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Raising Resilient Children

Raising Resilient Children

How do we help our children feel safe when the world feels so unsafe?


From the moment a parent holds their newborn in their arms the overwhelming weight of their child's incredible dependency and vulnerability presses in on them. As parents today we are especially informed, perhaps over-informed, of the dangers of our modern world. So much so, that our parenting has been nick-named parenting in the age of anxiety. The question then becomes, how do we help our children feel safe when the world feels so unsafe?

Some parents respond to this question by attempting to create a hermetically sealed world, a perfect parenting bubble that will keep their children safe from harm. This is the classic response of the over-protective parent. Yet psychologists know that the most over-protective parents do not in turn create the strongest and healthiest children. If anything, like hot house flowers, these over-protected children begin to wilt upon confronting the real world. Whether that confrontation comes in adolescence or even in adulthood, these "protected" children are uniquely unprepared to cope with the realities of life's challenges.

Our goal as parents is not to create a perfect world for our children, but rather to empower our children to deal with the world that exists beyond our doorstep. From the age of five year olds, and perhaps even younger, our children will find themselves in a school setting. Often they are expected to deal with bullies and other complicated social dynamics that unnaturally promote some children over others. How can we ensure our children thrive during their school-age years and beyond? We need to teach them how to cope by teaching them problem solving skills and then praising their fledging attempts at confronting and solving life's problems. I was in the park with my five-year old daughter who was showing off by standing on the moving swing and jumping off in mid-air. At one point she slipped, and I saw her lying face-down on the ground terrified while the swing continued to travel wildly overhead. Even as my body tensed to jump up and run to her rescue -- I would grab the swing, and pull her to safety -- my eye detected a slight movement. She was slithering forward on her stomach, carefully guiding herself to safety.

If I could control my own need to rush in and play the savior, I would be able to use this moment to build her identity as a resilient person.

Thankfully I recognized the moment for what it was. She was coping, slowly, fearfully, but coping. If I could control my own need to rush in and play the savior, I would be able to use this moment to build her identity as a resilient person, a person who copes when life throws you a curveball. I sat there, physically restraining myself from running to her. She was dealing with the danger in her own way, and this opportunity to emerge with a sense of her own competence and self-protective skills was far too precious to be lost.

When she had cleared the swing, she jumped up and ran to me. Rather than comforting her and re-enforcing her sense of self as the victim of a bad experience, I praised her. How cleverly she acted. How carefully she guided herself to safety. How I see that she knows not only how to swing, but also how to be safe, even when she falls off. My response helped her to feel competent and strong, rather than weak and vulnerable. She ran back to the swings.

I am not advocating abandoning our children and forcing them to cope prematurely with developmentally inappropriate experiences. I am not advocating teaching coping by throwing them into a pool and demanding, "Now swim!" Rather I am advocating a system of watch, wait, and listen. When you see your child confronted with a challenge, ask yourself if it is something they can handle alone, not because you are too busy to help, but rather in order to build their identity as a person with coping skills, a person with resilience.

The Talmud teaches that a father has an obligation to teach his children to swim. The reference is understood to mean that parents must teach survival skills, and not only Torah, to their children. In our generation we know that the socio-emotional journey of moving through life is fraught with challenges. Yet while we know more than ever about the psychological after-effects of these challenges, we seem to know less than ever about the art of dealing with them.

Be on the look-out for moments when your child initiates a process of coping. During those moments, if you think the challenge is developmentally appropriate, hold on tight to yourself, and pray, because this is a moment when your child can learn not only to survive, but also to thrive.

December 15, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 6

(5) SALIL KUMAR, April 27, 2014 11:09 AM

delay in speaking

my daughter is 5 and half years, not talking properly, only utter single words,

(4) Tochi, September 18, 2013 11:45 PM

I am hooked!

I am learning so much, surely my children will be better off>

(3) Reut, December 18, 2007 1:35 PM

Thank you for this article. It is something so important for all adults involved with a child to keep in mind. You made your point clearly, and your example really helped me understand the idea better. I hope to keep this in mind with my young students.

(2) Emily, December 16, 2007 10:29 AM

Makes a lot of sense

Thanks for the article. One reason it is hard to foster a child's sense of self reliance and resilience is that the mother gets her own psychological rewards from rushing to the rescue.

(1) ruth housman, December 16, 2007 10:03 AM

survive and thrive

As parents we are constantly forced to make difficult parenting decisions. It's our job. At least our job when we take this biggest job of all seriously. There are always going to be times we are caught in that indecisive moment, to let the child find out for themselves or to exert our "greater" judgment, especially when we perceive the danger signals. It is a balancing act requiring the judgment of a King Solomon. Sometimes we do the right thing in holding back and at other times we live to regret allowing the child to cross that street themselves. We are none of us blessed with perfect insight about how to do this best. I do agree there are these issues and they present constantly. We bumble through, knowing we aren't perfect and that life is a constant balancing act, a game of see and saw, that proverbial seesaw that is for all children and all adults, in all playgrounds of the world

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