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When it comes to building resiliency, as parents, it’s always hard to know how much are our children supposed to be able to handle. As a four-year-old, my daughter always surprises me with how much stress she can tolerate and how much she just can’t handle. The four areas that resiliency focuses on are emotional expression, problem solving, self-advocacy and coping strategies to deal with pain, disappointment, and loss. When it comes to building resiliency with kids, understanding how much their brains can handle in these four areas is a good place to start.

Learning to Cope
Elementary School
Kindergarten to 5th Grade

At this age, children are transitioning from relying on their external environment to focusing on their new internal world. Kindergarteners and first-graders are beginning to rely on their internal cues regarding what feels good and bad, leading them to develop a sense of empathy, self-confidence and mastery.

When it comes to emotional expression, they are beginning to learn how to functionally express their emotions using language. They can identify what they like, don’t like, what makes them feel good internally, and what doesn’t.
Children are also developing the ability to solve problems. But with problem-solving strategies basically in the form of trial and error, they cannot predict consequences accurately. So when parents ask, “What did you think was going to happen?” the answer usually is, “I don’t know” or they may feel embarrassed and start to cry.

The ability to cope with these types of situations is becoming more internal—they no longer need to rely on external sources of soothing. Children at this age may need some time alone rather than soothing from the parent.

It’s a good transition to help them learn to self-soothe, because self-soothing also helps with self-advocacy. They are learning how to stand up for themselves and ask for what they need. Parents can use this critical period to instill some basic coping skills based on these developmental changes.

Child reading list

“Fill a Bucket: A Guide to Daily Happiness for the Young Child” by Kathy Martin
“Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning About Empathy” by Bob Sornson Ph.D.
My Mouth is a Volcano! by Julia Cook
The Worst Day of My Life Ever! (Best Me I Can Be) by Julia Cook

Parent reading list

“Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings” by Kenneth Ginsburg
“Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More Than Grades, Trophies, or ‘Fat Envelopes’ ” by Madeline Levine
“The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind” by Daniel Siegel

Signs & Behaviors

  • Temper tantrums. By kindergarten, they should decrease to about 1 to 5 a week
  • Anxiety in young children: Intense irritability, hyperactivity, clinginess, fear of change or poor adaptability to change, severe separation anxiety with accompanying sleep/appetite changes
  • Anxiety in older children: Obsessive thoughts about specific negative things such as something bad happening to their parents or loved ones
  • Social withdrawal
  • Irritability or moodiness
  • Feeling victimized by peers
  • Drop in grades or interest in school
  • Disengagement from their hobbies and fun activities
  • Changes in sleep, appetite or attention/concentration

What you can do

  • Talk about feelings on a regular basis. Make it a part of your everyday conversation.
  • Help them identify the feeling (try the “Name it to Tame it” principle from Daniel Siegel’s book). Identify your own feelings to model the behavior.
  • When they are not in an emotional crisis, help them identify the emotional intensity by using their hands: Have them keep them close together for something small, and farther apart for something more intense.
  • To build empathy, have your child identify what the other person might feel in a situation or in reaction to something that your child did.
  • Link the internal emotional experience to their senses using language. The more connections you build using language, the more your children can use language to cope independently as they grow up.
  • When they are not in an emotional crisis, identify activities, strategies and skills that make them feel good and help them have fun. This will help them know what to do in the next emotional crisis, rather than feeling even more out of control.
  • Model a coping skill that works for you. Humor, distracting themselves, belly breaths (from the diaphragm), or doing jumping jacks are simple, yet effective coping strategies for this age.
  • Put together a coping box containing art activities, books, play dough or clay, a stress ball, or MP-3 player with music that relaxes them.

Conversation starters

  • What was the best part of your day? What made it the best part?
  • What was the not best part of your day? What made it not the best part?
  • Have you ever felt like your feelings get too big? I know mine do.
  • When I feel sad or mad, drawing, reading, talking and belly breathing always makes me feel better. What makes you feel better?

Learning to Cope
Junior High
6th to 8th Grade

Junior high is about transitioning from being a kid to being a teenager. At this age, preteens are beginning to think things through more, show increasingly complex emotional reactions to situations, and have a greater ability to suppress or conceal negative emotional reactions.

On top of all this, they are starting to deal with hormonal surges that are creating some significant structural changes to their bodies and brains, creating an even more complicated picture.

Taken together, their reactions and emotions may seem exaggerated or inconsistent. It’s normal for preteens to swing from happy to despair, or feeling super-smart to thinking they are incredibly dumb. Preteen worries/stress now focus on school performance, appearance, not having friends or what their friends think of them, drugs and drinking, their future careers, and losing family members.

Developing and maintaining a supportive relationship with your preteen is critical as they become more independent. They are transitioning from needing their parents to wanting to do everything themselves.

It’s important to remember that despite the outward appearance of rejecting the parent, they really don’t want you to leave them alone. They are beginning to test the waters to see what they can and cannot do on their own. Interestingly, they are more likely to feel genuine empathy and use their own and others’ emotions in a more intentional manner when making decisions.

Preteen reading list

“Girl Stuff: A Survival Guide to Growing Up” by Margaret Blackstone
“Too Stressed to Think?: A Teen Guide to Staying Sane When Life Makes You Crazy” by Annie Fox and Ruth Kirschner
“The Body Book For Boys” by Rebecca Paley, Grace Norwich, Jonathan Mar

Parent reading list

“A Parent’s Guide to the Preteen Years: Raising Your 11- to 14-Year-Old in the Age of Chat Rooms and Navel Rings” by Susan Panzarine
“Raising Preteens: A Synthesis of Research and a Foundation for Action” by A. Rae Simpson
“Beyond the Big Talk: Every Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Preteens – From Middle School to High School and Beyond” by Debra Haffner

Signs & Behaviors

  • Withdrawal from friends; some withdrawal from family is normal
  • Depressed, sad, excessively tearful
  • Cutting or other self-harm
  • Change in grades or in ability to follow through
  • Severe behaviors like excessive lying, stealing, cheating
  • Significant change in eating or sleeping habits
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or fun activities
  • Giving away possessions
  • Aggression towards parent or siblings
  • Bullying their peers
  • Seek professional help if any of these behaviors escalate or start to significantly interfering with functioning.

What you can do

  • Learn about your preteen’s routine at school.
  • Develop and maintain a specific check-in time and strategy.
  • Don’t give up when they say “I don’t know” or “fine.”
  • Get interested in what they are interested in.
  • Find and develop their successes; provide opportunities for them to succeed.
  • Catch the successes and make a big deal out of them.
  • Don’t overreact or overact. The time for us to be entertaining is gone by this age.
  • Talk about funny things that happened to you.
  • Listen and validate.
  • Don’t try to fix their problems. Explore by asking questions and listen.
  • Brainstorm strategies together and let them take the lead.
  • Discuss important issues with them in a mature manner. Meet them at their level and take it up a notch when appropriate.
  • Talk about peer pressure—both good and bad peer pressure.
  • Meet your preteen’s friends and their parents.
  • Keep up with media (especially social media) and develop rules with your preteen’s input.

Conversation starters

  • Boost your child’s sense of responsibility by adding these words to their daily vocabulary: choose, decide and pick.
  • How come you picked your grumpy mood?
  • What response did you choose when the problems got tougher?
  • How did you decide to act when your coach pulled you out of the game?
  • What’s different about this year than last year?
  • Did anything funny happen today?
  • What did your friends say about your presentation?
  • Anybody get on your nerves today?
  • What did you and Mary talk about at lunch today? Where did you sit?

Learning to Cope
High School & College
9th Grade and Beyond

By the time they start high school, our children are fully transitioned into adolescence. Now they are starting to really get their feet wet in terms of moral reasoning, predicting outcomes, perspective taking and emotional self-regulation. Stressors and worries are focused on appearance, peers, their future and larger world issues.

Emotions continue to be felt intensely, but can feel extremely rewarding, thus creating a system that feeds on itself leading to more dramatic expression. Because the reward systems are gearing up, the intensity of risky behaviors feels good to teen brains, causing them to engage in risky and, at times, erratic behaviors.

Teens also usually feel and think as if they know everything. This is partially true. Their brains are fast approaching peak development and running on dopamine, the feel good neurotransmitter, so it makes sense that they feel and think and act as if they are smarter than anyone else. That kind of grandiosity feels good, and is hard to argue with.

Rather than challenge them, talk to them, set firm boundaries, follow through, use natural consequences and rewards, and most of all, try not to alienate them. They are still the children you love and raised, they’re just drowning in a bunch of neurochemicals that will eventually regulate itself as long as parents can provide a firm, boundary regulated, and developmentally attuned atmosphere.

Teen reading list

“Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky
“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie
“My Anxious Mind: A Teen’s Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic” by Michael Tompkins and Katherine Martinez

Parent reading list

“Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls” by Mary Pipher
“You and Your Adolescent: A Parent’s Guide for Ages 10-20” by L. Steinberg
“Parenting Your Teenager” by David Elkind
“Wonderful Ways to Love a Teen” by Ford Berkeley

Signs & Behaviors

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Self-harm
  • Truancy
  • Social withdrawal
  • Changes in sleep or eating or concentration
  • Changes in their grades
  • Lack of interest in fun activities
  • Missing alcohol in the house
  • Missing money
  • New items that appear without explanation
  • Hiding information or lying to you
  • Skipping meals

What you can do

  • Help your teenagers learn how to laugh about things.
  • Don’t let one thing that went wrong spoil everything.
  • Learn how to take a mini-mental vacation to get away from it all.
  • Reach out to talk to them, other parents and their friends.
  • Remember that most of what you are seeing is fairly normal.
  • Always try to help them find the “silver” lining.
  • Model accepting responsibility in an appropriate manner and teach them the same.
  • Model the concept of “radical acceptance.” Teach them that not everything is in their control.
  • Model and teach them how to be flexible.
  • Model and teach them how to set realistic goals and objectives, and plan it out with them.

Conversation starters

  • I get worried about you when I see how much you are dealing with. What are you doing to have fun?
  • I do yoga to relax. What do you do to relax?
  • I get so confused about all the information out there on drugs. Can you tell me what you know?
  • I really thought it was great how you handled the fight with your friend.
  • What do you think worked best?
  • You are getting older. I don’t want to interfere more than I need to make sure you are safe. Can you start telling me when you need help, so
  • I am not always nagging you?
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