If I told you that the secret to your kids’ success was to maximize their suffering, you’d probably call the cops on me. Or you’d go back to Google in search of answers because the last thing you want is for your kids to suffer.
But here's the thing—and hear me out (I swear I’m not a masochist)—all personal growth results from overcoming adversity. Think of every milestone you’ve achieved in your professional and personal life: how much struggle and suffering did it take for you to get there?
- Graduating from high school or college = years of studying, sacrificed social life, and student debt.
- Getting the job you want = terrifying job interviews, rejection letters, and a borderline anxiety disorder.
- Working on your fitness goals = getting up early in the morning, sore muscles, and a once-favorite pair of shoes that now are so gross, you could grow mushrooms in them.
- Getting married = years of compromise, conflict, the toilet seat being left up, and working through your own deeply-ingrained issues.
See what I’m saying?
Anything worth having requires a struggle; and struggling is hard and often painful. But most of the world's most successful people achieved their positions of greatness, not in spite of suffering and failing but because of it: and because they persisted.
So here’s my message for you. If you want to build resilience in your kids, you have to allow them to face adversity, suffer the consequences of their choices, and overcome failure on their own, so that they can champion their own pathways to success. And in this guide, we’ll help you understand how you can do all of that WITHOUT traumatizing them.
Who are we and how do we know what we’re talking about?
We’re Brainscape and we’re not only experts in early childhood education but we’re also parents ourselves! In fact, we specially designed a complete collection of flashcards for young kids who are only just starting to learn fundamental skills like reading, numeracy, communication, and emotional intelligence. Read this article or check out this video to learn more:
7 Tips for building resilience in kids
As adults, we have more experience with suffering. We know it’s transient. We’ve also learned that it often leads to better things—to learning, maturity, and enlightenment.
Young kids, on the other hand, are yet to develop any kind of tolerance for discomfort, fear, suffering, and failure. That’s why young kids cry when they scrape their knee; refuse to do the things they don’t like doing (even if it benefits them in the long run); and declare it the end of the whole universe if they don’t get what they want.
Of course, childhood adversity often comes in much uglier forms, like poverty, bullying, sickness, abuse, neglect, or the loss of a parent. And while many of the kids who face these insurmountably unfair odds in life end up a victim of their circumstances, it’s also true that nearly every successful startup founder we know spent a good part of their childhood either sick, bullied, and/or as an immigrant.
What this tells us is that adversity builds resilience.
So if you manage adversity intelligently in your home, you too can raise resilient, well-adjusted humans—and you don't have to recreate a medieval torture chamber in your basement to do that.
Now, let’s take a look at seven tips for building resilience in kids…
1. Set kids challenging tasks frequently
A lot of parents hamper their kids’ learning because they’re afraid they might become discouraged if they fail, and so they set them easy tasks they know their kids can complete. As good as their intentions may be, this tactic does the opposite of help.
Rather, it raises kids who believe that life is easy. What a shock it is for them when they encounter the real world, like college kids who move out for the first time and don’t know how to do their laundry, change a light bulb, or even boil an egg.
Kids are tougher than we give them credit for, and they’re sponges for information! They’re curious and they want to learn. So push them by setting them frequent challenges that test and stretch the bounds of their cognitive, physical, and emotional abilities.
The goal here is “productive struggle” and it involves giving your kids tasks that are perhaps a little bit harder than they’re used to; tasks they have some skills to accomplish but could also fail if they aren’t patient or don’t think them through carefully enough. It could be:
- A slightly tougher math problem,
- An emotional situation you ask them to offer up a solution for,
- The responsibility to put away their toys before dinner,
- Reading a more complex story book,
- Teaching them to floss their own teeth, or
- Helping you chop vegetables for dinner.
The task should require just enough “suffering”—the burn you feel when your brain is challenged—that it pushes them into the zone of proximal development: that sweet spot between what your kid is capable of doing unsupported, and what they can do supported.
Too much suffering and they may become frustrated, demoralized, or even traumatized (like the time grandpa threw you into the pool and said “now swim!”). But not enough suffering, and they become a "snowflake" without any grit or resilience.
The bottom line is that kids need to know they can do hard things. And how can they ever know that if you’re always there, making life easy for them?
2. Reframe “failure” as growth
"I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won't work" — Thomas Edison
The next logical step in helping your kids become more resilient is to reframe failure as growth. Because if you’re setting them tougher challenges, they will probably at some point fall short, and that’s perfectly okay.
The thing is, success is seen (and taught to us) as everything, while failure has become demonized as the worst possible outcome. And yet it is IMPOSSIBLE to go through life getting everything right the first time, all the time. No one knows this better than us adults!
The challenge is to help our kids get comfortable with failure. It’s the only way they are going to go bravely into any endeavor, unafraid of failing because, hey, failing is growth and growth is good.
How do you do this?
A lot of it boils down to your messaging, and the focus of your praising strategy. If you console your kids when they fail, you’re teaching them that failure is something to be sad about. If you praise them only for succeeding, you teach them that success is the only objective. But if you praise them for trying hard and being persistent—and learning something whether they succeed or fail—then you teach them that it’s resilience that matters.
At the same time, be sparing with your praise. Sure, when your kid gets something right for the first time, that should be celebrated. But don’t keep celebrating it every time they repeat that effort. Teaching your kid that the value of doing something lies in the doing and not in the adulation attached to it is one of the best ways to stoke their intrinsic motivation.
If, however, you reward them for every little thing they do, they’ll become addicted to extrinsic rewards, and forever become that proverbial donkey chasing some carrot.
3. Teach kids the value of daily habits … and the work required to keep them
Kids tend to be instant gratification junkies. It’s why they get frustrated when they don’t get something right away, or if they don’t see the benefit of an effort the moment they do it. Yet, much of what humans are capable of achieving requires a little effort—and a little discomfort—made consistently, every day, over a long period of time.
So at the earliest ages possible, kids should be encouraged to understand the compounding effects of stepping slightly out of their comfort zone, and of striving for longer-term goals that require a daily investment of time and effort.
Imagine trying to learn Spanish by watching Mexican soccer announcers. Ha! Good luck with that.
It’s MUCH better to start with basic Spanish flashcards, like those in Brainscape, which use language acquisition science to incrementally add new concepts at just the right pace for your rate of learning. Practiced a little bit every day, within a few weeks and months, you’ll begin to understand that excited garble coming out of your TV when the soccer’s on.
The same applies to learning to read. Every kid starts by failing to recognize letters hundreds of times. Then as those failures turn to perfect recognition, they can proceed to short sight words, basic vocabulary, and spelling their names, etc., with thousands of failures along the way.
Kids have to try consistently (and fail) every day in order to progress. The sooner they understand the very real value that daily habits offer them, the more likely they’ll throw themselves into, and commit to longer-term goals, which will set them up for enormous success in life.
This is the philosophy behind Brainscape, the world’s smartest flashcard app. In our adaptive flashcards—which cover subjects that range from early childhood through the bar exam and everything in between—the very core user experience is all about getting flashcards wrong, often, and then assessing your own level of weakness and discomfort to determine repetition frequency, until it's so well known that trying to remember it elicits no cognitive discomfort at all.
4. Build their “delayed gratification” muscle
An unavoidable challenge in helping your kids appreciate the long-term benefits of daily habits is exercising their “delayed gratification” muscle. As I said at the start of the previous tip, kids are instant gratification junkies, but even the most impatient of children can learn to put off immediate rewards for even bigger rewards later on.
You just have to show them how!
Here’s one tactic: Let’s say your kid wants to play iPad instead of brushing their teeth. When I was a kid, my parents’ despotic reign wouldn’t have allowed me the luxury of a choice; HOWEVER, if you want to pad your onerous request with some additional delayed incentive, you could give your kids two options:
- They can play iPad for 5 more minutes now and then they have to brush their teeth and go to bed, OR
- They can brush their teeth now, and then get 10 minutes of iPad before bedtime.
Even the brattiest of children would surely see the value in delaying their gratification in exchange for twice as much of the thing they love!
Sure, crafting such negotiations may be the last thing you have patience for. And it probably would be easier to just take the iPad and boot their butts into the bathroom. But by identifying these little teaching opportunities, you can train your kid to appreciate the value in being patient and in getting done what needs to be done so that they can have fun afterwards.
(I mean, is there anything sweeter than getting ALL your tasks done and then getting to sit down to that end-of-work, end-of-the-week glass of wine or your favorite Netflix show?)
For some really excellent and helpful reading on this particular topic, check out our seminal parenting guide ‘What I learned about parenting from training my dog’ (because we're all just animals, baby).
5. Teach kids to cope with and overcome physical discomfort
Another important part of building your kids’ resilience is teaching them how to cope with physical discomfort, and even see the reward or lesson in it.
Look, unless your kids live in a hermetically sealed bubble, they are going to experience pain, discomfort, muscle strain, and exhaustion, etc. But the more you shelter them from these things, the more they will be viewed as obstacles to growth.
I’m not suggesting AT ALL that you somehow put your kids at risk of physical harm. Rather, it’s about how you react to their physical discomfort when it inevitably happens.
- Did your toddler scrape a knee? Don’t overly coddle them. Just employ a little sympathy and then they must dust themselves off and move on.
- Did your kid make a bad decision, like refusing to bring a jacket even when you told them it’s cold outside? Let them feel the consequences of that decision just for a little bit before you jump to the rescue.
- Did your kid cut themself with their table knife? “Ouch! But good job on trying to use a knife to cut your food! Here’s how you can do it more safely in the future.”
- Is your teenager sore and bruised from their first soccer practice of the season? Good job! They really must have gone for it and their body will get stronger as a result.
- Is your kid too tired to wake up for school because they stayed up late watching movies? “Too bad! Up you get, buster. Next time you'll know better!”
The message here is to help your kids to connect their physical pain and discomfort with something gained: a lesson learned, a skill improved, or a stronger body. Obviously, if they really hurt themselves, like breaking an arm, you should be comforting and sympathetic. But even in that instance, the sooner they learn to work around their injury and become self-sufficient, the better for them. Take that from someone who actually did break their arm a few years back and had to learn how to dress with one hand.
Additional reading: 'The best numbers & math apps for preschoolers'
6. Help kids to overcome their fear
You cannot protect your kid from fear, nor should you, unless the object of fear is truly something dangerous. Fear is a constant of life. The problem is that kids (and humans in general) find all kinds of things to be afraid of, to the extent that this fear becomes damaging to their growth and development.
- Fear being separated from their parents so they cry when you leave the room,
- Fear the unknown so they don’t explore,
- Fear failure so they don’t try,
- Fear getting hurt so they don’t push themselves physically, and/or
- Fear rejection so they don’t allow themselves to be vulnerable.
But of all of these fears, the most counter-intuitive is the fear of fear itself. “I’m afraid that I’ll be afraid, so I won’t even put myself out there.”
Look, I get it. Fear is uncomfortable. There isn’t a human on the planet who doesn’t get it. But you can really help your kids rip through this barrier by guiding them through their fear, as opposed to allowing them or helping them to avoid it. Remember, in many ways, they're going to model their parents' behavior!
Here are a few examples of how you can build a healthy resilience in your kids when they are afraid of something:
- Separation anxiety: Start by playing peek-a-boo! Walk into another room for a few seconds/minutes and then come back just as the tears start to well up. Slowly but surely, increase the separation time to 5 minutes, 10 minutes, half an hour, etc. You’re no longer playing peek-a-boo, of course: you’re leaving them to play with their toys and keep themselves occupied. Eventually, your kid will learn to trust that you will come back.
- Fear of rejection i.e. “putting themselves out there”: Look, this is something that never goes away, even in adulthood, but you can help your kids be braver in social situations by creating many opportunities for micro-social discomfort. Think: drama classes; public speaking; performing their instrument in front of their friends and family; leading a group project, etc. Eventually, they’ll develop a tolerance for social discomfort.
- Phobias: Most phobias are relatively harmless. Being afraid of snakes, for example, is more of a good thing than bad because it prevents your kid from interacting with a potentially venomous animal. But if their phobia is so extreme—or of something unavoidable, like dogs—that it prevents them from going outside to play, you’re gonna want to do something about it.
It’s generally agreed that the best treatment for specific phobias is exposure therapy, which is exactly what it sounds like: being incrementally exposed to the thing that scares you. So, if your kid has a phobia that’s keeping them from living a healthy life, you’ll have to cook up a way to expose them, a little bit every day, to the thing that scares them so that they become more and more tolerant of it.
Remember, just like daily exercise or cold showers, short and small amounts of discomfort and recovery can lead to greater resilience. (Again: Small amounts at a time. Please don't traumatize your kids!)
7. Consider getting your kid a pet
Interestingly, studies reveal that children’s stress levels vary depending on the kind of social support they receive (from their parents and peers, etc.), but also on how much they engage with a pet dog. The results support the idea that dogs and possibly other pets like cats, rabbits, horses, etc. can provide socio-emotional benefits for children via stress buffering.
If you think about it: resilience is our ability to cope with stress and forge ahead nonetheless. And so having a pet in the home that your kid can turn to for comfort directly contributes to their levels of resilience.
Equally as importantly, having a pet teaches your kids:
- To have empathy and respect for animals, which—in our books—is a fundamental trait for all humans to have;
- To not be afraid of animals, particularly dogs, which can be a truly debilitating fear when you consider that just about everyone has one;
- To exercise responsibility for another creature by feeding them, cleaning up after them, and taking them for walks; and
- To deal with loss as inevitably happens when the family goldfish goes belly-up or beloved parrot falls off its perch.
The combination of comfort and fundamental life lessons in kindness and responsibility is really important for building resilience in kids, so getting a pet might be really beneficial for your home!
Additional reading: 'The best language & reading apps for preschoolers'
Final thoughts on building kids’ resilience
As a parent you want two things for your kids: (1) you want them to succeed and (2) you want to keep them from suffering. Unfortunately, you cannot have one without the other. But that doesn’t mean suffering has to become a traumatizing experience for your kid.
In this guide, we’ve laid out many ways you can build your kids’ resilience:
- Through setting them frequent, challenging tasks that encourages “productive struggle”;
- Through reframing “failure” as growth so that they’re never discouraged to try new things or take on new challenges;
- Through teaching them the value of daily habits, and about the work required to maintain them;
- Through building their “delayed gratification” muscle so that they learn control over their impulses, and can invest in long-term goals over their immediate desires;
- Through learning to cope with and overcome physical discomfort;
- Through overcoming their fears, both real and imagined; and
- Through possibly getting them a pet, like a dog, which has been shown to reduce stress levels and improve resilience.
So, remember, overcoming frequent adversity—particularly in an area of passion—is the single biggest experience that will help a kid develop confidence, become more resilient, and get on a path to success!