Building Resilient Youth

Resiliency is a trait that we are all born with. Babies display different levels of hardiness from birth. Babies that should thrive, sometimes do not. Other times, fragile infants beat the odds and live. People are also born with an innate disposition; some are born with a more flexible outgoing personality that allows for a natural buffer through life challenges. The natural resiliency varies in all people, but it is not the whole story. Our starting point is just that. People build their resiliency, or procoping strategies by life experiences, practice, and trying new techniques. It is easy to say that resiliency training is not needed or that it is another wasted training when things are going well in a person’s life, but resiliency strategies are very difficult to learn during moments of the big stressors (or body slams) in life. The only way to build the most resilient adults is to start early in life and through continuous practice and education.

Practice with exposure to real world stressors and setbacks begin in childhood. While some parents might think that sheltering children from stressors or that by swooping in to save children from the repercussions of their choices, they are being a good paren. The reality is that children need to be taught through smaller events that life isn’t always fair and that there are consequences to behaviors and choices. Those small stressors and setbacks help a child develop deeper roots of resiliency so that they are able to withstand bigger storms later.

Remember the Biosphere in Arizona? The idea was that the enclosed structure would be self-sustaining for ten years. After a little more than two years, the project had to be abandoned because the plants and trees died. Essentially, plants and trees need the wind and the rain and the weather extremes to develop deep lasting roots. The minor storms help the roots reach deeper which makes the plants and trees strong enough to stand through the bigger storms. People are the same. They need practice and smaller events to learn how they respond in times of set-backs, challenges, loss, or conflict.

Parents can provide that base for their children in many ways. The first step is in sending the message that the child matters and that the parent believes in them no matter what. Consider for a second that when an infant comes into the world, every parent has hopes and dreams for this baby. School starts. As every kindergarten parent can attest to, parents flock to the school for validation on how great their child is. Go to a high school open house. Very few parents are in attendance. Often there comes a point when the parent feels like the child doesn’t need or want the parent involvement or the parent becomes weary of hearing all of the negatives about their child. Maybe the parent is worn out and maybe the child has grown into a hard to manage teenager. The child needs to know that even if they make a mistake that the parent believes in him/her no matter what and that one mistake will not define the belief and love a parent has in the child. In other words, the parent does not keep reminding their child of the failure.

When I taught high school English, I found that the most successful students had parents that showed up for the conferences, held their children accountable for missing assignments, and they watched over the projects that were due. They did not do the assignments, but they provided materials, check-ups on the status, and discussions on the project. Two small actions that I passed on to many people was something I did for my children: I checked Infinite Campus once a week so I had a pulse on where my children were in any given class. I could monitor tardiness and absences, also. The second thing is that my children knew that they could get any grade in any given class if they turns in every assignment and did whatever they could do extra for their grade. They knew that if they had an A in a class with missing assignments, there would be accountability.

Another way to foster resiliency in youth is to give them chores that must be done because they are a member of the family. These chores are based on the idea that every member of the family lives here and every member must make a meaningful contribution to the house.
Lastly, children need help learning to deal with disappointments, setbacks, and loss. All of us suffer from these at different levels, but the idea is to expose them to minor events before the more major body slams happen. Children need to see how we deal with the minor setbacks versus being sheltered and they need to live the consequences to the choices they make. Often, we as parents want to fix the conflicts, the setbacks, or the consequences to the choices our children make. For a child to learn to fix conflicts, they need role playing, talking it through, and practice. For a child to learn about loss, they need help discussing death or loss of a friendship, and they need to practice with smaller losses like the death of a pet. For a child to learn to deal with consequences, they need coached and helped with negotiation at a young age. Giving a child simple choices and encouraging them to use their words, helps them develop negotiation and relationship flexibility later in life.

Parents have a critical role in helping to foster resilient adults. Recognizing that we all are given one chance to parent a child with no do-overs, the intentionality must be present and developed. Our own resiliency is part of the equation. When we model resiliency in our daily life by our choices, life style, and words, our children are developing their own resiliency. While children are born with different levels of resiliency, it is only part of the story. The biggest component of resiliency is in what comes next—exposure, practice, and belief in a person is what leads to a resilient adult who can weather the storms.

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