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Building adaptability and resilience in kids

By Zeina Habib ICF ACC Coach

Change is the biggest constant in today’s world. From the rapid technological advancements and the rise of social media to globalization and pandemics, the world is constantly evolving.

It does not wait for us to be ready for it, so we have to harness the skills needed to handle the challenges it throws our way.

We need to be equipped with the tools needed to manage our inner world no matter what is happening around us and we need to train our kids to have these skills too. 

We want them to step outside of their comfort zone and take risks while still being grounded and resilient. We also want them to develop the flexibility needed to deal with anything we might face.

So in this article, I want to share with you some strategies and tools that can be used with kids to help them be more adaptable and resilient.

Embrace the discomfort 

I want to start by sharing one of my favorite quotes addressing the topic of emotional and mental discomfort written by  Brenee Brown in her book Rising Strong

“I want to be in the arena. I want to be brave with my life. And when we make the choice to dare greatly we sign up to get our asses kicked. We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time.”

I was both angry and excited reading this quote. It was clear that in order to live courageously, we have to accept a life of discomfort.

If we want to have new experiences, we have to take risks, if we want love we have to be vulnerable and risk heartbreak  and if we want the career we always  dreamed of, we have to push ourselves to work hard to achieve it. 

In conclusion, if we really want to live, we need to be in the arena where it’s scary, uncomfortable and filled with unknowns. More importantly, if we want our kids to live the life they deserve, we have to let them get into the arena. We have to fight our inner parental instincts and push them towards discomfort. 

This is difficult for most parents since by nature, parents are wired to protect their kids. They want them to be safe and happy.

But what is the best way to be present for kids? Should parents shield them from life’s experiences and save them from every uncomfortable situation ? Or should they leave them  to experience life as it is ?

I believe it’s a range going from being overprotective to being negligent and as parents you want to be somewhere in the middle. You  cannot save your kids from life and live it for them, because they will grow up unable to handle it. At the same time, you cannot leave them to struggle through it all on their own because they may grow up feeling alone and unable to ask for help. 

So what should you do? Find your own balance. 

Encourage your kids to get into the arena while you sit in the front row cheering them on and letting them know you are there.

But how do you achieve that? Here are some practical tools and ideas to help you support them. 

1- Build their decision making skills by involving them in the decision making process. You can use different ways depending on their age. For example, if you have an 8 year old, you can have them pick trip destinations,  if you have a 2 year old , you can have them pick their outfit from a choice of 2 or 3. 

2-Expose them to discomfort gradually. It can range from pushing them to perform a dance routine to encouraging them to make new friends by involving them in new social activities.

3-Make sure they know love is not related to their achievements. It is important that parents’ actions and words show unconditional love no matter what. When a kid knows they will be loved even if they fail, it makes failure easier to face since they will not be facing it alone.

4- Help them deal with difficult emotions. (I will elaborate on this in the next section).

5- Turn failure into a lesson. Make sure that after they deal with the emotions related to their failures, you sit with them and analyze  the lessons learned and what could be improved. 

6- Lead by example. If you want kids to face failure, you have to make sure you’re pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone too. Kids are very observant and they can tell if you are living what you are preaching.

 Dealing with emotional discomfort

A big part of embracing change is handling the emotional turmoil it causes. 

In his book, the Yes brain , Daniel Siegel talks about 3 emotional states people move in and out of: the green zone (i.e window of tolerance) , the blue zone (i.e lower edge) and the red zone (i.e upper edge). 

To help you understand the function of each, I want to share an excerpt from his book explaining each.

“Window of tolerance” is a term Dan coined to mean the width of a span of activation in the brain within which we can function well. Beyond the upper edge of the window our mind becomes chaotic; beyond the lower edge we become rigid. When the window for a given emotion, like sadness or anger, is quite narrow, it’s easy in that emotional state to ‘lose it’ with a small provocation.”

As adults, we function at our best when in our window of tolerance as we have trained ourselves to hold it together even when we are at the edges. Kids, on the other hand,  have not yet developed these skills so they cannot function normally when pushed outside of the green zone. Therefore, it is the job of parents to help them regulate and then teach them how to do it themselves.  

First of all, you can help them regulate by holding space for their emotions, empathizing with them, and being present in the moment. 

For example if your child is throwing a tantrum or being unresponsive, yelling at them or using logical arguments will not work. You need to help them come back to their window of tolerance and then address the facts and their behavior. It’s the concept Dan Siegel calls “connect and redirect.”  Connect to them emotionally and then redirect them to the behavioral logical reasoning.

Secondly, you need to help them build the skills to start self-regulating.

In order to do so, they need to become aware of it and know how to express what they are feeling.

There are multiple areas we can practice awareness . The below four categories are the ones that I have found to be  most helpful in this case. 

1- Awareness of sensations. This is related to the state of the body  (warm, cold, tense, relaxed, etc). The easiest way to help kids develop that skill is by enrolling them in martial arts or any type of dance class. They both develop high body and breath awareness.  You can also practice body awareness through games. One of the games we use is the gingerbread man body scan. To do a body scan, you need to stand up tall, breath in and out slowly while focusing on each part of your body gradually. Then,  you can draw a gingerbread man on a piece of paper,  and color on it what you are sensing and where (i.e if there is tension in the shoulder, color the gingerbread man’s shoulders in red and so on) .  There are also many online resources with lists of body sensation vocabulary for kids that can be helpful too.

2- Awareness of thoughts. Thoughts are opinions or phrases that we tell ourselves (“I am going to fail”, “I am pretty”, “this day is long”…).  Thought awareness can be practiced with a child by setting time aside and asking probing questions (i.e. “why do you want to quit tennis?” “What are you thinking about?” “Why are you sad?”). Using books, art, and storytelling help your children express their thoughts. 

3- Awareness of emotions. Emotions are what we feel in response to our thoughts, sensations, or environments. You can find great lists of emotions online to help enrich your kids’ emotional vocabulary. You can also create an emotional wheel where they can use pins to point out their feelings as they change throughout the day or week.  You can also check  Dan Sielgel’s book The whole brain child which has great tools and games to help kids understand how the brain works and how emotions affect them. 

4- Awareness of breath.  Helping kids become aware of their breath is tricky but activities such as martial arts, yoga, and dance can really help. There are also some meditation tools for kids online. 

Once kids are more self-aware, you can start working with them on self-regulation, i.e. the ability to move from one state to another.

Here are some tools and resources that may help. 

  • Being present and empathizing is the easiest way to help them regulate. This can be done by giving them a hug, having a conversation or spending time with them. It should be adapted based on your kid’s personality.
  • Helping them have good posture. Research has shown that having a good posture has a huge impact on self-regulation and mood. If you want to learn more about this subject, I suggest reading Your Body is your brain by Amanda Blake.
  • Practicing gratitude. Gratitude has been shown to have huge impacts on mood. It helps remind kids of the good in them and around them and changes their perspective on the world. 

You can check out both of Daniel Siegel’s books mentioned above for more ideas. There are also books and movies addressing these issues that can help kids grasp these concepts; “Inside out” for example. 

In the end, what really matters is being present, getting to know your kids and using whatever tool that works for them. 

You do not have to be a perfect parent, you just have to care. 

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