4 Proven Ways to Build Strong, Resilient Kids and Teens

John ThurmanBy John Thurman15 Minutes

Are you looking for tools to help your child reach their potential?

In this article, “4 Proven Ways to Build Strong, Resilient Kids and Teens,” you as a parent or caring adult will learn the four basic building blocks that you need to raise strong, resilient children. By the way, these work for little ones and adults.

Before we get into them, let’s look at this piece of ancient wisdom that has encouraged parents for thousands of years. As a result, it is as applicable today as it was when it was initially penned.

Train up a child in the way he should go;
even when he is old, he will not depart from it.
Proverbs 22:6 ESV

There is a popular notion that this means that if you do X, then God promises Y will always happen as a result. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and unfortunately, many well-meaning parents have been disappointed by the wrong interpretation.

I suggest looking at this passage in a couple of ways. First, training children means getting them started in the right direction and paying attention to how they are bent — their natural strengths and weaknesses. This might mean appreciating that your child may or may not be athletically or scholastically inclined. But, even deeper, this means to dedicate or initiate children on the path of holiness, righteousness, and wisdom when they are little. Share God’s Word with them daily.

Make prayer and conversations about Jesus common occurrences in your household. This is another reason why being a part of a church with a great children’s and youth program can be such a valuable investment of time for families. Not only does it give opportunities for godly wisdom to be spoken into your kids’ lives from a variety of people in your community, but those lessons are great jumping-off points for you to start and continue important conversations at home.

Let’s jump into the 4 proven ways to build strong, resilient kids and teens

Tip #1 – Model Resilience

Personal resilience is your ability to bounce back, to pick yourself up and try again, and again, and again, until you either succeed or decide on a more productive direction.

So the question is, how are you as a parent modeling resilience in your personal life and marriage? Here are some articles that I have penned that may help:

“How to Destroy Your Three Most Formidable Fears”

“How to Use Optimism to Overcome Adversity and Build Resilience”

Tip #2 – Raise a Problem Solver

When your children come to you with questions, respond without immediately giving the answer. Help them figure out how to problem-solve instead. Be willing to let them fail and learn.

My mom was a schoolteacher and high school librarian when I was growing up. She was a fun-loving, hard-working mother and wife who always encouraged us to do our best, but she could also be demanding.

Occasionally, I would ask her or my dad how to spell a word. Their usual response was  “sound it out” — a key phrase for those of us who learned phonics in school. “Sound it out” usually meant the word was spelled as it sounded. If that didn’t get me the correct spelling, then, rather than giving me the answer, Mom would say, “Look it up in the dictionary.”

Those little life lessons taught me the importance of being a problem solver.

I’m still looking things up to this day. And sharing what I learn with you. Like the American Psychological Association’s hugely beneficial Resilience Guide for Parents and Teens, which contains excellent tips for parents and teachers.

Tip #3 – Praise Your Children Purposefully and Intentionally

Did you know that some types of praise can hinder your child?

A few years ago, I read Dr. Carol Dweck’s remarkable, well-researched book Mindset, which turned out to be a goldmine for me personally and professionally. In this book, she uses her experience as a social worker and researcher to touch on topics from parenting to business, and she reveals the differences between two mindsets:

The Fixed Mindset: A “fixed mindset” is one in which you believe you are born with a particular set of talents, abilities, and intelligence — all unchangeable. Some people with a fixed mindset may find it harder to experience life change and growth. As a result, a fixed-mindset person fails to develop his abilities and is more likely to give up or become distracted or depressed when he fails to make the grade in his own eyes. I believe this is where so many Christians get stuck — they think they have no power to change, which is a lie from the pit of hell.

The Growth Mindset: A person with a growth mindset begins in a different place. With a growth mindset, you see yourself and others as more flexible, adaptable, and hopeful. Way down inside, you know you have the potential for growth and development. With faith, the proper motivation, effort, moral compass, and concentration, you can make the changes you need to make.

A person who has a growth mindset does not take failure so personally. Instead, that individual tends to see failure as an opportunity for growth. If one path does not work, then the person will try another.

As a Christian therapist, I believe the Bible continually teaches the benefit of being growth-minded. I believe God is active in time, space, and history and has a vibrant, life-fulfilling plan for us. The Bible gives us truth, hope, and stories of those who have gone before us and have found such purpose.

In the course of Dweck’s research, she discovered that parents think they can hand children permanent confidence like a gift by praising their brains and talent. However, she found that it didn’t work and had the opposite effect. It makes the child doubt themselves as soon as anything goes wrong. Good parents want to give their children good gifts. One of the best ways they can do that is by teaching their children to love and accept challenges, be intrigued by their mistakes, embrace and enjoy their effort, and keep learning.

Here Are Practical Things You Can Do to Help:

1.      If you praise a child for being smart, they will love it — until they face a challenging task. When this occurs, they will collapse and feel they are not smart. The result is they will not challenge themselves. Anything out of their comfort zone could make them feel stupid.

Instead, praise your child for studying hard and doing the work. As a result, they will learn to face and lean into challenges. They will learn that solving problems is based less on whether they are cut out for it and more on intentional practice and hard work. Don’t try to rescue your child from these challenges, as doing so will cripple them and make them overly dependent on you.

2.      If you praise a kid for, let’s say, being athletic, in ways like, “He’s a natural!” you could be setting them up for failure. A child with this type of “fixed mindset” input may feel defeated when a coach tells them they need to practice more. According to several of my athletic coaching friends, when it comes time for kids like this to push themselves to work on the skill set they need to develop or improve, they will usually balk and turn the other way, feeling their “natural ability” puts them at a level above trying. Parents, your “wonder child” may not be quite as good as you think they are. Allow others to speak the truth about your child.

My wife and I received one of the highest compliments when our daughter played sports at a competitive high school. One day, the coach pulled me aside and said Hannah was among the most coachable athletes he had in years. When parents let their kids fail, competent coaches can help them overcome their challenges. Avoid rescuing them!

3.      If you stick with a fixed mindset approach, your child will become overly sensitive to failure.

When you consistently tell your child they are above average and “so bright,” you could set them up for a shock when harsh reality sets in.

These tidbits of encouragement may help your child’s self-esteem short-term, but only until they fail. Unfortunately, when kids like this face a challenge, they usually crumple. If we parents are not careful, we will blame others for our kid’s failure.

Here is the brutal truth: our kids must learn to embrace failure. We all learn through failure because failure is not final. Think about it. Your kids learn through failure. You’ve already seen them do it. Remember when your little ones learned to walk? First, they would take a step or two and fall. Eventually, they learned to walk, and now they walk, run, play, and move about without difficulty.

Give your kids the room they need to fail and learn from it.

A few years ago, I read Angela Duckworth’s insightful book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. She lists five phrases of praise to avoid and what to say instead:

Five Phrases to Avoid When Praising Your Kids

Don’t Say Instead, Say
“You’re a natural! I love that!” “You’re a learner! I love that!
“Well, at least you tried!” “That didn’t work. Let’s talk about how you approached it and what might work better.”
“Great job! You are so talented!” “Great job! What is one thing you could have done better?”
“This is hard. Don’t feel bad if you can’t do it.” “I have high standards. I am holding you to them because I know we can reach them together.”
“Maybe this isn’t your strength. Don’t worry.” “You have other things to contribute.”

In summary, praise them sparingly and genuinely. Do it when they have put in good work, attempted a new challenge, or did not quit something even when it was hard. Above all, teach them that practice and hard work can change anything.

I think about how much my grandson Connor has improved between his fifth-grade and sixth-grade years of basketball. He is putting the time in — hours spent with his dad playing together along with yielding to his mom’s insistence that he practice his free throws. He improves because he loves the sport and works hard. Much like his dad did in the band and his aunt in volleyball, who also understood the principle that nothing replaces intentional practice and effort.

Tip #4 – Set the Pace, Be the Example.

Resilience is more caught than taught, so parents, do your best to be consistent.

I hope you enjoyed “4 Proven Ways to Build Strong, Resilient Kids and Teens,” and if it was helpful please pass it on.

Reprinted with permission from John Thurman