7 Tips for Raising Emotionally Resilient Kids

By Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D., author of Ollie Outside: Screen-Free Fun

7 Tips for Raising Emotionally Resilient KidsIn the 1984 movie The Karate Kid, a teenage boy becomes disheartened when his karate teacher has him doing chores to exhaustion day after day. Instead of teaching the boy fighting techniques for his upcoming competition, the master instructs the boy to paint his house and fence, sand his floors, and wax his many old cars. The boy listens to his teacher but eventually grows impatient and expresses strong negative feelings. When the master commands the boy to show him the moves the boy learned to complete the myriad of boring and laborious chores—sand the floor, wax on/wax off, paint the fence, and so on—the boy realizes that he was actually being trained all along. He is then able to easily learn the formal karate moves that he wants and needs for the competition.

I suppose the above movie scenario could be interpreted in different ways, but the take-home message for me is that committing to hard work leads to growth and success. Sure, the boy finally learned karate, but more importantly, he learned the importance of patience, delaying gratification, concentration, self-discipline, perseverance, being in the moment, and selflessness.

As loving parents, we want our children to grow up to be happy, and it’s natural to also want our children to do as well professionally, if not better, than we’ve done. Certainly, early academic and cultural enrichment opportunities, tutoring, and other after-school social, educational, and athletic activities can all contribute to our children’s happiness and success. But do we spend an equal amount of time teaching our children how to “wax on, wax off”?

Psychological/emotional resilience and grit are areas of study that developmental psychologists know to be important when it comes to a child’s later happiness and success in life. A child who possesses adequate psychological or emotional resilience can encounter significant challenges or adverse experiences and continue to develop well. And a child with grit will persevere toward long-term goals despite encountering obstacles along the way.

Some research has even found that psychological/emotional resilience and grit are as important as, if not more important than, having a high IQ. As a psychologist, I have witnessed this when some teenage clients of mine have been accepted and gone to four-year colleges but failed out of school within a short period of time. In these instances, the teenagers were smart enough to be at school—they earned the GPA and the SAT scores to get in—but they lacked the emotional resilience and grit to thrive once there.

Researchers believe that emotional resilience and grit develop in an unfolding process alongside specific factors like family support, community and social support, a positive self-concept, flexible communication and problem-solving skills, and the ability to manage strong feelings and impulses. Problems with emotional resilience and grit can start at a young age, but parents can help their children become emotionally strong and passionate about their lives and toward their pursuits. Whether your child is three, nine, or sixteen years of age, it’s never too late to help him or her become more resilient.

Here are seven helpful tips to consider:

  1. Teach your child the value of a dollar. If we buy kids whatever they desire, they will have a difficult time developing a strong work ethic of their own. Instead, set age-appropriate goals for items that kids can take actionable steps toward earning or buying themselves. It’s one thing to buy your child a new video game, for example, but it’s much better if your child has to earn it.
  2. Give your child chores. Whether your child is three years old and helps to carry his or her dish to the kitchen after a meal or is seventeen years old and mows the lawn, having chores provides a sense of responsibility. If practiced consistently, chores can lead to a sense of accomplishment, cooperation, and pride.
  3. Encourage your child to take risks. Like many people my age, my parents gave me the freedom when I was a young boy to take risks and to explore. From climbing trees to the highest branches and swaying back and forth without fear to biking around town all summer with friends in search of adventure, this freedom benefited me in many ways. We should do our own children the same service. It’s important for kids to separate from parents (safely and within reason) so they can find their own voices and legs within their peer group and the larger world.
  4. Let your child get dirty and get hurt. Structured activities are important for kids, but so are unstructured ones. Blisters, bruises, and dirt under the nails after a fun day of unstructured play outside are good. Let your kids scrape their knees—physically and socially so to speak—so they can learn what works and what doesn’t in their environment and with their peers.
  5. Adhere to the “If this, then that” approach to getting things. If you reward your child for good behaviors and accomplishments, he or she will begin to learn the relationship between hard work and its payoff. This is essential for setting the foundation for a work ethic that is healthy and strong. Similar to how you wouldn’t allow your child to have dessert before dinner, don’t give kids what they want before their responsibilities are completed. Consistently doing homework or chores before playtime or screen time will lead to a more emotionally durable and responsible child.
  6. Encourage your child to be selfless and to do good deeds. Developmentally, children and teens are self-centered, but it’s our job as parents to challenge them to look beyond themselves. Practicing kindness, volunteering, and giving back to others in need are good expectations to have of your children. Increasing empathy and compassion will contribute to emotional resilience and grit.
  7. Model resilience for your child. Life is a series of conflicts and resolutions, and it’s good for our kids to see us manage upsetting moments in positive ways. Being patient, flexible, committed, and disciplined—and delaying gratification and persevering—are all things that you can model for your children during a conflict. So the next time you get a flat tire, for example, be mindful of the things you say and do in your children’s presence because they’re learning how to manage their own emotions from you in that moment.

At the end of The Karate Kid, the boy wins the competition, and he even wins over the girl he likes and wins respect from some of the bullies in his life. That doesn’t all just happen to him by chance, but rather it happens by pushing through his physically and emotionally upsetting and painful moments. Through perseverance and passion to be the best, he learns the importance of “wax on, wax off.”

Author Michael OberschneiderMichael Oberschneider, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services, a private mental-health practice located in Northern Virginia. He has been featured as a mental-health expert on CNN, Good Morning America, and other popular media outlets, and he has written articles for several news agencies, including The Washington Post. Dr. Oberschneider has also received Washingtonian Magazine’s “Top Therapist” honor for his work with children and adolescents. He lives in Leesburg, Virginia, with his wife Liz and two children, Ava and Otto.

Ollie Outside: Screen-Free FunMichael Oberschneider is the author of Ollie Outside: Screen-Free Fun.

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