Understanding Resiliency in Kids

March 5, 2013 at 7:00 am (Attachment Parenting, Positive Discipline)

We are changed by that which we cannot change. ~Dr. Gordon Neufeld


Last week I had the opportunity to sit on a panel of counselors and parent educators as a part of our school district’s Parent Education Night. The topic of the evening was “Cultivating Resilience in our Children.” Those of us on the panel each gave a short presentation on our perspective on resilience; my presentation focused on how kids develop resilience and what parents can do at home to help them develop it. Here is information from the handout I shared with parents:

Resilience =
The ability to handle things going wrong
The ability to cope with adversity
The ability to find creative solutions to problems
The ability to bounce back from emotional hurts

Some of the most common challenges that children encounter bring up unavoidable feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, or fear. These are futile situations; children are powerless to change them. It is in these situations that we, parents, tend to want to protect our kids. We are inclined to offer rationalization, justification, and protection from life’s futilities. Common futilities in a child’s life are ones such as:

  • Trying to make something work that doesn’t
  • Not feeling smart enough
  • Not being perfect
  • Failing
  • Wanting to hold on to a good experience
  • Not being able to have mom or dad all to oneself
  • Wishing to go back in time (wanting to change something they’ve done)
  • Trying to defy the laws of nature (make magic work)
  • Losing at games or contests
  • Wanting to “send back” a sibling
  • Not being able to know what will happen in the future
  • Not being big enough/ tall enough/ strong enough for their own satisfaction
  • Being excluded (among peers or siblings)
  • Not being able to control another’s decisions/ choices/ outcomes
  • Not being able to have their own way all the time

The more we try to protect children in these kinds of situations, the more we send the message that we’re afraid they won’t be able to handle them. But they can. And they will, if they’re given both opportunity and support. Here is how resilience develops in children:

1. Allow kids get to the point of futility. They must experience adversity, frustration, and mistakes (see list above).

2. Kids will express their feelings through tears. Tears are a healthy and necessary step to move towards resiliency.

3. Parents must acknowledge and accept those feelings. Provide a safe environment for kids to express their feelings by allowing tears, empathizing, and supporting them through their difficult emotions.

4. Parents offer encouragement. Help kids through their hardships; help them find success after failure.

Here are some things you can do at home to create a safe, supportive environment and encourage a child’s development of resiliency:

  • Have one-on-one time each day (with a young child), or each week (with an older one). Allow the child to decide the activity, and to take the lead in the topics of conversation. Your focus is on listening and getting to know your child just a little bit better.
  • Substitute punishment and consequences with problem solving. The unpleasantness of a punishment may work in the short-term, but it is much more effective to teach kids how to own their mistakes and fix them. Instead of approaching misbehavior with the thought of, “What can I do to you so that you’ll learn a lesson?” approach it with the perspective of, “How can we solve this problem?”
  • Tell kids, “It’s OK to cry.” Don’t rescue them from their feelings, but acknowledge all feelings as real and acceptable. They more they are allowed to feel their feelings when they are young, the more capable they will be of understanding and managing them when they are grown.
  • Switch from time-outs to time-ins. A time-out is sending a child away to an isolated area to deal with his feelings alone. A time-in is a connective moment spent with a child to help him calm down and learn how to regulate his emotions. Help a child feel better so he can do better.
  • Provide opportunities for autonomy and responsibility. Give kids control over as many areas of their lives as possible. From choosing their own clothes to fixing their own food to deciding how to spend their allowance…let them make their own choices—and their own mistakes. Recovering from mistakes is where resilience comes from, but they need to have those opportunities in the first place.
  • Offer encouragement through failures and mistakes…
    “I trust you.”
    “You have my support.”
    “These are some really big feelings.”
    “You are capable of finding a solution.”
    “I have faith that you’ll figure this out.”
    “What can I do to help you right now?”
    “What are your ideas?”
    “Is there a solution that will meet everyone’s needs?”
    “Trust yourself.”
    “I’m confident we can find a workable solution.”
    “You have the freedom to choose.”
    “I love you.”


  1. motherhoodisnotforsissies said,

    BRILLIANT – Thank you for this. A friend and I were just chatting about this and i will be sending her the link so she can read it. So often we forget how little our toddlers are and how hard ti is (can be) growing up. Have an awesome day x

  2. School of Smock said,

    This is great! We hear so much about resilience — my own doctoral work is about it — but we seldom hear practical, empathetic suggestions for how to cultivate resilience in our children in our everyday lives.

  3. alma said,

    I wonder if you can explain the switch from time-out to time-in. I like that idea. How do you make a time-in work?

  4. hedra said,

    Wait, this is me! I’ve been doing this for 15 years, the whole list. And we even called them ‘time-ins’.

    Alma, for time-in I would take my eldest to a quiet place (away from strangers or others who might interfere or be bothered by his upset) and sit near him while he raged or cried. Just sit, not ‘watch’, just focus on just being calm and present nearby. It helped him also feel safe with his feelings, because I wasn’t trying to stop them, didn’t act like his anger was dangerous or abnormal. He’d rage or cry for a bit a foot or so away from me, and as he processed it out, he’d get closer, and eventually would put his head down on me or climb into my lap. If I talked then, it was usually still too soon. He would eventually heave a big sigh, and then I’d hug him and we could then talk. That was his cue that he was ‘back’. I’ve been known to take him to a corner of a store in the mall and sit on the floor pretending nobody else existed but him and me (when he was very little, anyway). I got some strange looks, but I also got quite a few compliments from other parents. 🙂

    Each of my kids were a little different on this, taking different amounts of time, or needing more or less physical contact while upset. But being in there with them seemed to make them feel more comfortable and competent with their feelings – remembering that little kids don’t know where these feelings come from, they just charge in and take over their bodies. It can be scary for them, so me being okay with their negative feelings allowed them to not be scared, because they trusted my reaction. If I act like sad or lonely or disappointed are The Worst Things Ever and to be prevented at any cost, they act like they are, too. If I act like their feelings are just feelings like other feelings, they take them more in stride.

    • Kelly said,

      This sounds wonderful! Thank you for sharing this helpful example of how you use time-ins with your kids!

  5. True Growth Parenting said,

    Hi Kelly, what a treat it was for me to find your blog this evening! I am a student of Dr Gordon Neufeld and absolutely love his work and his wisdom. He has given me such insight and has changed the way I look at my world as a person, a parent, a teacher and a parent consultant. I look so forward to following your blog. Thank you!

  6. Researching Blogs - Dinosaur Diaries said,

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