Want a kid with a healthy dose of grit and resilience? You’d better start early. Like, really early. “You start building resilience on the way home from the hospital after delivery,” says Michael J. Bradley, PhD, a psychologist and author based in Philadelphia. “It’s a lifelong parenting thing. Allow your kids, whenever possible, to make their own decisions and own the consequences of those decisions.”
Bradley isn’t suggesting parents allow toddlers to decide when they eat or sleep, but he’s one of many experts who fears today’s coddled tots will be tomorrow’s stressed and anxious teens.
WHY RESILIENCE MATTERS
Grit and resilience are more than just parenting buzzwords. They’re skills our children need to develop so they learn to cope with problems and succeed despite setbacks. The dictionary defines grit as “firmness of mind or spirit; unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger,” while resilience means “having the ability to recover quickly from difficulties.” These qualities are harder to come by as parents often try to keep their kids in a bubble while fixing their problems for them.
“[We’re] seeing a tremendous loss in resilience in kids and a significant rise in disorders like anxiety and depression as a culture,” says Bradley, author of Crazy Stressed: Saving Today’s Overwhelmed Teens with Love, Laughter, and the Science of Resilience. “The good news is resilience can be taught.”
That starts in the sandbox. For example, Bradley suggests parents not immediately intervene if another child grabs one of their kids’ toys. “Wait and see how your child reacts,” he says. “This is the beginning of how they’re going to handle the serious bully in high school.” Only get involved if your child’s in imminent danger.
LEARNING TO BOUNCE BACK
“There’s this whole mentality that everybody gets a trophy, and you pair that with low-flying helicopter parents that don’t want to let their children fail,” says Rosalind S. Dorlen, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Summit. “Parents shouldn’t praise everything their kids do, but [rather] their tenacity and determination,” she says. Well-meaning parents may be over-empathizing with their kids. Others may see their child as an extension of themselves and their success or failure as a reflection on them. “Parents have a narcissistic investment in their children,” she says. “There’s a lot of parental pressure about their grades, sports and activities. I think kids get burned out.”
Psychologist Caren Baruch-Feldman, PhD, author of The Grit Guide for Teens, says parental anxiety is understandable. “The zeitgeist of the world feels very uncertain and is very anxiety provoking,” says Feldman, who has a private practice and works with schools in Westchester County, NY. “This creates a real desire for parents to protect their children.
Instead of thinking about how to foster independence and persistence, parents are thinking about how to save and protect them.” It can be hard to get parents and kids to focus on what’s best for the future, says Feldman. “Everything is immediate—everything is now,” she says. “That’s why mindfulness is more popular. It’s an antidote for the world in which we’re living.”
Parents should take a collective deep breath and a big step back before they rush to fix every issue that crops up for kids. “Self-esteem is not built by telling people they’re wonderful. Self-worth comes from doing hard things,” Bradley says. Many schools are also trying to work resilience training into daily student culture and life. For instance, in Ridgewood’s school district, parents aren’t permitted to drop off anything during the school day that their kids forget at home, whether that be a lunch box, instrument, homework or even a winter jacket.
What can we do as parents to foster grit and resilience in our kids? Here’s what experts recommend.
STRATEGIZE WITH THEM
Your child comes home from school complaining about a teacher who always yells at him. Instead of helicoptering and confronting the teacher, encourage your child to speak up. “These things have to be windows of opportunity to teach resilience,” says Bradley. “Strategize with your kids and allow them to develop options. If they handle the problem, so much learning will occur. If a parent rushes in, the kid learns mom will solve all their problems. Our job as parents is to work ourselves out of a job.”
SHOW THEM HARD WORK HAS ITS REWARDS
How did American culture, which famously praised people who “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps,” get so soft? We may be paying the price for decades of misguided advice to constantly boost kids’ self-esteem. Parents should read stories to their children about real heroes who succeeded despite setbacks to remind them of the perks of hard work, Dorlen advises. “Most kids don’t know Abraham Lincoln [lost] eight elections and Thomas Edison was told he wouldn’t amount to anything,” she says. “We live in an instant culture where they see people who make billions, [but] ignore the work that goes into it. That can create false expectations and grave disappointments.” Parents can also share their own stories about hard work, failures and triumphs.
HELP THEM FIND THEIR PASSION AND FOSTER GROWTH
“I think grit is about passion,” says Feldman. “It’s important to help your youngster find their passion so they have a sense of purpose not just for themselves, but for other people.” Parents can also lead by example when helping their kids step out of their comfort zones, Feldman says. “When something’s hard, that’s where the magic is—that’s where your brain can grow,” she says. “What we do is much more important than what we say.”
—Lisa L. Colangelo is a New York-based writer and reporter. She lives in Long Island with her husband and daughter.