Parenting a Resilient Child

Dr. Damon Korb, MD
Behavioral and Developmental Pediatrician
Director of the Center for Developing Minds 

How can two children respond differently to the same difficult situation?  At school, child one loses a competitive game of Wall Ball.  She goes home, practices for hours, and tries harder every day that week until she eventually wins the game.  Child two loses, protests, and pronounces that “Wall Ball is stupid.”  Then he spends the rest of the year avoiding Wall Ball and other playground competitions.  Child one rises, while child two falls with adversity. 

Sports and competition offer a clear and easy-to-understand example of a defeat and provide the opportunity for a child to recover and respond.  However, a similar scenario can play out after any of life’s obstacles such as: a failed test, an argument with a friend, a medical diagnosis, or even something as terrible as the loss of a family member.  In each of these instances a child can rise in response to adversity or fall. Why is child one more resilient than the next? In most cases, children learn resiliency from their parents.

Resilience is the ability to overcome significant hardship.  Children conquer life’s negative circumstances (e.g. loss, failure, rejection, and disappointment) with two balanced factors; protective experiences (such as parental coaching, intervention, and support) and coping skills (such as confidence, competence, and character).  When parents do not provide enough guidance only the most resilient children demonstrate sufficient character to battle through struggle.  Conversely, when parents provide too much guidance, children do not develop the confidence they will need later in life.  Resiliency is built with a perfect balance between parental guidance and childhood struggle.  Finding this balance is difficult when we want so badly for our children to succeed. Nonetheless, to be ready for future challenges, tweens and teens must gain skills to cope, build strength and recover from disappointments. They need to be resilient in order to succeed in life. 

Meet Owen. Owen is a budding soccer superstar who is struggling with the adjustment to a new, competitive sports team after advancing from a more recreational team last season. Owen’s biggest challenge in his new environment involves another player on his soccer squad, Michael. Owen and Michael are clearly the two best players but they can’t seem to get along. In this scenario, Michael can be considered Owen’s rival: the boys are two players competing with one another for superiority within their team. However, cohesion, not competition between players, will result in the strongest soccer squad. Sure, competition in itself is not a bad thing. Also, competition in practice can foster a desire for victory that results in an aggressive attitude during matches that is desirable. But, competition between two players, two rivals, to the extent that it sidelines the best interests of the team was a bad thing.

Mark, Owen’s father, played soccer himself for many years, he had even coached a high school team. From the sideline, Mark observed the rivalry between Owen and Michael develop. The team kept statistics for each player on the roster, one of which was goals scored. By a landslide, Owen and Michael led the team in goals. One match, Michael played unbelievably, recording five goals (on four assists from Owen). Throughout the next practice, Michael teased Owen about his lead in this statistic category. Owen reported it as such to his father on the ride home after practice. Over the next week, the teasing continued. While it might have been construed as friendly jabs in a different context, Owen did not find these remarks funny.  

As the week progressed, Owen’s anger grew. He felt that these remarks distracted him and other players on his team from practice which, in turn, made his anger grow. The following weekend, the tension snapped. On a breakaway play with Michael, with only the goalkeeper remaining between the two players and the goal, Owen held the ball, choosing to wait for his next teammate instead of playing ahead to Michael. If he had opted instead to pass to Michael in this scenario, surely their team would have scored. After the game, this play in particular was the focus of the coach’s discussion. Owen felt embarrassed, not just because his coach called him out in front of his friends, but also because he let a rivalry with Michael potentially affect the outcome of his team’s soccer match. Owen asked his father to remove him from his soccer team that day, wishing that he could join a different squad and avoid this conflict.

Consider how Owen’s parents might address this situation. Suppose they chose to over-intervene in their child’s situation, acting as “helicopter parents.” Owen’s father, Mark, expressed that the idea crossed his mind to have a conversation with Michael himself. Playing out this scenario, Mark imagined Michael leaving their conversation, only to tell Owen’s teammates that Owen had gone crying to daddy because Owen could not score as many goals as Michael. He knew this was not the most ideal solution for his son’s predicament and hoped to avoid this scenario if possible. Even if the problem could have been stopped by Mark speaking to Michael or to the coach, it would have deprived Owen the opportunity to work through a difficult situation. Remember, struggle is important. Mark’s intervention could have had the same impact as if he had allowed Owen to quit the team.

Confidence is a critical piece to building resiliency in a child.  Confidence is gained from experience and success.  The more a child succeeds, as well as struggles, battles and then succeeds, confidence is built.   How a parent considers their child also has impacts a child’s self-esteem.  Parents that show confidence in their child’s ability to solve problem’s sends an affirming message.  By not engaging the coach, Mark sent the message to Owen that Mark believed in Owen’s ability to deal with the situation.  Rather than "helicopter," it is important that a parent allows their child to attempt solutions on their own. Overly involved parents inadvertently send the message that they have little confidence in their child’s ability to succeed on their own.

With encouragement from his parents, Owen confronted Michael, and explained how the “friendly” jabs about out-scoring Owen had not felt so friendly. Are Owen and Michael best friends now? No, they are not. They are, however, passing to one another again during games and even spending extra time together outside of regular team practices to develop additional passing and dribbling skills. Owen demonstrated that he could work through a situation competently. Competent children are resilient. 

Owen’s parents chose to wait for Owen to express a concern, before offering suggestions about ways Owen himself could handle the problem.  If Owen’s parents had forced themselves into the situation by intervening or by confronting Owen after the game for not passing the ball, then Owen would have been resentful. Developing bonds with family creates a sense of security that helps lead to strong values and confidence.  One of the most important predictors of a resilient child is a healthy parent child interaction.  Had his parents intervened on Owen’s behalf, in the future he would have been less likely to confide in his parents, particularly when perhaps the conflict is more consequential than a soccer match.

As a parent, it is neither practical nor feasible to micromanage all aspects of your child's life. As children age, parents should increasingly find themselves just supporting their child from the sideline. It is important to give your child opportunities to make a variety of developmentally appropriate decisions, starting from a young age, otherwise they will not have the chance to practice independence. Let them gain competence and grow confident in themselves by offering just the amount of support they need, but not any more than that. They will develop a plethora of new skills, becoming more independent and resilient along the way.

About the Author

As a board certified behavioral and developmental pediatrician, Dr. Korb examines the neurodevelopmental brain functions that determine how a child learns, behaves and socializes. With the opening of the Center for Developing Minds in 2005, Dr. Korb has held pivotal roles in the establishment of three unique clinics in Santa Clara County that serve children with developmental variations. Dr. Korb is a frequent speaker on a wide range of neurodevelopmental topics. In 2014, he was elected to the board of directors for the Society of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. Prior to specializing in child behavior and development, Dr. Korb worked as a primary care pediatrician in New York, California, and North Carolina.