Life is full of unpredictable challenges. Help your child prepare to face whatever lies ahead by fostering his or her resilience.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Most parents think it's their job to protect children from tough times or failure. But this approach isn't always helpful when it comes to preparing your child for the future.

Struggles can help your child savor life's best moments and give him or her the satisfaction of overcoming obstacles. Find out how to foster your child's resilience.

Resilience is the quality of elasticity, an ability to adjust and bend without breaking. A resilient person responds successfully to severe or chronic hardship and triumphs in the face of adversity. Resilience is important because no one can escape life's often unpredictable challenges.

You can gauge your child's resilience by observing his or her ability to cope with stress. What's your preschooler's response to a slightly scary scene in a book or a show? How does your 9-year-old react to being assigned a big project? Each child's individual biological response to stress plays a role in his or her level of resilience. Some children are more sensitive to stress, while others are more easygoing.

Your child's ability to adapt and thrive in the face of a challenge also is shaped by experiences and relationships. Picture a seesaw. Stressful experiences — such as the loss of a parent or having a chronic illness — may pile up on one side, weighing it down. On the other side, however, are positive relationships and supportive resources. These help make stress tolerable for a child, tipping the seesaw the other way. Stress doesn't disappear but the child has the tools to achieve a positive balance.

Whatever your child's level of resilience, there's a lot you can do to help your child exercise and strengthen this trait.

Having the support of a stable, committed grown-up — whether it be a parent, caregiver or teacher — can help a child feel that he or she has what it takes to overcome adversity. This connection gives young children a buffer from the stresses of the outside world, creating a protected space in which to grow up.

This kind of relationship can also serve as a supportive scaffold while a child builds skills, such as focus, problem-solving and self-control, to manage stress. As a child becomes more capable and confident, the scaffolding can gradually be removed until he or she is able to stand alone.

Your child will benefit from having multiple supportive relationships. Candidates might include a grandparent, aunt, coach, piano teacher or family friend. Consider how you might strengthen these relationships or create others that would help your child.

To get your child to develop resilience, help him or her learn that:

  • Decisions have consequences. When appropriate, let your child experience the outcome of his or her decisions. If parents make all of the decisions, children can get the sense that what they do or feel doesn't matter. They may feel that their parents doubt their ability to be part of the decision-making process or to make decisions by themselves. If your daughter insists on wearing dress shoes to the playground, let her. She'll soon figure out they cause blisters. If your son says he's studied enough for a test, let the test results show if he was right. As your child makes more choices, he or she will become wiser, more confident and better able to recover from setbacks.
  • Failure is a part of life. If your child sees failure as an opportunity to learn rather than quit, he or she is more likely to try new things and get better at them. Teach your child that losing a board game or soccer match is OK. But losing shouldn't stop him or her from trying again. Skills can be learned. Praise your child for working hard at something. If your child starts an activity and wants to stop because he or she doesn't feel good enough at it, encourage him or her to continue for a certain period of time. This will reinforce the idea of not giving up on something too quickly because it's difficult.
  • Everyone has strengths. Help your child discover and develop his or her unique character strengths and look for opportunities to use them. Using a skill to help others can be a major confidence booster for a child.

Life is rarely a string of successes. Think of your child's first steps. Many of his or her early efforts to walk probably ended in a tumble. But your child likely kept trying and learned to walk and run.

As your child gets older, you'll help him or her take on bigger and more complex endeavors. There will be more falls. Your job is to help your child get back up and try again. Make sure your child knows that the process of learning is important, immediate success isn't always the goal, and failure isn't something to be feared or avoided. Instead, help your child see failure as a natural byproduct of learning and experimenting with new things.

It can help to talk about times that you failed and what you learned. Even better, let your child see you try new things. Try running a long-distance race together, or taking a pottery class. You and your child will both learn from the experience.

Allowing your child to learn from failure requires you to step back and let your child experience it. If your child is facing a situation in which his or her safety is at risk, your intervention is appropriate and necessary. But, if your child hasn't completed an assignment on time, let him or her face the consequences. This will help your child learn that the rules apply to him or her and to keep better track of assignments and deadlines.

Also, make room for your child to advocate for himself or herself. If your child experiences bumps in a friendship, avoid interfering. Instead, offer a listening ear. Discuss what he or she thinks is the best way forward. Offer your support. If asked, give advice.

Failure can also become a source of motivation for your child and serve as fuel to get him or her to work a little harder. Explore with your child how a different choice might have led to a different result. If your child feels defeated and says, "I can't," ask him or her to add the word "yet" to the end of the sentence. With increased effort, a new strategy or both, your child can try again — possibly with better results.

Also, think about your expectations. Consider your child's abilities and set the bar just high enough to give your child room to stretch and grow. Or let your child set the bar. If goals are always set within reach, your child will never fail or have the chance to understand his or her true capabilities.

Helping your child build resilience isn't an easy process. But by allowing your child to face challenges and develop strategies for dealing with them, you'll help prepare him or her to be an independent adult.

Feb. 10, 2022