How Does Empathy Build Resilience?

When you’re feeling like telling your kid to ‘toughen up,’ consider a more empathetic response. It may help your child build the resilience they need.

The scene is familiar. You’re working hard to get everyone out the door and to their various destinations on time, but your kids have their own agenda. They’re bickering and making life difficult for each other until BOOM! One pushes the other’s buttons to the point of tears.

All you want is for your child to stop crying. The words, “You need to toughen up!,” may even be on your lips. But is this the best response in the moment? Does forcing your child to turn the other cheek — in any situation, from sibling squabbles to bullying at school — build the resilience your child needs?

When a child is told to toughen up, what they hear is that they are not strong enough and that they have a negative emotion they need to fix. “That’s overwhelming for a child,” says marriage and family therapist Lauren Blake, of Blake Family Consulting, LLC, a virtual practice near Ann Arbor. “A child’s No.1 go-to for comfort is mom and dad. That’s where they seek validation during childhood. When kids aren’t validated by their parents, they find validation elsewhere, which is dangerous, especially in the era of social media.”

Telling your child to toughen up can even result in an increase in the negative behavior you’re trying to stop. “The child might say, ‘Mom’s not hearing me, so I’ll get louder,’” she says. Or, it could cause your child to shut down because they don’t feel like they have an advocate.

“But you can reframe so your child can see your empathy,” Blake says. Speaking on their level, you can seek to understand the “why” behind the tears. “This is so hard. It takes extra time, but it helps your child learn how to communicate and learn assertiveness, which helps build resilience as well.”

Learned, not forced

It’s our job as parents to help our children build resilience to weather life’s challenges, but resilience is learned rather than forced, says Blake. Telling our kids to “toughen up” may seem like worthy encouragement, but empathy and strong, trusting relationships actually help build this skill.

An empathetic parent can help their child build this inner strength, and research supports this. According to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, resilience comes from supportive relationships, which help buffer kids from developmental disruption and build skills needed to respond to adversity.

An empathetic parent can help their child build resilience through practice. Blake encourages parents to start by showing their children their own vulnerabilities.

“As a therapist working with kids, I purposely make mistakes and then go through the process to fix my mistakes. This is all about having conversations on their level and teaching them it’s OK to make mistakes. We’re all allowed to make mistakes,” Blake says.

For example, she’ll work with a child on a hands-on project that uses scissors, “then I mess up and show the child what I did. Quite often, the child will tell me how to fix it, but more importantly, the child saw that grownups can make mistakes and that mistakes are fixable. It’s how we learn every other skill,” she explains.

Parents can encourage their children who are struggling with negativity at school to stand up for themselves, essentially “to take care of their heart and their brain,” she says. “It’s just like trimming our nails and brushing our teeth.”

Rather than jump in and tell your child how to fix their problems — or tell them just to toughen up — talk over scenarios, suggests Blake. “Maybe a child is teased at school. Take that opportunity to ask what your child might do if someone makes fun of them. How will they handle the situation? Offer a safe space for your child to think through the situation and how they might respond,” she says. This gives kids a chance to practice being resilient.

Make the conversation collaborative, Blake says, and stay engaged, “even if it takes 10 minutes to get through the story. What your child is saying is important, even if it’s hard to wrap your mind around what’s important to a 4-year-old.”

Model your own resilience

We, as parents, can model how to deal with our own feelings and emotions in appropriate ways — and our kids will learn that we struggle sometimes, too, but that we can be resilient and persevere.

While it might be your inclination just to say you are having a bad day, don’t be afraid to open up. “Kids love knowing the why when we, as adults, are struggling,” she says, so lay it out in age-appropriate terms. You can share that someone was rude to you at the grocery store, for example, and that it hurt your feelings and now you are working on your feelings. It’s important that kids see you working to make it better and not letting it throw your day away.

“I’m always really open with my kids about the kind of day I’m having,” says Blake. “I tell them that I woke up late, that I’m feeling scattered and forgot to pack my lunch. I’m showing the kinds of struggles a child would understand, talking on their level about the things they are experiencing as well.”

Practice is so important when building resilience, so take the time to work it out together, suggests Blake.

“Give a child a chance to practice communicating and advocating for themselves and they will get better at it,” she says. “Then, they will teach other kids as well. Someone was rude to a friend? They’ll talk through ways to handle it. They’ll collaborate.”

Content sponsored by Ethel and James Flinn Foundation. Visit flinnfoundation.org.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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