How Your Kids Can Kids Benefit From Instability — & Disappointment

Most of us parents are desperately trying to do right by our kids. And conventional wisdom would have us believe that means essentially one thing: stability. Create stability, cultivate stability, provide a stable life and environment in which your kids can feel safe and grow. And that’s all well and good. But it leaves little room for the inevitable disruptions that come with life — and with growing up. In the name of stability, we try to keep our kids at the same school, with the same kids, for at least elementary. We put them on recreational sports teams with those same kids. We maintain routines to make life go smoother. But God forbid our family ends up moving, or grieving, or going through a divorce. Does a “stable” life set kids up to have no way to cope with failure — and with everything else life inevitably throws at them? Is all that sameness actually good for our children?

Is it possible that by striving for stability we’re sending entirely the wrong message? In seeking to give our children smooth lives, we may be leaving them unprepared for adulthood — when change, disappointments and setbacks are inevitable. Dr. Andrea Gurney, a family psychologist and professor in Santa Barbara, California, tells SheKnows that the instability, turmoil, and disappointments of life are a great opportunity to teach kids resiliency.

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What is resiliency?

It’s the ability to handle difficult circumstances — and thrive despite them. It’s how quickly you bounce back from life’s setbacks and disappointments: not making the team, getting a D on a test or getting fired from your first job. Children and adults who aren’t resilient can spend weeks or months recovering from life’s normal disappointments. That’s time that could be spent moving on — or finding another great opportunity. When we instill resiliency in our children, we’re giving them a key skill that will help them navigate life now and when they’re 40 years old.

“Life is not always positive and easy and we don’t always get what we want,” Gurney tells SheKnows. “When [kids] learn that at a young age, they learn how to deal with those emotions, they learn how to deal with disappointment, with the frustration, with jealousy.”

Bullying child
Bullying child

What are the signs that your kid isn’t developing it?

According to Dr. Ken Ginsburg, the director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication and author of numerous books on resiliency in children, there are three signals — irritability, regression and bodily signs — that may indicate that your child isn’t developing this skill adequately.

Ginsburg urges parents and caregivers to watch out for irritability or sadness that isn’t tied to an event. If your teen failed a quiz today, that’s one thing; if their doom and gloom lasts weeks, that’s another. Regression, such as thumb-sucking or wetting the bed, can — but doesn’t always — indicate that a child isn’t bouncing back from daily difficulties. Bodily symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches can also be signs that kids’ bodies are absorbing stress. If these symptoms aren’t always related to a specific event (such as a temper tantrum over a toy you wouldn’t buy), Ginsberg says they can indicate that a child isn’t building resiliency.

So, what can you do about it?

How can you help?

Don’t be afraid to allow change into your kid’s life. If you’ve been agonizing over whether or not to enroll them in a new school that better meets their needs, go for it. Do they have the chance to participate in a different after-school activity, one that would develop their skills — but they don’t want to do it without their friends? Make the call. Don’t worry; life will naturally create plenty of disruptive circumstances. You don’t necessarily have to go searching for them.

And if change doesn’t happen naturally in your family’s lives, ask yourself why. It’s easy to fall into a rut — traveling to the same places, enrolling your kid in the same activity year after year. Maybe it’s time to see if there’s something better out there? If the change has real, long-term positive benefits, don’t avoid it. Be there for your child, support them through the positive change, and continually communicate to them that they’ll be fine.

How to Answer Kids' Gross Health Questions
How to Answer Kids' Gross Health Questions

Remember: Model your belief that they can take care of themselves

When my kid runs into the house and screams, “Mommy!” I’ll ask, “Is there blood?” If he says no, and I can see that he’s fine, I’ll shrug and tell him to “figure it out.”

Callous? Not so, says Ginsburg. “If a parent intervenes in the small puddles of life, the kid hears the message that the parent doesn’t think the kid can handle it.” When kids are faced with bumps on the road of life, Ginsburg advises parents to — within the bounds of safety, of course — just step out of the way.

If a child feels shaken, they’ll look to their parent or caregiver for reassurance that they will be OK. Once you, as the adult, have given them that security, you don’t need to over-worry, overprotect or try to shield them from further disappointment. In fact, doing so can produce anxious children who think there’s no room for error in life — and who fall apart at the first sign of adversity.

Our goal as parents isn’t just to get kids through childhood alive and in one piece (though, some days, that can feel like a major accomplishment); it’s also to shape them into adults who can meet life’s challenges. So the next time life hands your kid the chance to take a risk, switch it up or (figuratively) fall flat on their face — let them. They’ll not only survive; they may be better for it.

A version of this story was originally published in September 2017.

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