How to Raise Emotionally Resilient Children


Raising emotionally resilient children in a time of helicopter parenting is seriously divergent from the overbearing norm we’ve become accustomed to.

You know the parents – they move along the ground under the monkey bars for fear their little one could fall. They apologize on behalf of their child. Or worse, demand apologies from others on behalf of their child. They lobby teachers for extra time on assignments, make up excuses for why their child’s homework is late, or just plain do the school project for their child. They are the ones constantly soothing, smoothing and calming their distraught child, only to be frustrated that their child can’t seem to do such things for themselves. By offering protection instead of empowerment, their children are not able to grow to be emotionally resilient.  

Parents like that are the worst. To be clear, I am a parent like that (though, I’m working on it).  So, let me revise those previous statements to say WE, because this is not a holier-than-thou type of post as I am far from above reproach. At times, we are all guilty of coddling and over-protecting our children.  We want our kids to be happy (though, now you know it’s not your job to make your kids happy).  It comes from a place of love, but if we want to raise emotionally resilient children, which is the capacity to tolerate and cope with adversity, we must expose them to challenges and allow them to figure out how to get through tough situations. 

There are ways to encourage and teach emotional resilience:

1. Allow Failure

Explore for yourself what it means for you to observe your child fail. Do you believe it reflects your failures? Do you take the same responsibility for their success? As adults, we often attach ourselves to the achievements and letdowns of our children, as if they are the ultimate reflection of ourselves and our parenting. While we have a hand in the formation of our children, I believe that a good portion of their temperament and personality comes to them naturally. Observe your own discomfort with their disappointment and guard against preventing them from learning and growing from that feeling.

The fear of failure is often two-fold for children: first, the fear that they will disappoint themselves. That is quickly followed with the fear of disappointing those around them, typically their parents. Your parental reaction to their failure is crucial. Focus on the fact that they tried, talk about it as a learning experience, validate it as being tough, and encourage them (not you) to come up with a plan to prevent feeling disappointed in the future.

2. Identify and express emotions

All people should need to be able to be aware and identify what they are feeling and those lessons need to start early. Happy, mad and sad are easy (for most) to identify. However, identifying nuanced emotions like disappointment, frustration, or jealousy often proves much more challenging. Kids learn these skills first by having adults name their emotions for them. After enough experience and exposure, kids will begin to pick up on how they’re feeling and will be able to tell you what that is. Kids should know there is nothing wrong with feeling these things – it’s quite natural and necessary. It’s what happens next that usually gets us in trouble and makes things worse. We should not be teaching kids to ignore how they feel. Instead, we need to tame it and try to soothe ourselves even when we are feeling badly. 

3. Teach skills for self soothing

It is vital for a child to possess the concrete skill of calming themselves down when experiencing intense emotions.  You can call it coping skills, self-soothing skills, or relaxation strategies, but what’s most important is that your child has some tricks for letting out their frustration, sadness, fear, and worry in a way that is purposeful, non-destructive and effective. For some, that means running around the house, crumpling up paper, yelling into a pillow or taking a long bubble bath.  My daughter jumps on the mini-trampoline. My son takes a hot bath or a shower. The point is, it doesn’t matter what they do, so long as they do something. If you need ideas for coping skills, check out this list of 115 Healthy Coping Skills.

4. Let them work it out

This means taking a step back and letting your child figure out a solution to the problem they are facing. Resist the urge to solve, manage, and control, and empower them to do those things for themselves. Don’t immediately intercede between fighting siblings. If your child breaks a rule at a friend’s house, allow the other adult to enforce a reasonable consequence. Our children should know that we will protect and rescue them when they need it but that our job is to teach them how to rescue and protect themselves. This skill is best learned by practicing when the stakes are low. So, allow your elementary-aged kids to sort it out on their own so they may be able to navigate more complex interactions later on.

5.  Stop Telling them to “Be Careful!”

Honestly, what does that even mean, to “be careful”? Children don’t understand what we mean when we holler at them, as they run down a slippery hill in flip flops. It’s almost as if we are hedging our bets with the thought that if we put our “careful” vibes out into the universe, we may prevent calamity from occurring. We might want to, but saying “I told you so” is not wise. Shouting a vague warning is a way to mitigate our own anxiety, but it does little else. Instead, circle back to #1 on this list – allow them to fail. Not so much that they’ll die, but enough so that they will think twice before running in the rain in flip flops. 

Our job is to raise children to be functional adults and this means they’ll have to figure out how to fail gracefully and how to pick themselves up afterward and carry on with living.

A massive disclaimer: this advice is meant to be used consistently, but in small doses. You should only do these things with a child that is emotionally intact. Children can only handle so much at one time, so if your child is experiencing naturally occurring hardship (for example, recent move, divorce, trauma, bullying, etc.) please do not manufacture experience where they can ‘practice’ being resilient. Life is plenty hard enough and they need you to be their advocate and their source of reassurance. Please trust yourself and your intuition – if it doesn’t feel right with your child, pull back, reevaluate and course-correct.