How to Help Your Child Overcome Tough Times

Every child struggles at some point in life. Help your child build the skills they need to bounce back and thrive.

Two-thirds of children will experience a traumatic event before they reach the age of 16 — and one-third will experience two or more traumas. Very few kids grow to adulthood without struggling over something, whether it’s bullying, the loss of a loved one, divorce, a mental health condition or more. For parents, witnessing these struggles is difficult, but how can you truly help your child overcome tough times?

Kids today face additional challenges, too. “I did crazy things as a child but they were never posted online. There was no running tab. Now kids do something embarrassing and it’s blasted all over the internet,” says Tiffany Abrego, Ph.D., executive director of mental health and supervising licensed psychologist with Mentally Fit, a Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan program she built to support kids with individual and group therapy. 

Trauma is common, says Dr. Abrego. “You can have the most well-adjusted child and something traumatic can happen that can turn things around,” she says, adding that trauma can include a scary or life-threatening event that happens to a child or to someone close. “It could be a natural disaster, assault, racism or community violence.”

Key to overcoming challenges is resilience

Resilience is the ability to bounce back when really difficult things happen, and kids are built to be resilient, says Dr. Abrego. Sometimes bouncing back is more challenging and takes time, but it is possible to build and strengthen resilience so that when your child faces tough times, they will be able to cope, move on and be functional. 

That work is worth the effort and the benefits can be lasting. “Building these skills can help with mental health over time,” she says.

Is resilience a learned trait, or is it hardwired? “What’s interesting is that we are born with an innate temperament, with some traits that make it easier or more challenging to build resiliency skills, but everyone can build these skills,” says Dr. Abrego.

Resilience starts in infancy with a baby’s secure attachment to its caregiver. When a baby and caregiver can build a responsive bond, this, over time, allows the child to feel safe, cared for and confident enough to explore their surroundings

“Maybe you don’t have the best circumstances in infancy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t improve. If we want to provide the best care for infants, we start with pregnant moms so they can provide good mental health support, good nutrition, good resiliency skills. It’s so important for babies, even before they are born,” says Dr. Abrego.

Empower your child to get through tough times

One way to help build resilience is to allow your child to make choices, especially during the developmental stages of toddlerhood and the teen years. “Giving your child choices allows them to develop self-efficacy and learn how to listen to their instincts,” Dr. Abrego explains. “By coaching your child, instead of telling them you have to do this, you’re allowing them to learn how to manage situations.”

It’s so tempting to rush in and solve your child’s problems, especially when they are having a conflict with a peer. A better choice is to talk with your child and offer practical tips for managing conflict. Act as a sounding board rather than getting directly involved. “The best thing is to coach children to manage these things on their own,” says Dr. Abrego. Even allowing toddlers simple choices can build the confidence to know they are capable of overcoming challenges. 

Shift from solving the problem to validating your child’s feelings. “Validating feelings helps your child gain language and build emotional intelligence. You can name their emotions by saying ‘I can see you are angry’ or ‘I can tell you are frustrated,’” she says. When you show your child that their emotions make sense, you aren’t necessarily agreeing with them — you are telling them their feelings are valid.

“We often tell our children to stop crying because we are uncomfortable with the situation at hand and we want to make it stop. The best thing to do is acknowledge their feelings and validate them. These are big to building emotional resilience,” says Dr. Abrego.

You are a model for resilience

Empower yourself to be your child’s best model for building resiliency skills. When you name and share your feelings, your child learns from your demonstration. “Say it out loud. You can say, ‘I’m feeling upset and need a few minutes to think about what you said so I can respond appropriately,’” says Dr. Abrego. Model this consistently and pretty soon, you’ll hear your child do the same.

Finally, remember that your child will also learn resiliency skills from a community of influential adults, teachers and caregivers, says Dr. Abrego. Surround yourself with support and offer support to friends and family, too. “When you build relationships and become a supportive caregiver, you are helping children in the long run.”

Content sponsored by the Ethel and James Flinn Foundation. Learn more at flinnfoundation.org. Read more content like this at Metro Parent’s A Parent’s Guide to Family Mental Health.

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