Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship, and growing resilience provides a perfect opportunity.
Resilience is the ability to overcome challenges and adversities. You can often see resilience when people are able to thrive despite having many challenges to overcome. Having a loving and consistent relationship with a trusted adult grows resilience in children.1 Other ways to build children’s strength to handle challenges is to help them identify their strengths and to form a strong sense of identity including pride in their cultural or racial heritage.
No matter how many positive supports a child has in their life, however, too much adversity can have long-term negative effects on development. Reducing serious adversities from children’s lives is the best way to keep them healthy.2
Throughout the early years, children are facing developmentally appropriate challenges and learning whether or not an adult can be trusted to be there for them when needed. For example, when a one-year-old cries, seeing that one of their important adults is there — paying attention and assuring them that everything is ok — gives the child a sense that it is ok to approach a challenge.
We all face challenges to being resilient. As your child is developing, it is important that they can turn to you to figure out when a challenge is the right size for them and how to overcome feeling scared, hurt, or excluded. Resilience means being willing to face a right-sized challenge even if a challenging experience in the past was difficult to overcome.
The steps below include specific, practical strategies to prepare you to grow resilience and build a relationship with your child that includes reliable and unconditional support and love.
Your child’s openness to engage in manageable challenges and recover from difficult experiences are essential to developing lifelong resilience. You can begin by exposing your child to challenges that are just the right size for them, offer just enough support for them to know they can trust you, and help them recognize and feel a sense of success and empowerment when they master the experience.
Today, in the short term, resilience can create
- opportunities for your child to have new experiences;
- a sense of confidence that your child can manage a certain level of difficulty; and
- a strong connection between the two of you as you navigate these challenges together and triumph in successes.
Tomorrow, in the long term, helping your child develop resilience
- develops a sense of safety, security, and a belief in self;
- provides a firm foundation for exploration, learning, and speaking up;
- prepares your child for handling inevitable unexpected challenges in life;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
This five-step process helps you and your child grow resilience together. It also builds important critical life skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
One-year-olds may use babbling, single words, and crying to communicate with you. Despite your child’s emerging ability to use words, continue to pay close attention to their facial expressions, movements, and sounds in order to work on understanding what they are trying to communicate. Your efforts to learn from your child build trust and create empathetic interactions that let them know that you are interested in what they are thinking.
Understanding what your child is thinking and feeling will make a big difference for setting the stage for resilience. Your child will give you lots of cues about whether a challenge feels too big or too small for them. Every child is different, and your own child may change from day-to-day in how willing they are to take on challenges and to be resilient when those experiences become difficult.
You are the person that will know your child’s cues better than anyone else, and you will be able to anticipate if talking to someone new, trying a new food, having a new childcare provider, or another experience is right for today. Is your child feeling particularly tired? Did they just get hurt or are they hungry? Knowing how they are doing and what their facial expressions and body language mean will help you decide if a challenge is the right size for your child, right now.
In paying attention and noting small differences in your child’s cries, body language, and speaking, you
- show them that they can trust you to notice how they feel;
- let them know that you will help them to face challenges;
- will help them to advocate for themselves if something feels like too much for right now or if they need more support;
- tell them that they can trust you to help them gain a sense of what experiences are right for risk-taking and which ones are not; and
- deepen your ability to communicate with one another.
- Help your child notice their own cues so they can develop self-awareness and learn to trust their own feelings. This includes describing and naming the pride they may feel when they have gotten through a challenging situation. Pointing out the resilience that they demonstrate will help them notice it and know it is there when the next challenge arises.
- Each time your child expresses any big feeling, be sure and name it: “You seem angry” or “You seem happy.” This builds their feelings vocabulary adding to their self-awareness and ability to manage their feelings. As you react to your child, you will find they will feel a greater sense of your understanding and responsiveness so that your interactions become more two-way instead of one-way.
- When reading books, look at the images of children or animals and guess the feelings. You could say, “I think the little bear is happy to see his friends. He has a smile on his face.”
- If your child is feeling unsure about how others are feeling — or buried in their own feelings — help them by sharing what you think others are feeling. You could say: “I wonder if she feels happy because her friend shared the toys. Do you think she feels happy?” Or, “I think that person might be feeling angry because their face is red and their eyebrows are scrunched up. Do you think they feel angry?”
- Practicing naming feelings will enable your child to identify their own feelings as well as others and seek support when they need it.
Grow your own resilience by creating a plan for calming down. Research shows that children cry less when their caregiver is less stressed. Secure your child’s safety, then close your eyes, and breathe deeply. Crying creates stress in adults so be sure and take breaks when you need them.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, there is a lot to learn about understanding your child’s rhythms, temperaments, and needs. Because of all this learning, you will make mistakes and even poor choices. How you handle those moments can determine how you help build your child’s resilience. Offering yourself the grace and permission to not be perfect can ease your anxiety in responding to your child’s needs. Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your child is going through.3
- 12-18-month-olds will respond to their name and may use 5 to 10 words. They are starting to combine words with gestures and starting to follow simple directions and remember recent events and actions. They may feel uneasy when separated from their loved ones.
- 18-24-month-olds can understand 10 times more than they can speak, are starting to respond to questions, can point to familiar objects and people in pictures, and are starting to follow two-step directions. They are also starting to want to try things on their own.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Use your tone of voice and facial expression to help your child celebrate when they have gotten through a change such as a new child care arrangement, sleeping in a new place, trying a new food, and so on.
- Model resilience while interacting with your child. Modeling resilience can be one of the greatest teaching tools.
- Share the focus. As you spend time with your child, follow their lead. As they pick up new toys or explore a different part of the room, notice, and name what they are exploring.4
- Notice gestures and listen for thought and feeling. Attempt to figure out what your child is trying to tell you through their sounds, gestures, and facial expressions. When they are expressing a feeling on their face or through their body, name it. “I noticed your face is red and your mouth is frowning. You look angry.”
- Children require your attention to thrive. So, why not build a special time into your routine when you are fully present to listen to what your child has to tell you? Turn off your phone. Set a timer if needed. Then, notice your body language. Ask yourself, “What is my body communicating, and how am I demonstrating that I’m listening?”
- Read and “pretend play” together.
- During reading time, select a book of faces to help your child learn to identify the different feelings of other children. Point out what you notice and how you can tell what each child is feeling. Be sure to point out moments that children successfully overcome difficulties.
- After reading a story together, act out what feelings look like together. “First she looked sad (make a sad face) and then she got help and looked happier (make a happy face).”
- Share your thoughts and feelings. Talk about what you notice, how you are feeling, why you are feeling it, and what signs you are giving even when it’s not comfortable. “I did not expect this room to be so messy. I don’t know how we are going to be able to clean it up before our friends arrive. This big mess is making me feel very worried. Maybe I will start to feel better after we put your blocks into the bin. Can you help too? I am sure we can handle this big mess if we work together.”
- Talk aloud about the ways in which you respond to your own big feelings: “It made me feel so much better to tell you how I was feeling and to ask for help.”
Establish a routine for both you and your child to calm down when frustrations or upset arise. What will you say? For example, “I need to calm down.” What will you do? Keep tools at hand such as a calming app, gentle music, a sound machine, stuffed friends, and soft blankets.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Grow Resilience, and Develop Habits
Your daily routines are opportunities for you and your child to practice new vital skills if you seize those chances. With practice, your child will improve over time as you give them the chance with support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child works hard toward a goal or demonstrates belief in themselves.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy – a child’s sense that they can do a task successfully. This leads to confidence. It helps them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning.
To grow resilience, it is important to practice noticing feelings, engaging in just-right-sized challenges, noticing the trusted adults that are always there to help, and remembering the child’s strengths including pride in their own culture that can help them get through challenging situations.
- Your child will thrive with a predictable daily routine. Calmly managing interruptions to that routine will build resilience. Help your child learn their daily routine and point out moments when the routine will change. “Tomorrow, we will be traveling! We will be traveling during your nap time, but you can sleep in the car when you are tired.”
- Retell your story of overcoming a change in routine. “Do you remember when we traveled to grandma’s house last weekend? Traveling during nap time was different for us, and we did it!”
- Narrate your day as you go about your household chores or run errands. This narration fosters connection with your child and provides lots of opportunities to share how to overcome challenges.
- Use your child’s dolls or stuffed animals to act out moments of resilience-building. This is a good way to practice facing really big challenges that your child might be experiencing or about to experience, such as a move, a new baby in the family, or a major medical situation. You can name the feelings that the doll might feel and come up with some strategies to help the doll feel stronger to face the challenge. Should the doll take a breath and ask for help? Should the doll bring something that will make them feel better? Does the doll have special skills that can help them in this moment?
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve shown your child that you can be trusted to be there when they need you. Your child is learning to notice when they feel worry, fear, or stress when encountering new situations. Together, you brainstorm ways to get through a challenge and recognize the pride and success of feeling resilient.
Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, and coaching. This support tells your child that you see the challenge they are facing, and you are here to support them. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Learn about your child’s development. Each new age presents different challenges. Being informed about your child’s developmental milestones offers you guidance on appropriate challenges.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like: “I noticed that you were nervous about having to nap in a different room, but you did it. I love seeing that.”
- On days with extra challenges when you can see your child is scared of new people or situations, offer confidence in your child’s ability to face the new. In a gentle, non-public way, you can say, “You tried something like this before, and it was fun. It’s OK to try this.”
- Actively reflect on how your child is feeling when approaching challenges. You can offer reflections like: “You seem worried. I will hold your hand and we can do it together.” Offering comfort when facing new situations can help your child gain a sense of security and face them rather than backing away.
- You can also offer comfort items to help your child face new challenges. “Would your bear help you feel better?” Bring a comfort item with you as you face new challenges.
Don’t move on quickly if your child shows interest in a new person. Children often need more time to adjust with new individuals. Be sure to wait long enough for your child to warm up to the new person. Your waiting could make all the difference in whether they are able to gain relationship skills over time.
Step 5. Recognize and Celebrate
There are so many amazing changes and developments to celebrate with your child. Each little achievement is something worth recognizing and celebrating.
Taking the time to recognize and celebrate can promote safe, secure, and nurturing relationships. It makes children feel secure and loved, which helps their brains develop. It builds a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
Though it is easy to overlook, your attention is your child’s sweetest reward. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting more positive behaviors and expanding your child’s sense of competence. You can recognize and celebrate your child with the following actions.
- Smile at your child.
- Make eye contact.
- Use caring facial expressions.
- Be physically gentle and caring with your child.
- Use words to celebrate and encourage. Recognize and call out when all is going well. When your child is listening and following your instructions, call it out: “I noticed you faced that challenge even though it was hard. I like seeking that!”
- Notice when your child tries something new or recovers smoothly from a challenging situation. These conversations might start happening naturally during your bedtime routine or when snuggling up to read stories together.
- Build celebrations into your everyday routines. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.
This year is filled with amazing changes — and not just for your child. Don’t forget to recognize and celebrate your own development and milestones as a parent.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, and to work on their relationship skills.