Building resilience in children
A commonly held belief about child rearing, especially among those raising children cross-culturally, is that children are naturally resilient. But after hearing one sad childhood experience after another in my counseling office, particularly from ex-pat families, I find it hard not to question this belief. If children aren’t naturally resilient, how can we teach them to be resilient, especially our third-culture kids (TCKs)?
Tips for building resilience in our kids
1. Teach them to build relationships. The easiest and most natural way to develop resilience in children is to encourage them to make friends. Friendships help them develop empathy and provide them with companionship during tough times, which is important since isolation can crush a tender heart. Empathy is the grease that keeps relationships running smoothly, and community is the net that catches children when they fall.
2. Teach them faith. The tale of David and Goliath stirs the imagination, and it also gives a child the comfort of knowing someone bigger and stronger than they are can help them with their problems. Even the smallest person can tackle a giant problem with their faith in God.
3. Teach them to help others. In a recent conversation about certain children who help their struggling classmates even in the midst of their own troubles, a teacher friend made this observation: “But of course they help. They are missionary kids.” TCKs, especially those whose parents do cross-cultural ministry, learn from an early age how to help others. Children who are taught to serve, not only help others but also feel empowered themselves when their own troubles happen. They also naturally ask for help because in their own family context receiving help is normal.
4. Teach them to let failure be part of the process. The inventor Thomas Edison was a great example of resilience in the face of failure. He said, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”2 Children become resilient when they see failure as just one way something doesn’t work and as a signal to give it another try.
5. Teach them to keep a hopeful outlook. Teaching our children optimism is one of the best ways to help them to learn to be resilient.3 Learning to be optimistic starts with how we handle difficulties. The pessimist thinks of problems as permanent. For example, they might believe that “no one will ever want to be friends with me at this new school.” In contrast, the optimist sees problems as temporary. For example, they might reassure themselves that “it takes time to find a best friend when you move to a new school.”4 And while the pessimist sees events as worse-case scenarios, the optimist views everything through the lens of hope,5 and “hope does not disappoint” (Rom. 5:5 NASB).
Coping with transition and loss
Teaching children these lessons can help to instill resilience in them. But for TCKs, developing resilience is mostly about how they learn to deal with transitions. Transitions equal loss: loss of friends, home, places, and more. Losing everything familiar and starting over in a whole new context happens on average four times in the lives of TCKs.6 TCKs experience more loss in the first 18 years of their lives than other people experience through their entire lives.7 But many TCKs never have the opportunity to grieve the losses from these transitions. We need to help them learn to become resilient through these transitions by teaching them to how to grieve.
The first step in helping children deal with loss is to talk about the change before it happens. We often avoid mentioning difficult changes because we don’t want our children more upset than necessary. But it is better to prepare our kids for the upcoming loss. It can be as simple as regularly asking your child, “How do you feel about this move, change, etc.?”8
This process can be more beneficial by teaching them emotional vocabulary and increasing their emotional literacy. Everyday life doesn’t give children the vocabulary they need to describe how they feel during these changes in their lives. In English, we use about 100 words in our daily vocabulary to describe emotions. Lauren Wells, the children’s program director for the Worldview Institute for International Christian Communication, tells us, “If they [children] learn from a young age how to identify and name their emotions, it will be significantly easier to do so when they are in the midst of grief.”9
This process starts with teaching children the whole range of words for emotions such as happy, sad, glad, and mad. The second part is to teach them the different degrees of each feeling word. There is a big difference between being “disappointed” about not being able to get their favorite snack when they go to their passport country and “sadness” when saying goodbye to cherished friends and classmates. But for a child, this is a difficult distinction to make. Initially, a parent can help guide a child toward the right emotion word, such as saying, “I’m sorry you’re disappointed” or “It’s sad to leave your friends.” The parent can then suggest ways to process the emotion. The sad child might be encouraged to talk about these feelings even after they move to their new location, and the disappointed child might be able to bounce back after they find a new treat in their new location, without talking at all. As parents, we can help them frame these experiences by teaching them to reflect with guiding questions like “You were feeling sad last time, too, but remember how you felt better when you talked about it?” It’s very empowering for children to hear these assurances from their parents and this process helps build emotional literacy.
Educator and author Julia Simens says:
Children that have ‘emotional literacy’ are able to identify and understand emotions as well as respond to emotions in themselves and others in a healthy manner. If your child has a strong foundation in emotional literacy he or she can tolerate frustration better, get into fewer fights, and engage in less self-destructive behavior than children who do not have such a strong foundation.”10 In other words, emotional literacy builds the vocabulary necessary for children to explain their feelings, and by doing so, they become resilient.
The biggest obstacle for the TCK in developing resiliency is us, the parents. It is difficult for us to hear all these feelings and not want to “fix” our children’s problems or save them from feeling pain. But “one way to encourage your child to talk about his feelings is for you to do it yourself.”11 This means that we must be emotionally healthy. By freely expressing our own feelings with the proper vocabulary, we are giving our children an example of the proper way to process loss that leads to being resilient.
Children are not naturally resilient, but parents can teach them the skills so that they can learn how to be resilient. Such skills include things like making friends, having faith, building relationships, and letting failure be okay. As parents of TCKs, we can also teach them an emotional vocabulary that leads to emotional literacy, which will help them to process the large amount of loss that is part of the TCK’s life. This process helps build resiliency in our children and prepares them to lead successful lives.
1. Reham Al Taher, “16 Resilience Quotes that will Inspire and Empower You,” Positive Psychology Program, 22 January 2016, https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/resilience-quotes/
2. Nathan Furr, “How Failure Taught Edison to Repeatedly Innovate,” Forbes, 9 June 2011 https://www.forbes.com/sites/nathanfurr/2011/06/09/how-failure-taught-edison-to-repeatedly-innovate/
3. “Resilience Guide for Parents and Teachers,” American Psychological Association, 2018, http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/resilience.aspx
4. Peta Dale, review of The Optimistic Child-Keys to Resilience Training by Martin E. P. Seligman, 2010, Open Doors, http://opendoors.com.au/education/solutions/the-optimistic-child-resilience-training/
6. Lauren Wells, “7 Ways to Teach your TCKs to Process Grief” 23 October 2017, http://www.alifeoverseas.com/7-ways-to-teach-your-tcks-process-grief/
10. Julia Simens, Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child (Summertime Publishing, 2011), first paragraph of Naming Emotions in Introduction.
11. Ibid, Chapter 5, Section 3.
Eileen Nielsen is presently a middle school and high school counselor at the Christian Academy in Japan, as well as Member Care Facilitator for TEAM. If you are interested in meeting with her for counseling, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.