4 Expert Tips for Raising a Resilient Kid

Challenges and setbacks are part of life. You lose out on a promotion at work. A loved one gets seriously sick. You receive a staggering repair bill. You go through a divorce or a tough breakup.

While it’s normal to need some time to deal with the shock of a loss or an unexpected difficulty, life doesn’t stop. You may have to go to work disappointed or cook dinner for your family while grieving a loss. The ability to adapt and endure through trying times is a sign of resilience.

As a parent, you might find the idea of your children experiencing difficulties and stress hard to bear, but it’s a skill they should learn, and they’ll be better equipped to cope if you help them.

“A resilient person can face adversity and hard times in a productive way,” says UNC Health psychiatrist Christina Cruz, MD. “If a person isn’t resilient, it can take longer to bounce back, or you might need more support in accomplishing day-to-day activities during adversity.”

Dr. Cruz shares four tips that can help your child develop resilience.

1. Pay attention to cues.

If your child is dealing with a stressful or difficult situation, Dr. Cruz advises looking at nonverbal cues and behaviors and providing support accordingly.

“As adults, we have the language and understanding that we need to bounce back or cope,” she says. “Kids and adolescents will be less verbal about a situation, and you’ll have to read how they’re doing.”

Dr. Cruz says that you might see changes in attitudes toward school or friends, poor grades or withdrawal from favorite activities.

These behaviors also may last longer for your child than they would for you, and that’s OK.

“Kids and adolescents may need more time to feel and understand, and it can take a while to come back,” Dr. Cruz says. “Comfort them when you see they’re in distress and provide positive feedback about their ability to get through this—to cope with what’s happening.”

If you notice your child returning to the activities they enjoy, that can be a sign that they’re coping with the situation.

2. Model healthy coping behaviors.

Children will learn the language of resilience if you teach it to them, which means being honest about when you’re coping with a challenge.

“Kids are smart and attuned to their parents, so they usually know if something is happening,” Dr. Cruz says. “Parents can describe what they’re going through and how they’re dealing with it, and that can be helpful because kids will know that these feelings are normal.”

When describing your situation, use language that is appropriate for your child’s cognitive and emotional development and let them ask questions. Teachers, counselors and mental health professionals can help you determine how much transparency is right for your child’s age.

Although you can moderate the level of detail you share about the challenge, you can point out the methods you’re using to cope, whether that’s running to clear your head or calling a friend to talk.

“Trust that your child can handle what’s going on with you if you describe it in an age-appropriate way,” Dr. Cruz says. “When parents share that information, it can move the needle on the child’s ability to handle something.”

3. Don’t protect children from all difficulties.

For children to learn how to cope with challenges, they will have to face some.

“We want to shelter kids as much as possible, but we can’t always shield them, and they need to be prepared,” Dr. Cruz says. “Try and give them some space to handle something. If they fail, that’s part of building resilience.”

Again, it’s good to think about what is developmentally appropriate for your child.

“Use your discretion and modulate for the age,” Dr. Cruz says. “Consider the parts of a situation that your child is ready to handle, and you can build up their ability to handle difficult things. Consider it more of a gradual trickle of exposure that builds as their development builds.”

It may be tempting to use euphemisms when talking about a loved one’s death, for example, or to make excuses for where a beloved pet has gone. Very young children don’t understand the finality of death and may not need all the details of how a death happened, but it’s appropriate to use direct language.

Parents should also think through their responses if a child receives a bad grade or doesn’t make a sports team; though some parents are inclined to talk to a teacher or coach to change the outcome, that behavior may not serve the child in the long term.

“Failure is important because it teaches us that we will not always succeed,” Dr. Cruz says. “We learn to try again or to move on. It builds resilience to learn how to move past those failures and to know that life will go on.”

4. Provide opportunities for more responsibility.

As kids get older, their challenges become more complex. As they prepare to leave home for college or a career, you can increase their opportunities to face challenges while completing the necessary tasks of adulthood.

“Maybe they take charge of a few of their bills, like the phone bill or a car payment,” Dr. Cruz says. “It’s a chance to show them what responsibility looks like and how it has to be balanced with whatever you come up against. They’ll learn how to organize and understand accountability.”

Even as your child reaches adulthood, you may still be able to support them emotionally as they navigate the world on their own.

“Parents remain foundational as a home base for young adults,” Dr. Cruz says. “Keep the lines of communication open so they know they can contact you to discuss ideas when they’re having doubts.”

If you need help talking to a child about a challenge, talk to a pediatrician or a mental health provider. Need a doctor? Find one near you.