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David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Instilling Resilience: It's All About Attitude
By Lisa Cooper,

I grew up in a home where the phrase "if there's a will, there's a way" was commonplace. I've taught my own children a similar refrain: When faced with a difficult task they've been know to announce, "there's no such thing as can't." And sure enough, more times than not, they "can." Instilling a positive, "can-do" attitude in your children from the minute you are able is a vital step in the process of preparing them to deal with the challenges that lie ahead. If your goal is to raise resilient children, then equipping them with coping skills is key.

Perhaps the greatest coping skill that a child can acquire is a positive attitude. Contrary to what some parents believe, a bad attitude is not just a phase that children outgrow. Educator and author Michele Borba, Ed.D. warns that the longer parents wait to address attitude, the more ingrained negative-thinking habits will become. Rather than changing your child's personality, she explains, your goal is to influence your child's outlook. "It is your job as a parent to stop your kid from being selfish, narrow-minded, noncompliant, and having other bad attitudes that lead to weak character and poor moral intelligence," she says. Although some children are certainly born with a "sunnier disposition" than others, research shows that a child's attitudes are not predetermined at birth. Although certain attitudes may be influenced by biological factors, most are learned, and therefore can be changed.

"Pessimism is fast becoming the typical way our children look at the world, writes author Martin Seligman. "A crucial task for you as a parent is to prevent your children from absorbing this trendy outlook." In his book, The Optimistic Child, Seligman suggests that helping to build a child's self-esteem through "mastery" – a sense of competence – from as young an age as possible is one of the ways to buck the pessimism trend.

Some ways in which he suggests parents instill mastery:
  • Try breaking a task into small steps and allowing your child to explore new challenges at her own pace.
  • Allow a child to make simple choices for himself: "Would you like juice or water?"
  • Make both space and time for exploration, providing toys that your child can interact with rather than decorative toys that can't be touched.
  • Encourage imaginative play. As your child grows, having a keen imagination will enable him to practice positive thinking as he works through solutions to theoretical challenges.
Once children are working on building a sense of personal competence and armed with optimism parents can begin helping them to develop more advanced coping skills. Your most powerful tool for teaching positive thinking is the example you set for your kids. According to Borba, "that old mantra 'attitudes are better caught then taught' is 1000 percent correct. Your kids are watching and copying everything you do, even stuff you're not aware of." As a parent, you have more influence on your children's attitudes than their peers, the media, or even their schools do, so be mindful of your power and use it well.

Other simple ways in which parents can instill good coping skills in their children include rephrasing a child's negative statement with a positive spin. For example if your child says, "I can't read this book" you could reply, "This one is a bit difficult, but your book last week was also hard and you finished the whole thing by yourself." Relating your own childhood stories of overcoming hardships can also be encouraging to children and fun for them to hear. Kids love stories that feature mom or dad!

Another basic requirement for building resilience in children is the provision of a secure and stable home environment. Consistent good experiences at home will give kids a strong enough foundation to prevent them from being toppled by the hardships that come their way. As parents, some of the things that you can do are to:
  • Help your children to feel that they are loved. You're not the only one who can encourage this cherished feeling; research has shown that children who develop a strong bond with a family friend or caregiver are no less attached to the parents. The opposite is true, in fact, so involve as many people as possible as members of your child's inner circle.
  • Allow the use of "comforters" such as dolls, blankets or special toys. These can help children to cope more successfully with the stressors of their early years, such as separations from parents.
  • Try to protect your children from exposure to "adult" problems. There's no need for children to be burdened with matters of no concern to them and over which they have no control. If they do become aware of a difficult issue, be sure to help them to understand that it is not their fault.
  • Teach your children to solve their own problems. For example, rather than intervening to settle a sibling squabble (as long as no one's physical safety is at stake), have your children calm down enough to listen to each other's feelings and then ask them to figure out what they could do to try and fix the problem themselves.
  • Give children lots of time to do the things that they are good at doing. It can be tempting – and sometimes necessary – to focus on encouraging kids to improve their weaker skills. Just remember that children also need time to succeed, so give them space to work their areas of competency.
  • As your children get older give them some responsibility, both for making decisions and for accomplishing tasks. Let your daughter figure out how to spend her pocket money, for example, even if you can think of a dozen better possible purchases. Ask your son to prepare a simple dinner for the family on a night when you're busy paying bills at the kitchen table. A child feels a tremendous sense of achievement when the fruit (or meatloaf!) of his labor is actually put into service.
  • It has been suggested that belonging to a spiritual community can provide children with support and friendship, and can convey the sense that life has meaning and purpose.
In short, empower your child to succeed. Every time a child achieves something, she builds on her belief that she can go on to further successes. You won't be able to protect your children from the challenges and hardships that are part of life -- nor would you want to -- but as a parent you are able to assert some influence on the manner in which they will confront them. It might be difficult, it might take work, but you can do it. There's no such thing as can't!

About the Author
A freelance writer based in South Africa, Lisa Cooper receives daily "hands-on" experience from her three young children and is passionate about parenting.
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