Curious to know why some kids persevere while others don’t? Discover the 5 characteristics of a resilient child and what gritty kids do differently.
My son had done a really neat trick with a blob of slime (yes, slime). He had stretched it out to a thin layer, held it in front of his face, then blew on it to make a “bubble.” It looked exactly how bubble gum would look when you blow on it.
Not surprisingly, one of his little brothers so was intrigued that he wanted to try the trick as well.
At that point, I was already cringing inside. In truth, I didn’t think he’d be able to get it right, what with being younger and all. And the last thing I wanted was for him to feel disappointed, much less frustrated.
His first few tries to blow a similar slime bubble only confirmed my expectations: his bubble was nowhere as good as his older brother’s. He then took his slime to the kitchen where I hoped he’d call it a day, preferably before he realized how difficult a task it was to do.
But thank goodness I never said anything or revealed what I was thinking. Because the next thing I knew, he ran out of the kitchen, slime in hand, and said, “Look mama—I did it!” And boy, did he do it. Despite my initial doubts, my little boy proved me wrong.
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5 characteristics of a resilient child
You have to hand it to kids who don’t seem unfettered by adversity. Where one bad moment isn’t enough to ruin the rest of the day, or when they can look at their failures and not give a hoot.
Sure, all of them have thrown a fit when they couldn’t do something right, especially after several tries. But I’ve found that young children have a knack for persevering despite the odds against them.
What personality traits do resilient kids have that set them apart? What do they do differently from others? Take a look at these five key characteristics of a resilient child:
1. Resilient kids have a growth mindset
It’s disheartening to see kids who crumble because they got an answer wrong or they couldn’t make a basket or their drawing just didn’t turn out right. And truth be told, all kids will experience this at one point or another in childhood. I know I’ve done my fair share of consoling.
But watch resilient kids and you’ll see they tend to dust themselves off and move on.
This isn’t to say that the initial failure was pleasant, but they also don’t identify with it as a person. They don’t think, “This drawing was horrible—that must mean I’m a horrible artist.” No, instead they tell themselves, “This drawing was horrible—I guess I can practice some more.”
With grit, optimism, and self esteem, they know that they can change their behavior, habits, and choices, and get different results. While resilient kids know that failure is inevitable, they don’t let it stop them, either.
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2. Resilient kids have deep, genuine connections to others
Resilient kids are better able to cope with life’s hardships because they have a deep connection to others. For most of them, this means a solid bond and regular interaction with their parents, but other parent-substitutes can do the job as well, from extended family members to caregivers to teachers.
What is it about the connection that leads to resilience?
The consistency and reliability of a strong relationship help them weather the challenges they face. They might have fought with a friend, but if their family life at home is stable, it’s easier to see the fight as something they can get through.
Unconditional love also reassures them that any setbacks they face aren’t necessarily a reflection of who they are.
As I say in my book, 31 Days to Better Parenting:
“Most of us will agree we love our kids unconditionally. But do our kids know that? We smother them with kisses during happy times only to send them away when they’re upset.
Be there for your child, through all her emotions. She’ll feel like all her feelings are welcome. You don’t pick and choose which ones you’d like her to feel, or withhold your affection when she’s upset.
She knows you love her no matter what. From tickling to tantrums, from ‘I love you’s’ to hurtful words.”
3. Resilient kids feel competent
Confident and willing to try new things, resilient kids stretch themselves to take risks and step outside of their comfort zones.
If they happen to fail, they don’t tie the failure to their individual characteristics. Instead, they change course, knowing they can always try again for more positive outcomes. They see a different perspective and tell themselves new personal narratives to boost themselves up and go at it again.
But if they happen to succeed, then that only adds to their mastery and competence, that feeling of “Yes, I can do this!”
And on it cycles, as they try even more challenges and step further into new experiences.
4. Resilient kids have a positive outlook
Let’s say you and your child were planning to walk to the neighborhood park and play on the playground. Except once you arrived, it turned out that the entire playground area was closed off for construction.
As a backup plan, the two of you decide to simply walk around the block and explore the area. “Well, at least it’s still a nice day!” she later comments.
Resilient kids have an uncanny way of having a positive outlook, even in the face of hassles, stress, and yes, a change of plans. They’re more likely to “wing it” and be willing to go along with whatever happens because few things can make them feel down.
5. Resilient kids are creative
One of the reasons that challenges, mistakes, and failures serve us well is that they force us to be creative. And this is true with resilient kids. They’re less willing to admit defeat and would rather go above and beyond to find creative ways to do well.
Let’s say you and your child are waiting in line at the post office, and just as luck would have it, the line is moving slowly. Rather than whine or complain, she finds creative ways to keep herself entertained to avoid the boredom that she would otherwise feel.
Whether waiting in long lines, falling off the monkey bars, or not getting a toy she wanted, a resilient child doesn’t give up so quickly. Instead, she can look for ways to overcome the situation, from playing a game in line to gripping the bars a different way.
How to raise resilient kids
Most people would agree that how children succeed comes from hard work. Achievement requires practice and effort, but we forget one factor for success: resilience.
Every one of us—including our kids—will fail. Despite hard work, we won’t always get what we want or what we strive for. But resilience keeps us from giving up. We bounce back, grieve expectations and losses, and learn from our mistakes. And we try again, and again.
Kids are better suited to building resilience than most adults and are some of the grittiest among us. Think about the baby learning to walk despite many falls or the preschooler who parks himself in front of a puzzle until he completes it.
Somewhere along the way, we sometimes lose this skill. We get down on ourselves when we don’t know all the answers, or would rather be complacent than learn something new.
How can we raise them with grit, resilience, and perseverance?
1. Embrace struggle and mistakes
The only way to develop resilience is to face the struggles and mistakes to bounce back from.
When you see your toddler trying to piece the two building blocks together, don’t interrupt. She might not figure it out, even for weeks or months, but she can build the resilience to keep trying and to know when to let it go.
And treat mistakes as some of the best teachers that they are. They’re not something to feel ashamed of, but areas to improve.
We all want to hear that our kids are brilliant. We beam when their teachers say they’re reading above grade level, but panic when we hear they struggled with their long-vowel sounds.
Don’t. Your kids won’t master everything and will fall short at some point. Show empathy for their sadness, but treat shortcomings as markers for where to focus on. Mistakes aren’t terrible—we can learn so much from them.
This outlook has offered me a new way to look at “easy” versus “hard,” especially with my kids’ abilities. I don’t praise them for breezing through homework. Instead, I’ll make a note that they need more challenging work.
2. Let your kids take risks
Your heart races when your toddler climbs on playground equipment. Why don’t they put more metal bars on the sides? you think. They could fall right off!
But try not to hover over her and let her take appropriate risks instead. Avoid saying “Be careful!” every 10 seconds, and instead offer your help or suggestions. This autonomy will help her weigh the risk factors and develop a sense of self-efficacy.
Because risks are good. Kids need to feel like they can master difficulty and yes, even danger. They learn problem-solving skills. And in taking risks, they overcome the doubt and anxiety that come with trying new things.
3. Expose your kids to new experiences and environments
Routine is good, but once in a while, expose your kids to new experiences and places. With you nearby, they can learn that the unfamiliar can be exciting (or at least, something to learn from).
Is your child afraid of something, like the beach for instance? Before you write the beach off as a place you won’t ever go back to, consider returning, even regularly. Let her gradually acclimate. She needs time to explore on her terms, not on your expectations.
With enough exposure and gentle guidance, she can learn that the beach can be a fun place to visit.
The same is true for different environments. Take her to festivals, libraries, and the pool. Introducing new experiences helps her overcome initial wariness and face it with confidence.
4. Let your kids pursue a passion
Encourage self-motivation through your child’s passions. If she’s already interested in a topic or hobby, she’ll likely stick with it, even through its challenges.
What do you do if she’s interested in something you’re not, or has an interest that other kids don’t typically like? Don’t judge—everyone has their interests. They don’t always have to play the “right way.”
Support her passions and inklings, no matter how different they may be from your own. This thirst for more can help her develop better focus and resilience.
5. Encourage effort, hard work, and finding strategies
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I’m not a fan of typical praise and prefer the ones that focus on effort. When kids believe they’re “a natural,” they’re more likely to avoid trying. Why try, if they’re supposed to be good at it already?
Instead, praise effort and hard work: “All right! You didn’t give up when the puzzle got hard, and look at you now—you’ve gotten so many pieces together.”
Or praise them for finding new strategies and correcting their mistakes. “I like how you found a new way to stack those blocks. Now the roof is holding up well.”
Focusing on effort instead of innate skills teaches them to keep trying, even when it’s hard. They can embrace challenges, not complacency. Psychologist Angela Duckworth writes in her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance:
“In my view, the biggest reason a preoccupation with talent can be harmful is simple: By shining our spotlight on talent, we risk leaving everything else in the shadows. We inadvertently send the message that these other factors—including grit—don’t matter as much as they really do.”
6. Love the journey, not the end
Back in high school and college, I used to belong to dance groups. I was part of the dance team, and I also belonged to cultural dance and hip hop groups. In all those years, I can barely remember my time on stage.
But the process of getting to that stage… amazing. I loved bonding with folks I wouldn’t have known otherwise. Practicing every day to finally do the splits (I wish I could still do them!). Laughing, eating, and sharing stories. Inside jokes.
Life experiences are like that, aren’t they? You remember the hard work of getting there the most. You practice, work, and improve, and you build resilience.
Yes, the goal is to “win,” perform, or solve a puzzle or create an art piece. But you’ll get there better—and have more fun—with hard-earned resilience and grit.
To help your kids thrive and excel, encourage the characteristics of a resilient child that can serve them well.
Resilient kids have a growth mindset and understand that effort, and not an innate ability, is what helps them do well. They feel strong connections with others and rely on consistent routines to better weather changes that happen in life.
They feel competent and are more willing to try new things, and tend to have a positive outlook on life, regardless of the obstacles they face. And finally, they find creative ways to overcome these obstacles, whether big or small.
Who knew that blowing slime bubbles would remind me of the importance of encouraging resilience in my kids? But the confidence and joy my son felt could only have stemmed from the resilience that encouraged him to keep trying.
Get more tips:
- How to Raise Kids Who Love to Learn
- Why Too Many Toys Can Be Bad for Kids
- How to Teach Delayed Gratification in Children
- Teaching Your Child Winning and Losing Social Skills
- How to Respond When Your Child Makes a Mistake
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