The other day, I was watching my preschool daughter on the playground by our house. I could see Alice standing on the sidelines, observing the other children, trying to figure out how to enter the play they had already started. She spied her favorite neighborhood friend, lit up, and ran over to ask the little girl to play. The little girl turned her down, telling her in true 4-year-old style that she wanted to play with someone else, and skipped off with her other friend. I watched Alice’s face fall, as she chased after the girls. They continued to insist that they didn’t want to play and Alice ran to me, tearful and confused. While my heart silently broke for my daughter being stung by rejection, I knew everything that had just occurred was truly age appropriate and also a (painful) learning opportunity for my girl. The struggle to work through this frustrating situation was only going to help her build the confidence and resiliency that would be with her all her life.
Adversity is something that is so difficult to watch our children, no matter what their age, go through. It is our mama and papa bear instincts to swoop in and protect them from all the harsh words, experiences, and people that they may encounter in their day and allowing them to feel the sting of rejection or hardship is a tough pill for any parent to swallow. However, struggle has its purpose in childhood as it does in all of our lives. From struggle comes problem solving. From problem solving comes success. From success comes confidence. And from confidence comes resiliency. Life at any chapter of life is speckled with resistance, and it is our job as parents and caregivers to teach the little people in our lives how to bounce back and dust themselves off.
But, how do you even start to do that? Is resilience something that can even be taught? Or is it something that you are just born with? As a teacher with 16 years of early childhood experience under my belt and a mother to a blossoming preschooler, I’ve seen that, while some children are born with natural confidence and resilience, we as caretakers can take certain steps in everyday life to help our beloved little ones who may need an extra nudge in the face of hardship to build that resilient skin that will help them face the world with confidence.
1. Foster independence. Independence is the mother of confidence. When your kiddo sees how capable they are in the little things, the bigger challenges won’t seem quite so intimidating! Let them figure out how to put that shirt on (even if it’s backwards). Talk them through learning how to pump their legs on the swing so they don’t need you to push them. Let them be in charge of doing their own laundry. Show them that you know they are capable and they will believe it (eventually) too.
2. Make them a contributing member of the family. No, I’m not suggesting they go out and get a job, but expecting that they help set the table or empty the dishwasher (or both!) is not an unreasonable expectation for most children. When children feel like part of a team, they feel valued and important…and nothing is a bigger confidence builder than that! Start with simple, age appropriate tasks that you are okay with letting them do, and don’t follow behind and redo the task after them. You “fixing” their work will only have the opposite effect on their confidence and resilience building.
3. Help them find the words to stand-up for themselves and be their own advocate! When your child is having a difficult time getting along with a peer, it’s hard to stand on the sidelines. However, listening objectively to what happened and helping your child brainstorm up things to do/say next time the situation arises will help him/her to feel empowered rather than victimized. Children need to learn the power of their words, both good and bad!
4. Let them know you stand behind them and also know when to step in. Great, you and Junior have gone over how to handle a situation. He feels ready and confident to handle the conflict on his own next time. Remind him that you believe in him and know he can handle this on his own. But also know that if the situation continues and/or escalates, it is also important that your children know that you have their backs and will step in to help them out if things start to go too far.
5. Know when to step out. You’ve supported and gone to bat for your kiddo when a situation got a bit hairy. Now it’s time to take a step back and let Junior fight this (hopefully muted) battle on his own so he can continue to feel empowered and gain confidence in conflict resolution. This is a life skill he will use his whole life and it’s never too early to learn how to advocate for yourself. Of course, he also might start advocating against having to take the trash out.
6. Encourage your child not to own other’s words. When a student comes to me and tells me that someone has called them a hurtful name or said something that has offended them, the first thing I ask is “well, is that true?” And almost always, the child will respond with “no!” Teaching children that people can say anything they want about you, but that doesn’t make those words true is such an important and empowering tool in teaching resiliency. Help the child to reflect on the statement and decide for him/herself if they feel it is a true fact. And if it’s not, then simply remind your child that they don’t need to own other people’s words.
As Alice cried into my shoulder that day on the playground, I simply hugged her and told her it was okay to feel sad and hurt, but that sometimes friends want to play with other people. When had had a good cry and started to calm down a bit, I reassured Alice that she is so much fun to be friends with (“You always come up with some really fun stories to act out!”) and pointed out that there were other children on the playground that she could ask to play. “Maybe you’ll make a new friend today!” I said brightly, hoping to highlight the silver lining in the situation. We practiced what she could say to the children then I back up and sat on the sidewalk as I watched her approach two other girls. Alice put on her brave face, clearly a bit scared they would reject her too, and asked if she could play with them. “Sure!” the girls said, moving over to make room for Alice in their game. Soon, my daughter was smiling brightly again and she did indeed make a new friend that night (two actually). The girls played until the street lights flickered on and it was time to head home. As we walked inside our house, Alice smiled up brightly me and said “Mommy, I am so lucky. I have A LOT of friends.” Our evening could have ended with tears and hurt feelings, but instead it ended with my daughter feeling blessed. All it took was a long hug, listening ear, a reminder of her worth, and the encouragement to try again.
Two of the best life skills a person can have are resiliency and confidence. They are attributes that we all use our entire lives and help us to know how to handle the rough and tough situations that life throws at us. Whether we are 2 or 102, resiliency is the mirror that helps us to understand that other people, situations, or struggles do not define our worth. Helping your child to foster their confidence and learn resilience in the face of a sometimes harsh world will only give them a leg-up in life…today, tomorrow, and always.