Getting on with and coping with life’s little ups and downs is just what being alive, and being human is about, so mostly we just get on with things – we manage the many tiny components which create the natural ebb and flow of our lives. Some times are good, some bad but generally it’s us going about our business, on life’s journey and trying to do our best. But what happens when the brakes are pressed, locked and bringing us to a complete halt? To continue the car analogy, what happens when the wheels completely come off – and we fail at something? Worse still, what happens when those doing the failing are our children? Youngsters and failure can be a recipe for disaster if not managed and handled properly.
The pressures faced by contemporary parents to ‘get it right’ can be extreme. Where previous generations may have adopted the ‘a child should be seen and not heard’ philosophy, modern parents increasingly rely on a praise-oriented approach. This is characterised by parents favouring a more reflective and child-centred method. However, like all examples of progress, there are always downsides. There’s a healthy mix required; finding a balance between praise and honesty. And the key word which underpins how they (and us!) cope with failure is resilience. One significant parenting challenge is that some children lack the resilience they need to deal with the highly competitive world they have been born into.
Why is being resilient so important? Resilience is important for our mental well-being, it allows us to understand situations and manage our responses to them. Building resilience in kids helps them to overcome life’s obstacles more easily and reduces the chances of them experiencing anxiety or other stress-related problems.
Being resilient is an essential trait that we should develop in our youngsters. I believe that resilience creates happier, less stressed young people regardless of the setting: home, school, sports club or music group which can only be a good thing. But what is resilience? Put simply, it’s a child’s ability to cope with the ups and downs of their everyday life. It also encompasses how they will manage the challenges they’ll face throughout their development to adulthood. The other great news is that resilience developed in childhood will remain as a lifelong skill they can continually deploy.
There are two key actions any parent should keep in their arsenal to foster and develop resilience in children: praise and honesty. Like all aspects of parenting the dilemma we face is how much of each to use? And, when to use them.
Praise, when used judiciously, can be a very powerful motivating force in a child’s life. Try to be specific and always be sincere with your praise. Avoid overly praising the ordinary, praise the ‘out of the ordinary’, because if you praise everything your child does, they won’t know what success looks like. Your message will be lost in all the white noise.
Try to be descriptive in your praise too. Explain why you think something is so effective and/or impressive. This way you can lead them to understanding what they have done well, so they can replicate it. It will also force you to think too, thereby avoiding over-praising for no reason.
The flip-side of overly extravagant praise can lead to a child feeling unnecessarily pressured to keep delivering time and again. It’s about finding the right balance. When you over praise, they’ll think they’re invincible and ill-equipped and inexperienced in failure.
Honesty, the big one. I believe honesty should be the cornerstone of your parenting style. I’m an advocate for telling kids the truth – don’t be brutal here, your role is not to scare or demotivate. Rather, it is to allow them to understand from an early age the fundamental fact that everything in life isn’t always easy or perfect, and that outcomes sometimes do lead to failure.
The most important ingredient to throw into the mix, is that failure isn’t a problem, it’s merely another challenge that we must learn from, adapt to and work hard to change for next time. Listen up kids – failure is success in disguise.
I’ve worked with scores of parents and caregivers and when I introduce the topic of being honest about honesty, it still comes as a shock to many of them. Their natural desire is to protect kids from anything and everything bad which is to be applauded, however it’s a flawed concept and it does take some effort to adjust away from – but, it’s worth the effort. If your default setting is that there’s nothing bad or challenging in life, when the inevitable failures do occur, you’re not going to recognise them or deal with them effectively.
Our resilience is formed by a combination of upbringing, environment and culture. It’s also shaped through the development of behaviour and our social skills. As parents we can promote the building of resilience by demonstrating our own coping skills. By showing that we’re in control, and we’re not overly phased by all of life’s ups and downs, we teach core problem-solving skills to the next generation. They get to see first hand that problems do arise from time to time and, most importantly, they’re normally solvable.
Occasionally, life throws up something really harsh, like serious illness, bereavement or financial hardship. This is where judicious honesty and appropriate language is best deployed, however honesty and not denial is still the best course of action to take.
The pressure to succeed, and the burden to be the best and to stay the best can prove to be overwhelming for some of our young people.
The origin of this pressure is interesting to pin down, often it’s the obvious candidates of parents and teachers. But a surprising amount of pressure does originate from within.
The need to increasingly accomplish more and more at seemingly no emotional cost is admirable, but ultimately misguided, because once they start down the path of ‘success at any cost’, issues begin to arise. This is because unfortunately the cost often ends up being an impact to their own mental well-being. Anxiety creeps in and self esteem and self confidence start eroding.
We learn resilience through experience. Each time we overcome a problem or issue, it develops confidence and prepares us for the next challenge. This is doubly the case with children and teens, because they are still very much malleable and mouldable. This state of self-forming should be used to their advantage as it allows us to learn to ‘park’ failure and focus on the very real power of resilience. Don’t forget though, while we want them to be as resilient as possible, it’s also our further duty to ensure that they know that asking for help is okay too.
We should additionally ensure that as adults we don’t fall into the problem-scale trap, what is a small problem for us can weigh very heavily on the mind of a youngster.
Encourage them not to give in, and to have another go when things don’t go according to plan. Praise them for trying, regardless of the outcome.
Ensure you acknowledge when things are going well and working out (but avoid going over the top!).
Work on developing their problem-solving skills. For example, if their marks are lower than expected, don’t auto-punish. Instead, discuss solutions to best aid their studies for better results next time around.
Be there to support them, but avoid solving each and every minor problem or disappointment they encounter.
Avoid anticipating and preventing every problem for them. By overcoming many smaller challenges, they will build their resilience for life’s bigger setbacks.
Introduce the notion of self-compassion into their lives. This will help them cope with failings, disappointments and mistakes by learning to be kinder to themselves.
Tell them that failing at something is not a sign of weakness or a lack of skill or intelligence. Or as Thomas A. Edison brilliantly said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.
Russell Hemmings is a life coach and cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist, and author of The Mind Diet and Active Positive Parenting. Contact Russell on 055 286 7275 or russellhemmings.co.uk