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Raising Happy Kids: Building Resilience in Children

building resilience in children

When parents of a newborn are asked what they want most for their child, they almost always say something along the lines of, "I just want her to be happy." But, as children grow we tend to spend most of our energy helping them achieve, whether it be in school, sports, hobbies or other endeavors. Somehow we've linked happiness and achievement.

But the truth is, achievement and happiness are not synonymous, nor does the presence of one guarantee the other. While progressive achievement is a worthwhile goal for children, it should not be pursued at the expense of happiness.

But how do we prepare our children to be happy? How can we set our young children on a course that leads to life-long contentment? Surprisingly, one of the best ways to nurture happiness is to prepare children for the adversity they're guaranteed to encounter in life; in other words, raise them to be resilient children.

Ann Masten, a leading researcher on resilience calls it 'ordinary magic': a commonplace phenomenon that can do wondrous things. Resilience is something we are all born with. But, if it is not nurtured or if it a child experiences repetitive significant crises, it can wither and fade.

Purposefully developing a child's natural resilient tendencies will give him essential life skills: the skills to cope with challenges, adopt a positive perspective, and develop self-confidence and self-worth; all essential ingredients for happiness. Many experts on child resilience agree that there are specific characteristics or elements of a child's life that most contribute to his ability to be resilient. Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, a pediatrician and leading expert on child resilience, organizes these characteristics and elements into the 7Cs.

The 7 C's of Resilient Children

  1. Competence - A child's competence is built through opportunities to fully develop and master specific skills or strengths. This includes concrete skills like math, softball, reading or piano and less concrete skills such as the ability to solve problems, be a good friend, or make thoughtful decisions.
  2. Confidence - Children need to have a general belief in themselves and their abilities, believing that they are important and can make a positive difference and worthwhile contribution to the world.
  3. Connection - Strong relationships serve as a safety net for all individuals, particularly children. When children feel connected, they feel protected and are more likely to explore the world knowing that they have support when they need it.
  4. Character - Although the lines between right and wrong are still blurry in early childhood, children are beginning to develop an internal moral code to guide them (hence their ever present focus on 'fairness') as they make increasingly complex decisions. It's important to teach integrity so that children can define or develop their personal values.
  5. Contribution - Having opportunities to make a positive impact are essential to children's sense of worth, whether it be through gestures of compassion (hugging a tearful friend) or participating in activities that affect the larger community (trike-a-thons or park clean-ups).
  6. Coping - Children need to develop internal coping responses that allow them to navigate challenges without turning to destructive behaviors or relying solely on others to help them through difficult times.
  7. Control - From their first assertive, "NO!"(often bellowed at full tilt in the middle of the grocery store), young children are practicing asserting control of their lives. Children need clear boundaries and the ability to assert control when logical to develop a sense of their abilities and feel in control of their lives.

Ideas on How to Raise Resilient Children

  • Support. As much as possible, provide support rather than advice. Ask your child what she thinks she should do or what ideas she has. Guide her as she works to solve her own problems using her own solutions. 
  • Role-play. Role-play typical age-appropriate moral dilemmas or ethical challenges so when they face them in real-life they are more prepared. Alternately, practice considering others' perspective. You can play a simple game in a public place (on the bus, in the mall, etc.) or while watching a television show or even commercials. Ask each other to make up a story behind what each person is thinking or feeling at that moment. Have fun with it and be creative.
  • Get out of the way. Let children make mistakes (when safe) and learn from them on their own. It is hard to watch children stumble or fail, but the experience of using their own wits and talents to improve their circumstances is often more valuable than any tips you might provide. 
  • Make consequences logical. For example, if a child doesn't study for a test, resist waking up early to help him cram or writing a note to the teacher. One bad grade is less important than the personal learning experience the situation provides. 
  • Share simple strategies. Coping with adversity, challenges, and change is tough; teaching your child specific skills to deal with change and stress. Simple strategies like counting from ten backwards when upset, taking three deep breaths when stressed, and laughing with friends when sad, are good tools to have available when needed.
  • Above all else, be a good role-model. Your children are watching and learning from how you approach life and respond to challenges. Do you demonstrate optimism and hope? Can you smile, laugh, and enjoy other's company even after a stressful day? Do you see difficulties as challenges rather than obstacles? If not, it is important to care for yourself in a way that increases your own resilience so you can best support its development in your children. 
The roots of lifelong happiness and resilience develop in early childhood and should be nurtured throughout children's lives. We have only a short time with our children while they are little; it is up to us to make each moment count and help them so they can achieve the goal we set forth for them as newborns, "To be happy."

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