Parents, does it ever feel like hardly a week—or day—goes by without a tantrum or raised voice in your house? Does parenting feel stressful—too stressful? As a family, are you struggling with how to cope?
For advice on raising resilient kiddos, I interviewed four Canadian parenting experts: Dr. Deborah MacNamara, developmentalist, faculty at the Neufeld Institute, and author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (Or Anyone Who Acts Like One) (Aona Books, 2016); Sarah Rosensweet, a peaceful parenting coach; Bridgett Miller, a conscious parenting expert; and Brian Russell, provincial coordinator for Dad Central Ontario.
Along with reading, writing, and riding a bike, our kids must also learn how to cope with life’s stressors. As Bridgett Miller says, “Resilience is what equips children to bounce back when things don’t go their way in a world filled with obstacles and disappointments. As parents, we can’t change the world to suit our children, but we can help them adapt to what they cannot change.”
The key to teaching kids resilience is to welcome all of their emotions. “When we offer a calm, loving presence,” says Sarah Rosensweet, “children learn that feelings are not an emergency and that they can handle difficult experiences.”
“Play is the warm-up act for life,” says Deborah MacNamara, “where attempts at problem-solving are made without consequence, and skills are mastered without the pressure of performance.” She says that play allows for the freedom to explore, face, and accept what can, can’t, or shouldn’t work.
Rest and routine for resilience
“If you have to wake your children in the morning, they aren’t getting enough sleep!” says Rosensweet.
Rest, according to MacNamara, is not only crucial for emotional and physical development, but it’s also “the biggest separation of the day for a young child, and thus the hardest.
“If we want our kids to get a good sleep, we need to be generous at night. Sleep is meant to be restorative, but if the heart is burdened, then sleep can be restless. Playing out emotions, talking, reading books, and ensuring good routines can help kids feel connected before heading to bed.”
We know that, for parents and children alike, a healthy diet is essential for well-being and growth. Nutritious meals are also important for kids’ coping, says Miller. “Children who are ‘hangry’ don’t handle frustration well. Tolerance diminishes, and undesirable behaviour typically escalates.
“Providing regular meals, as well as small, healthy, on-the-go snacks,” reminds Miller, “is a great way to ensure growing children are not overcome by their ‘hanger.’”
And if parents are grappling with “power struggles and picky eating, one approach is for parents to decide what and when children eat, while children decide if and how much,” suggests Rosensweet.
Routines for resiliency
Miller stresses that “routines provide a template for how the day will unfold. Children can anticipate what comes next. Then, the parent isn’t constantly orchestrating or instructing the child, thereby alleviating some of the everyday frustration that arises around daily ‘have-tos’ like brushing teeth, having a bath, or getting ready for bed.”
“To feel safe, kids need to know that their parents are in charge of health, safety, boundaries, and guiding good decision-making,” says Rosensweet. “We should be flexible, take our children’s preferences into account, and let them make age-appropriate choices.
“But, if we avoid setting limits to prevent upset, our children will not feel confident in our ability to take good care of them, in turn creating anxiety, bossiness, or ‘demandingness.’”
Resting in rules
“Kids will face many things they want but cannot have,” emphasizes MacNamara, “from another cookie to making someone play with them. As they get older, they may want more screen time, play dates, or sleepovers.
“When kids can accept what will not happen, it leaves room for them to consider what else they can do and to realize they can survive when things don’t go their way. Children who can rest in our care, and the boundaries we create, are able to play and grow.”
“Children need consistent and firm limits with clear consequences,” says Brian Russell. “When we give in to their pleas, complaining, and whining, we’re telling them they may not be able to trust us with the bigger things in life. The goal of parenting is to earn my children’s trust so that I have the opportunity
to speak effectively into their lives and choices.”
“Once parents accept that it is normal for children to protest against what they don’t want and can’t have,” says Miller, “we’re on our way to fostering resilience, helping them to express frustration in non-harmful ways. By valuing healthy expression, we naturally encourage the growth of resilience.”
A place to process
Children should feel safe at home to experience their emotions, not to “toughen up.” Miller says, “By making the home an easy place to have tears and big feelings, parents provide the conditions necessary for the child’s emotional system to begin to process mistakes and failures. Encourage free play, imagination, art, and music at home—these are opportunities for children to naturally work through worries and stresses.”
Relationships for resilience
“Our primary focus should always be on nurturing the connection we have with our children,” says Miller. Adds MacNamara, “Strong relationships and soft hearts are at the root of healthy development.”
Parenting experts’ top five tips
- Lead with empathy, 24-7.
- Welcome all emotions.
- Delight in your child.
- Protect daily 1:1 time, even 15 minutes, with each child.
- Roughhouse and laugh with your child for bonding and physical and emotional health.
- Take responsibility for preserving your relationship with a child.
- Remember, young children’s immature brains lack impulse control.
- Family rituals, customs, and boundaries preserve family relationships and protect children from their impulsivity.
- The more kids can move through their emotions, the better off they will be.
- Play is a wonderful way to express and discharge big feelings.
- Don’t take the words or actions of your child personally.
- Don’t be afraid of their tears; they’re a sign of adaptation.
- Don’t try to teach a lesson in the moment of frustration.
- Don’t be afraid to comfort your distressed child.
- Talk about what didn’t work for them once they’ve settled down.
- Pay close attention to your child’s development and respond appropriately to their needs.
- Be active in the things that matter to them and have fun with them!
- Communicate in clear ways.
- Show them the bigger world by bringing them into yours.
- Care for yourself.
Deena Kara Shaffer, PhD, is a learning specialist, co-creator of the Thriving in Action initiative at Ryerson University, and founder of Awakened Learning. @deenakshaffer