a different way that offers more possibilities and hope.4
Once we get the idea in our heads that there might be more than one way to view something, we have a tool we can use in many situations. For example, a kid who can think “well, I’m seeing this airplane trip as a scary thing, but maybe I could see it as exciting” has taken the first step to mastering new and unfamiliar experiences.
Helping Kids Learn Perspective-Taking
Describe and label your own emotions—”I’m feeling really frustrated right now because I can’t get this computer to work”; “I am so sad…I really miss my grandmother at Thanksgiving”; “I am so excited! I just learned that I got an interview for a job I’m really interested in.”
Point out someone else’s emotions—noticing someone who appears joyful, or sad, or angry—and ask the kid what they think the person is feeling, and why they might be feeling that way.
Use characters in books and movies to start a discussion. “Why do you think Peter Rabbit sneaked into Mr. McGregor’s garden?”
As kids get older you can go beyond helping them build a mental representation of others’ thoughts and feelings, and help them understand how to use this information in useful ways. “What do you think might make them feel better?” “Can you draw a picture of what you think the world would look like through the eyes of that little girl?” You can also begin to explore how different cultures, life experiences, and historical influences might lead people to see the world differently.
Being able to see the same situation from multiple perspectives supports multiple elements of resilience. Here are some additional perspective-taking resources to explore:
Psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues have articulated two mindsets that people use to explain how humans operate: fixed and growth. The fixed mindset views humans as having a fundamental and relatively stable core set of skills and abilities that we are born with. The growth mindset focuses on the human ability to learn, grow, and change. Research suggests that the two mindsets lead to different perspectives on performance and dealing with failures and setbacks.
A person applying the fixed perspective to themselves or others tends to interpret challenging tasks as opportunities to “prove” one’s strength, and sees errors and performance gaps as evidence that a person is lacking some element of intelligence or skill. In contrast, a person applying the growth perspective sees challenging tasks as opportunities to learn from experience, and views errors and performance gaps as information that can be used to improve future strategies. Although there certainly is a level at which each of us is born with unique strengths and capabilities, the last few decades have surfaced a huge amount of evidence of neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to form new connections and pathways through experience.
While it sounds obvious that a growth mindset is likely to be more useful in responding with resilience to various challenges, there are a lot of things in our culture and education system that subtly reinforce a fixed mindset. For example, people often make the inference that people who get high grades in school are smarter than those who get lower grades, and place little attention on how the individuals are learning and growing. As an adult, I had to work hard to let go of the belief that I had to do everything perfectly to prove how capable I was and focus more on the endless process of learning and growth.
Helping Kids Develop a Growth Mindset
Pay attention to the language you use to describe people. Instead of saying “you are so smart,” say “you worked really hard to solve that problem”; try to avoid labels like “he’s not very good at math.”
Model a growth mindset. When you encounter a challenge, instead of saying “this is too hard,” say “this is really hard for me…I guess I’d better keep practicing.”
Introduce and reinforce the idea that the brain can become stronger and develop new connections through practice.
Point out areas in which a child has developed new perspectives and skills, and draw attention to the process of learning from experience including mistakes and failures.
Introduce one magic word: YET! There’s a big difference between “I can’t do that” and “I can’t do that YET.”
Here’s an adorable Sesame Street video about the power of “yet”:
When kids learn that they can get better at things through practice, it lays the foundation for learning about their “resilience muscles” and continuing to strengthen their ability to deal with a wide range of challenges.
Here are some additional resources related to the growth mindset:
Carol Dweck Growth Mindset TEDx Talk (10 minutes)
Energy fuels resilience. We use physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy to work our way through challenges.5 When we encounter long-term challenges, or multiple challenges that overlap, our energy supply can become depleted. When that happens we have a harder time recovering, and can get into downward spirals that result in mental health issues and other negative outcomes. Teaching kids to be aware of their energy and showing them how to protect, replenish, and build it can help them sustain well-being over the long haul.
Spoons (chronic illness and mental health)
Helping Kids Learn to Manage Energy
Be a good role model. Manage your own energy well, with time for self-care and replenishment. Show them that it’s OK to say “no” to things and to set personal boundaries.
Bring awareness to the idea of energy as a resource. A simple conversation about how full or empty a child’s energy “bucket” feels can be helpful. For older kids and adults, looking separately at the categories of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy can lead to rich discussions. A metaphor such as “spoons” can be helpful as well.
Introduce activities that will help them build stronger supplies of energy in each area. For example:
Physical: rest, activity, nutrition
Mental: challenges and puzzles, reflective time, analysis
Emotional: naming feelings, experiencing frustration, journaling, artistic expression
Spiritual: community connection, volunteering, religious practices
The final thought I’ll share with you here is that resilience develops through challenge and recovery. Doing what we can to make sure that kids are not broken by challenges that greatly exceed their ability to cope, and that they get appropriate help and support for dealing with traumatic experiences, is part of our responsibility as adults. However, seeking to remove all challenges from a child’s path reduces opportunities for learning. It’s important for kids to fall down, to experience frustration, to deal with unpleasant people, and to do things that feel scary. We need to practice standing back and remaining supportive without trying to fix everything, and then to honor and celebrate the growth that comes from difficult experiences.
These stepping stones—self-regulation, perspective-taking, growth mindset, and energy management—are some of the basic tools I think our kids need to build a strong foundation of resilience.6 And it’s probably not a bad idea to strengthen them in ourselves as well.
2: Choosing Strategies
3: Solving Problems
4: Managing Energy
This is actually a misnomer, as it implies that the animal is doing it on purpose. In fact, it’s an automatic neurobiological response.