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Resilience

The Big Task of Guiding Our Future Generations

Tips for teaching resilience, grit, and emotional intelligence at a young age.

Today’s youngest children will grow up in a world we could never even imagine. Guiding our future generations is a big task. Here are some suggestions for instilling the emotional tools and grit the next generation needs to tackle life’s problems. The following is based on ways to correct real, not ideal, behaviors observed by teachers working in daycares.

Dr. Diane Brain Health
Source: Dr. Diane Brain Health

Teaching Respect

Avoid singling out “troublemakers.” It is okay, of course, to tell a child not to do something if they break the rules or do something morally wrong. Consequences for actions are an excellent tool for teaching respect and responsibility. However, after the punishment, there is no need to bring up how “bad” the child is later when the child is no longer doing what led to the consequence.

Why This Works
Recent research shows preschoolers can feel shame as early as two or three years old. Feelings of shame are linked to feelings of depression in preschoolers. This shame can have lifelong implications, as the preschool years lay the groundwork for kindergarten. Habits are hard-wired into a child’s brain as young as preschool; if not addressed, they can stay with a child for life. So why not start children off ready to respect themselves and, therefore, have greater respect for others and their community?

Emotional Resilience

When a child is crying, responding with phrases like “all done,” “no thank you,” and “it’s not all about you,” tend to make the situation worse. It is better to try empathizing with the child. Play with, cuddle, and redirect crying children.

Try bringing them to a window to look out of and talk gently, in a soft voice, or play together with a special toy that they can only play with when they’re upset. It does not matter your exact words, because, if you speak from the heart, the child will at least understand your tone. Use this tone with older children as well. Sometimes, with an older child, you may need to say, “can you use your words and tell me what’s wrong?” Then, empathize with the child.

Photo by Anna Shvets
Source: Photo by Anna Shvets

Why This Works
In guiding future generations, emotionally responsive caregiving helps mediate the effects of high-risk environments. Everyone wants to be heard, but why is being heard such a powerful tool for emotionally responsive caregiving? Because a child’s brain is already forming the connections for learning, social skills, emotional resilience, and even the ability to concentrate, focus, and prioritize tasks. For example, if a child is constantly distressed, they cannot learn the skills needed to be a functional adult.

Have you ever felt like you communicated something, someone understood what you were saying, and then responded with just the right words? Then you know what a huge relief it is. Imagine you are a young child and say something similar, and the same person tells you to be quiet. This would probably be frustrating for a child, leading to further upset.

Neuroplasticity

Never punish children by taking away recess time, especially challenging children, because they need it the most.

Why This Works
If you work with or have kids, you know they need to play. Unstructured play outdoors is essential to a child’s ability to learn. According to recent research, there is a strong link between physical fitness and cognitive performance in preschoolers. What better place to run around than the great outdoors? According to a study in the Extreme Psychology and Medicine journal, time spent outside helps with stress reduction, mental fatigue, mood, self-esteem, and perceived health, especially for small children.

Eating Habits

Future generations, in many ways, have odds stacked against them, and health will be essential. With young children, sometimes it’s just easier to give them something you know they will eat than to provide them with a fruit or vegetable and watch it sit on their plate until it ends up in the trash. Unfortunately, though, this behavior does more harm than good.

Why This Works
Thankfully, children generally don’t starve themselves. For the first couple meals, if you only give the child a vegetable and main course, with no third option on their plate, they might be a little hungry if they don’t like it, maybe even very hungry. But they will try it sooner or later, and yuck will eventually become a yum.

It’s hard to see their little faces light up at a third preferred option. So, while this might be a quick fix, the more you give a child a third option, the less likely they will eventually try the broccoli. Soon, broccoli will always be a yuck.

Independence

You can teach independence as early as the toddler years. You can start by encouraging cleaning-up behaviors in toddlers who are not yet old enough to speak. However, there is a method to the madness. Don’t yell, “No, thank you! Look, clean up! Clean up now!” to get a toddler to clean up. They will most likely get embarrassed and not even realize why they are in trouble. Making a mess for them was fun, so there is no value in cleaning up. They may even act out and make more messes in the future.

Instead, try saying something like, “Wow, look at all these toys! Do you think you could show me where this one goes?” Then, hand each child a toy, one at a time. Each time they are successful, try saying something like, “Good job.” Suppose they are very young and still don’t understand. In that case, you could show them by placing a toy in the correct spot or using the hand-over-hand method, then letting them eventually do it themselves.

Why This Works
Parents need a little help, too. Wouldn’t it be lovely to teach our future generations to clean early on? Also, as an adult, you could be the most intelligent, most determined person in the world. However, without knowing how to organize your time, priorities, and environment, you will still need a ton of help. These skills are called "scaffolding" and are a way to organize your time and environment to fit your needs (the technical term is "executive functioning").

With the invention of cell phones, children live in an age of constant distraction, and executive functioning skills are now becoming more critical than ever. So, what is one of the best ways to teach executive functioning? Start young when children’s brains are still malleable and learning is easy.

Kindness

Try to distract and redirect toddlers who are not sharing by bringing over another toy or distracting them, but model kindness. Do not yell at them for not sharing. Toddlers do not yet understand that other toddlers have needs other than their own, so, to the toddler, it feels like you are yelling at them for no reason. This yelling teaches the toddlers that it is okay to yell at another person for no reason (even though you’re not yelling at them for no reason).

Why This Works
No one likes hearing a toddler throwing a tantrum (most of the time, it’s unavoidable), but sharing tantrums is avoidable. Learning to get along with other children for the first time is stressful at first. Realizing that other children have different points of view is a huge developmental milestone and can take a very long time. They will learn this skill eventually, but being yelled at and then having a toy taken away doesn’t make it go any faster. This skill can be more difficult for children with special needs.

Learning this skill can be encouraged in three-year-olds and older through turn-taking, unstructured play, reading stories, and talking about the child’s emotions and the emotions of yourself or other children. Unfortunately, a study published in Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development suggests that understanding different points of view may not fully occur in our future generations until age six or seven.

Photo by cottonbro
Source: Photo by cottonbro

Lift Them Up

Children understand more than we think. So why not start them off with loving, encouraging, warm language that lifts them up instead of tears them down? Do you ever remember, as a child, loving someone who called you bad, or a brat, or spoiled? Hopefully not, but it does happen.

Why This Works
Have you ever heard of the labeling theory? It’s a real thing and applies to our future generations, too. Always referring to a child negatively while their brains are still developing will feed how the child thinks of him or herself. So be careful of the language you use around children. If you constantly embarrass them, say negative things, and yell at them for not doing what you want, chances are you will get lots of “No!” in return, and the child may even go out of their way not to please you.

The more positive things you say, the more they will want to please you, and the more they will act the way you describe to them. If you say, “Wow, what a good helper,” chances are that child will go out of their way to be helpful. If you say, “I’m so proud of you,” that child will find ways to make you proud. Toddlers are much more likely to respond to positive feedback than negative.

According to a Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review study, positive feedback is more effective at discouraging bad behavior than negative feedback. Tell your child how much you appreciate when they do the right thing, instead of only mentioning it when they act up. Be sure to tell them how happy these positive behaviors make you. The bottom line is to love your child, and they will love you right back!

References

Barrett KC, Cole PM, Zahn-Waxler C. Avoiders versus amenders: Implications for the investigation of guilt and shame during toddlerhood? Cognition and Emotion. 1993;7:481–505

Luby, J., Belden, A., Sullivan, J., Hayen, R., McCadney, A. and Spitznagel, E. (2009), Shame and guilt in preschool depression: evidence for elevations in self-conscious emotions in depression as early as age 3. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 50: 1156-1166. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2009.02077.x

Gladwell, V.F., Brown, D.K., Wood, C. et al. The great outdoors: how a green exercise environment can benefit all. Extrem Physiol Med 2, 3 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1186/2046-7648-2-3

Fabricius, W.V., Gonzales, C.R., Pesch, A., Weimer, A.A., Pugliese, J., Carroll, K., Bolnick, R.R., Kupfer, A.S., Eisenberg, N. and Spinrad, T.L. (2021), Perceptual Access Reasoning (PAR) in Developing a Representational Theory of Mind. Monographs Society Res Child, 86: 7-154. https://doi.org/10.1111/mono.12432

Egeland, B., Carlson, E., & Sroufe, L. (1993). Resilience as process. Development and Psychopathology, 5(4), 517-528. doi:10.1017/S0954579400

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