Want to Nurture Your Child's Ability to Be Resilient?

Help her become a good problem-solver.

Posted May 16, 2020

Three-year-old Marcus is trying to find where the pieces fit in a challenging puzzle. Four-year-old Ruby is working on how to keep her block tower from falling down. Omar and Zoey are looking for what they can use as superhero capes when Omar’s mom won’t let them use her scarves. These are all examples of kids hard at work solving problems.

This ability—to face a challenge and come up with effective solutions—is the key to developing resilience and is one of the most important skills for success in school, in relationships, and in navigating life. It is also an important component of building strong “executive functioning,” which is a child’s ability to manage his emotions and control his impulses so he can focus and maintain attention on the task at hand, draw on knowledge gained from past experiences, and to think creatively—to fix mistakes and try another strategy when the one he is using is not working.

You see this in real life when a child faces an obstacle, like not being able to fit the square block in the round space on the shape-sorter. Despite his frustration, he does not give up and toss the block across the room. Instead, he is able to stay calm enough to keep focusing on the task. He has done shape-sorters before and knows that he has to keep trying different spaces until he finds the correct one. Through this process of trial-and-error, he successfully finds the right space for all the shapes. Solving the problem results in a powerful sense of mastery. 

Here’s how you can support your child’s ability to become a master problem-solver:

  • Frame problems as a normal, expected part of life. Our tendency is to think of problems as negative—something to fear and avoid. But, in fact, problems are just an expected part of everyday life: It's raining so you can't go to the playground and need to find an indoor activity; you're out of peanut butter so you have to find something else to eat for lunch. All solvable. Framing “problems” in this way sets both you and your child up to approach these moments with a positive, “growth mindset.” The message to your child is: Stuff happens, and I have confidence that you can deal with it.
  • Recall past experiences when your child successfully muscled through a challenge. Remind him of how he calmed himself and persevered, and how that resulted in something really positive for him. For example, rebuilding a tower of blocks that fell; working hard to figure out how to balance on his scooter after he almost gave up; or learning to love school after a rocky first month of challenging separations from mom.
  • Avoid solving your child’s problems. (aka—learn to get comfortable with your child’s discomfort!) It’s a natural, human reaction not to want to see our children struggle. Our knee-jerk response is to rescue or “fix” whatever is causing our children distress. But the fact is that learning a new skill involves feeling uncomfortable to some degree or another until we have mastered it. Struggling is not bad or harmful to kids, it is part of the learning process. The distress they experience as they work through a challenge is what we call “positive” stress because it leads to growth. Picture your child working on riding a bicycle. If you never let up on your hold—doing the balancing for her—your child doesn’t experience the teetering that can feel a little scary and uncomfortable; but that’s what leads to her figuring out how to eventually maintain her balance and experience the incredible sense of pride when she can cruise around on her own.

The key is to provide the support your child needs to master the challenge while not doing for her what she is able to do on her own. For example, 3-year-old Selena is dead-set on pouring her own milk but it keeps spilling and Serena is getting frustrated. Her dad, Kyle, knows Serena is able and ready to master pouring, but not from a large, bulky milk carton. So instead of just taking over and pouring the milk himself, he acknowledges Serena's frustration and cheerily announces, "We can solve that problem!" He gets out a sports bottle, fills it with milk, and hands it to Serena who happily fills her own cup.

When we run to the rescue, we are actually sending the message that we don’t think our kids are capable of mastering the challenges they face and that only adults can solve their problems. It also teaches that failure is something to be feared or ashamed of, when in fact it is a critical component of the learning process. While it is no doubt easier to swoop in as the fixer, acting as a supportive coach instead will build your child’s self-confidence and help her learn to muscle through life’s challenges.

  • Position yourself as your child’s problem-solving partner. Let your child know that you have confidence in her to learn to solve the problems she encounters. You will always help her think through the challenges she faces and help her come up with solutions. But you won’t solve her problems for her because that is her job.

Here’s how to support versus solve:

  • Name the problem: “The tower is having trouble staying up!” 
  • Acknowledge your child’s emotional experience. This is a critical step not to miss. Remember, the ability to solve problems involves being able to manage emotions and impulses. When kids lose it, their brains shut down. They are not able to think clearly or take in any new information. One of the most effective and loving ways to help kids calm is to validate their emotions which lets them know they are seen and understood: “You are working really hard on this tower and it’s so frustrating that it keeps falling down.”
  • Help your child think through creative ways to solve the problem. Start by asking your child for her ideas about what might be some solutions. Recall past experiences of building with blocks and what helped the tower stay up—to draw on past successes. Before offering your own input, be sure to ask your child if she would like to hear some of your ideas for solving the problem. Recently, at a preschool where I consult, a child fell apart because it wasn't his turn to be the snack helper. I suggested other jobs he could do instead. This only led to his getting more revved-up and responding: "No, no, no—don't tell me that!" I pivoted and tried: "I have some ideas about how you might solve this problem. Do you want to hear them?" He quickly calmed and was all ears. This seemingly minor nuance can make a big difference. Offering unsolicited guidance, especially when a child is in a stressed state, can feel intrusive and intensify your child’s distress. Asking for permission to provide input shows respect for your child’s boundaries and makes it more likely that he will actually absorb the ideas you are sharing.

Helping children become good problem-solvers from their earliest years is a gift that keeps on giving. The ability to manage their frustration and be persistent in muscling through a challenge will serve them well now and far into the future.