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Be Their Person: Build Resilience

By Amy Gunty, MA

I’ve spent tens of thousands of hours taking care of kids of every age, with a diversity of needs, developmental stages, experiences and disabilities. I’ve also spent hundreds of hours just observing children and their caregivers. Over time, all of these children have taught me a ton, and as a result, I have grown as a caregiver.

Defining “Resilience”

Researchers* studied kids who experienced significant “risk factors,” things like living in deep poverty or experiencing abuse. These things are related to negative outcomes for children, even as they become adolescents and adults. But what the researchers found was that one-third of these children didn’t experience negative outcomes as adults. They had high levels of well-being. The researchers called these kids “resilient.”

8 Ways to Promote Resilience

Through my work with kids, research and observation, I’ve come to believe that there are eight things that parents and caregivers can do to promote resilience in kids.

  • Ensure safety. Before anything else, it’s my job to keep the children I care for safe. I keep away unreasonable dangers. I know where each kid is at all times. I’m close enough to intervene if needed. I never tell kids to stay where I can see them. They don’t know what I can see. I ask them to stay where they can see me. In the end, though, it’s my responsibility to keep us close enough together.
  • Provide freedom. Kids need to be able to explore and try new things. It’s how they grow and learn. In order to do this, they need freedom. I let kids climb things—trees, playground equipment, walls, benches. If I’m packing lunches, I might make the main dish, and then let the kids choose what type of fruit, veggie and cracker they want. If I’m getting a young child (as young as 9 or 10 months old) dressed, I let them choose between two shirts or two pairs of shorts. I let them make choices whenever possible.
  • Enforce limits. For kids to confidently explore, they need to know where the boundaries are. They need to know that I am big enough and strong enough to enforce those boundaries. So, I have limits—hard lines about what kids can and can’t do when they are in my care. For example, I let kids climb things, but only things they are confident about climbing without my help. This limit-setting also extends to interpersonal interactions. I aim to ensure that kids I’m caring for know that emotions are allowed. It’s okay to be sad, angry or scared, but it’s not okay to be mean or unsafe.
  • Give responsibility. Kids need to know they are trusted so that they can learn to trust themselves. This is built when adults give kids responsibility and gradually increase that responsibility over time. I expect kids of every age (yes, even older infants) to clean up after themselves (giving age-appropriate help). Regardless of the activity, I am trying to communicate to these kids that I trust them to take care of certain things. Importantly, I do my best not to “redo” a job I’ve given a kid. If it isn’t done well enough, I try to let it go. If I can’t let it go, I offer help, and we fix it together. That way, they still get the feeling of being trusted, they still get the sense of accomplishment for finishing, and they learn for next time.
  • Give specific, positive feedback. When I give a kid a job, I always follow up by telling them what they did well with that job. I am incredibly specific with my praise. I praise effort, hard work, and specific incidents of doing something well or being kind. I try to catch kids when something goes well. But sometimes it’s really, really hard to catch kids being good. To help with this, start a journal. At the end of each day, write down three things you are thankful for about that child that day. If you do this consistently for several days, your mind will start shifting to watching the good. And when you start to see the good things during the day, that’s when you can start giving feedback. It’s a lot easier (and more fun) to catch kids when they are doing well than trying to respond when kids are not doing well.
  • Redirect. No matter the age, I have found that the best way to respond to misbehavior is to redirect. Telling kids not to do something doesn’t help them. You have to tell them what to do instead. Now, in some cases, that redirection is directing a kid to take a break. I don’t talk with kids who are yelling or kids who are in the midst of a full-blown tantrum. Once calm (or mostly calm—again, crying is okay, but being mean or unsafe is not), then we can talk. I’ll give feedback about the event that lead to the yelling or tantruming and I give an option for an alternative behavior.
  • Listen. Whenever I’ve sent a kid to time out, I always reconnected with them afterward. If they have something they want to tell me (without yelling or screaming), I let them, without interruption. I let them get all of their thoughts and feelings out. But, more importantly, I paraphrase it back to them. I show them I understand what they are saying. Then, and only then, I go back to the redirection I’ve mentioned above. I’ve learned to listen more deeply, and ask follow-up questions. When I can, I make eye contact. When I listen to them, when I hear them, I am calmer. And, then, when I do come visit them after a time out, they do tell me what they are feeling and what they are thinking. That lets us work together to solve the problem.
  • Validate their experience. Oftentimes, we think kids are overreacting. There is a little situation that gets a huge response/meltdown. But what I’ve realized is that what kids are feeling is real, no matter what triggered it. I always have to validate their experience by showing them I see their emotion and I understand. Then, I help them see how it might be an overreaction. I avoid phrases like, “you’re okay,” or “you’re fine.” Instead, I try for things like: “Oh, that must have hurt a little when you fell down. Are you ready to play some more or do you need help to feel better?” or “That hurt your feelings, didn’t it?” You always have to acknowledge what is there first before you can do anything else.

I don’t know it all. I’m not perfect. But I do know that kids have taught me that they want, they crave, they need these eight things. So, I do my best to give them to them.

Amy Gunty is a Disability and Inclusion Expert from the University of Minnesota. We work with Amy to provide information and resources that help foster full inclusion at Minnesota Children’s Museum.

*Werner, E. E. (1993). Risk, resilience, and recovery: Perspectives from the Kauai Longitudinal Study. Development and psychopathology, 5(4), 503-515.

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