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Raising Resilient Kids

Learning to adapt is key.

Key points

  • While goals and dreams are important, it's important for kids to learn how to adapt their expectations.
  • Life doesn't always go as planned. But we can use our challenges as stepping stones toward new, creative outcomes.
  • Parents can be role models for embracing change, to show it isn't the end of the world when we need to rethink things.
  • Adaptation and improvisation are essential in creating the conditions for accomplishing goals that are aligned with our life purpose.

So much emphasis is placed on kids to achieve and succeed. Defining oneself by one’s achievements and setting oneself apart from others is the standard mindset, as teenagers begin to look ahead at college applications, career planning, and future goals. Yet little emphasis is placed on the importance of creativity in achieving those aspirations, resourcefulness in working through setbacks, or ingenuity in re-envisioning how to forge ahead in a world that is always uncertain.

We all love predictability. It corrals our anxieties and makes us feel safe. But the truth is that life is filled with infinite unpredictable variables that can throw us for a loop at any given time. If we’ve succeeded in raising our kids to feel at home in the world, we’re on the right path.

That said, sometimes the world can be an unforgiving and scary place. The best we can do is to help prepare our children adapt to life’s changes, and be there to help them process through those changes and disappointments when they occur.

Teach kids to have a positive attitude toward change

There’s an old adage that says “Change is inevitable, but growth is optional.” When raising children, it can be hard to maintain a long-range mindset while dealing with the here and now. We may take on our kids’ devastation when they fall short of reaching their goals and get sucked into “either-or” thinking as we help them to process their disappointments. But these experiences are golden opportunities to help them think creatively. They must consider novel solutions and harness alternative problem-solving skills that come will in handy in the days ahead. Life does hurl its inevitable curveballs.

Therapist and author of Harry the Caterpillar Grows: Helping Children Adjust to Change, Cindy Jett shares that this mindset involves “realistically assessing the positive and negative sides of an impending change. On the positive side, change is an opportunity to expand one’s experience. It is life-enhancing, renewing, and essential to well-being. On the other hand, when change involves loss, it means actively grieving and processing feelings. And when a change presents obstacles, it means being proactive and confident that one can affect his fate for the better.”1

photo credit: Chang Duong (Unsplash)
Source: photo credit: Chang Duong (Unsplash)

Here's where the important aspect of role modeling comes in. When asking yourself: How do I handle obstacles and setbacks? Do you think of worst-case scenarios, projecting a scary uncertain future filled with more problems and painful challenges? Do you look forward to a new and different horizon, now open to different possibilities?

Research shows2 that a realistic appraisal of both the sorrows and the gains involved in accepting change offers the best way ahead. In short, we need to appreciate the depth which comes from mourning our losses (loss of abilities, loss of dreams, loss of loved ones) to incorporate them into our character, then build upon that strength as we learn to adapt to our new circumstances.

Adapt, re-frame, and re-create

As a mom on-the-mend after suffering a serious accident and eventual amputation of part of my leg, my mind went to all kinds of dark places. When I began to think of rebuilding my life as a parent with a disability, visions of being sidelined and saddened were tough to choke down. It was hard looking ahead at a painful, challenging, and difficult future that was so much different than the life we had planned. I was afraid the jovial, spunky, fun me would crumble and I’d be left forever wishing for my old self to return.

Ten years later—now the parent of two teenagers, both of whom joined our family through adoption—I’ve been able to look back with a degree of gratitude for what we all have learned. About priorities. About resilience. About loss and trauma. And the integrity gained in staying the course when things got hard.

We’ve learned that there is no shame in crying when we feel sad because sadness and loss are part of life. Things don’t always go as planned, but rather than falling apart, how do I use my difficult experiences to live into the future? The avenues that open up might not be what we intend, but if I approach life with an open mind (less either or and more yes, and) opportunities are waiting to present themselves.

Growing up alongside others with various disabilities, my children learned about adapting and overcoming as a non-negotiable life skill. Through experience, we’ve all learned how adapting and improvising are more than helpful. They’re essential to forging ahead and creating the conditions for accomplishing goals that are more aligned with our life purpose.

American author and teacher Joseph Campbell shared: “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned, to accept the one that is waiting for us.”3 It’s important to teach our kids that while goals and dreams are important, it’s also important to listen to the creative voices inside that nudge them into directions they may never have envisioned.


[1] Jett, Cindy. Teaching Children How to Adapt.

[2] Rice, Andrea. What Resilience Is and Isn’t.


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