Raising Resilient Kids: Are we bubble wrapping our children?

Estimated Reading Time 4 Minutes
Call them what you want – helicopter moms or hyper parents – but the recently noted trend of overzealously protecting our children from every scrape and failed test is misguided, experts say. It’s raising a generation of what Michael Ungar calls “bubble-wrapped kids” – kids who are anything but resilient. 
“When we bubble wrap our kids we are disadvantaging them,” says Michael, a social worker, family therapist and professor at Dalhousie University’s School of Social Work and the author of several books including, Too Safe for Their Own Good. “A whole swath of our youth is feeling lost amid the sanitized, prescribed, regimented order of their too-safe upbringings.
“It’s our job to help children avoid taking risks they may be ill prepared to take. At
the same time, it’s also our job to help them experience the risks they are ready for.” Michael became concerned when in his own therapy practice he began to notice a group of young people from caring, middle-class homes coming to see him for one of two reasons:
• they were compliant young people showing signs of depression and anxiety and an inability to take on responsibility or to show common sense in their lives;
• they were experimenting with dangerous, risk-taking behaviours, such as early sexual activity or drug use, that they were using to cope with what they considered to be overly restrictive and protective homes. “At some point our children have to
taste danger. The kids who drift into lives of conformity and rigid order are setting themselves up for a midlife crisis,” says Michael. 
“It is far better, I think, that our children learn to fail a little when they’re young than experience far bigger failures for which they’re not prepared as adults.”
Facing failure and rebounding from our mistakes has a lot to do with resilience. Typically, resilience has been applied to children who have overcome incredibly difficult situations such as abuse, neglect or poverty and gone on to lead satisfying, successful lives, says Robert Brooks, a psychologist on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and the author or co-author of 14 books including Raising Resilient Children. His research over the last 30 years has found that such people have what he dubs a “resilient mindset” which includes:
• a belief that there are adults who relate to them with unconditional love and are available for support and encouragement; excellent problem-solving skills;
• self-discipline, optimism and recognition of their strengths;
• an ability to see mistakes as experiences from which to learn.
“Resilient children are children who feel that when problems arise they can solve these problems,” he says. Research has shown that children as young as three and a half years old, when given the chance, can come up with options to resolve a problem. “As parents, we don’t have to rush in to solve their problems,” says Robert.
For example, your daughter may come home from school and tell you some children wouldn’t let her sit at a table with them. Instead of telling her what to do, why not ask what she thinks she could the next time it happens. “Let her solve a problem on her own, or at least try.”
Resiliency isn’t something parents can control, but they can play a big role in helping their children develop the attributes that enable them to be resilient, says Dr. Ester Cole, a Toronto psychologist and past chair of the Psychology Foundation of Canada who developed the educational booklet Kids Can Cope: Parenting Resilient Children at Home and at School. 
Ester gives the example of Sam, a 10-year-old boy who is struggling with his math
homework. “Dad, I’ll never get this homework done. There are too many questions,” he says, close to tears. Sam’s father looks at his math book. “Ten questions. Do you think you could get five done before supper?”
“Maybe,” says Sam.
“Try that. Then you’ll be half done,” says his father. “You’ll get a break over supper time and then there will be only five more to do.”
Without his father’s support, Sam might not have finished his math, his homework may have become a bad experience and he might have started to have negative feelings about school, says Ester. But if Sam’s father had stepped in and done his homework, he would have initially relieved his son but may have denied him the chance to develop resilience skills.
Without the mindset or skills needed to be resilient, the risk is that kids won’t be able to cope with life especially when they leave home. They might become the ones at university who sink into depression or plagiarize an essay because they can’t face failure, or won’t leave home as young adults but won’t contribute
financially or emotionally to their families, says Michael.
“We want to give our kids the risk-taker’s advantage,” he says. In his book, he recounts the story of Tess, an adventuresome four-yearold he saw one day climbing on the monkey bars at a park. He listened as her mother sternly told her: “Don’t go any higher or we’re going home.” But Michael watched as Tess climbed higher and higher. When her mother became panicky and scared, Tess started to
cry. Eventually, she backed her way down until her mother pried her from the bars. Michael couldn’t help thinking that Tess wouldn’t be trying anything risky again for a long time.
The message she was hearing from her mother was: “Don’t trust yourself. Listen to others; they know better.” Instead her mother could have coached her by saying, “Watch your hands and feet. Pay attention to what you are doing. If you need my help shout,” says Michael.
Kids who have learned to take calculated risks are more likely to trust their own
judgment, know their limits, understand the consequences of their actions, assert their independence and respect others, says Michael.
Aside from being given manageable amounts of risk, they also need responsibility. Parents can start by asking them to help make a meal or to get themselves to soccer practice instead of always being driven and escorted to the field from the cars.
“Children are happiest and more likely to avoid really dangerous
behaviours like drug abuse, early sexual activity, truancy, violence and
running away, when adults make their worlds a place of challenge and
adventure,” says Michael.
For a teenager, that might mean being allowed to attend a rock concert with some
friends, or for a younger child, visiting a relative in another city.
Michael’s son, Scott, was 14, he wanted to go to a party and then walk
home with his friends at midnight. Instead of immediately saying “No!”
Michael instead asked him to assess the danger of such a scenario. He
asked his son if he knew the neighbourhood and what he would do if he
encountered danger.
“He didn’t have a plan. I
told him that this isn’t smart and doesn’t seem like a manageable amount
of risk for you. I didn’t say ‘No, don’t go to the party’. I gave him
$20 and told him to take a cab home at midnight or call me and I
would pick him up.
“The whole point is to
figure out how to say ‘yes’. It’s not about saying ‘no’,” says
Michael. “We can’t shut our kids down. It’s not about suppressing, it’s
about substituting.”

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