Building resilience in children: Set reasonable expectations

Kenneth R. Ginsburg

Now more than ever, it’s critical that families, schools and communities understand how to raise children and teens to be emotionally and socially intelligent so they will thrive in both good and challenging times. The following excerpt is taken from “Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings,” (American Academy of Pediatrics, April 2011) by Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed, FAAP.

Children live up or down to our expectations. I repeat this frequently because it’s so easy to forget. As children’s competence and confidence grow, we need to continue to hold up high expectations to keep them moving in the right direction. I don’t mean unrealistic expectations. The NBA or WNBA will not draft every young basketball player. Not every child can get into an elite college.

We cannot expect children to be perfect, but we can expect them to be honest, caring, and responsible. We can hitch our expectations not to their achievements, but to their human qualities.

You may be thinking, “Okay, I get it. Hold them to high expectations for their human qualities, but what about the day-to-day accomplishments _ don’t I have to keep holding the bar just above their reach?” I have no simple answer to that question because the answer has to be individualized for your child’s temperament. Children gain confidence through their successes, and that gives them the push to test whether they can master other, more challenging tasks.

If the next task is far more difficult than they can handle, they will undoubtedly fail and perhaps lose confidence. They may tie that failure to your high expectations.

They are struggling to please you, so their failure is magnified. If this is the case, they may experience shame, which can prevent them from reaching for achievements they certainly are able to master.

Our challenge as parents is to monitor children’s responses to achievement and failure and have a handle on their capabilities. Some questions to consider include:

Does a particular achievement seem like a stepping stone to the next one?

Is your child energized by a failure to try again, or does he become paralyzed

by that failure?

After a success, does he like to stay on that level for a long time until he feels comfortable enough to move forward, or is he eager to proceed quickly to the next level?

When your child is ready to try the next challenge, see where he would like the bar to be set. Support him to determine what he can handle. If you set the bar too high, he will fail you (emphasis on you). This has to be about him, not you. If you set the bar too low, he will think you haven’t been watching him closely enough to know his capabilities.

Most importantly, react supportively when your child does come up short. It’s crucially important for children to know that we all fail, we can recover, and those people who are successful are the ones who try again. Thousands of opportunities arise in childhood to support your child to try again _ the first time he walks and falls, when he misspells words on a test, when his art project ends up in spills and splatters. Numerous opportunities also arise during your child’s growing years for you to model how you try again without shame and with good humor when you haven’t always succeeded. I believe we have just defined resilience again.