How to Build Resilience in Your Toddler
Resilience is all about having the ability to cope and bounce back from challenges, adversity, stress—you know, all the stuff that keeps us on your toes. Resilient people (grownup and kids), essentially, move forward even after setbacks. For you, everyday resilience might mean being able to dust yourself off after an email misfire at work. For your toddler, that might mean revisiting a tricky floor puzzle with gusto or thinking up a fun inside activity when the rain washes away your playdate plans. With each hurdle that’s cleared, your child’s confidence rises, their problem-solving skills improve, and their zest for learning grows. (Win, win, win!)
The thing is, your child won’t—poof!—magically become resilient overnight. Resilience isn’t a skill that just happens. While, sure, some kiddos are naturally more resilient than others, but by and large, resilience is learned. And guess who your child’s best teacher is? You guessed it...it’s you! Here’s how to start nurturing that skill set today.
Try some bedtime sweet talk.
Pre-sleep snuggles with kids are some of the sweetest moments of parenthood. These moments reduce stress (for both of you!), build love, and bolster resilience. (In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that nurturing close ties with kiddos is a key factor of resilience.) So, as your precious nugget approaches the twilight moments just before sleep, know that their mind is like a little sponge, ready to soak up your loving and encouraging words.
Take advantage! Try cuddling in bed with your toddler until they’re nice and relaxed. Next, gently retell some of your tyke’s good deeds from the day. Keep your tone mellow (think: flickering candle, not excited sparkler). Some bedtime sweet talk might sound like: Watching you share trains with Miles made me so proud. You’re a good friend. You did a really good job waiting in line today. I know it can be so hard. Your patience is growing—just like you. When you remind your child of all the ways they successfully handled obstacles that day, you’re encouraging them to do more of the same the next day, and the next, and the next.
Pause before making it all better.
Say your toddler melts down because she was expecting mac ‘n cheese for lunch but got grilled cheese instead; or her buddy borrowed her favorite book without asking; or she got flustered trying to put on her brand-new jacket. It’s 100% natural to want to jump in to comfort your upset child with an “It’s okay” (It’s okay! Sophie will give you the book back soon!) or to solve their problem (I’ll put your jacket on!).
Of course you want to make everything better! That’s a parent’s job, right? Not so fast. Doing these things may inadvertently send your child the message that you’re not open to hearing their negative feelings or that you think they’re not capable of working through roadblocks. (That’s not your intention. We know! But that’s how kids’ brains can work.)
Next time your tot is distressed or frustrated, fight your gut instinct to immediately say “It’s okay!” or “I’ll fix it!” Instead, first help your child recognize and talk about their feelings. (To become a pro at speaking your tot’s native language—Toddler-ese—check out Dr. Harvey Karp’s groundbreaking tips.) Fostering self-awareness is a crucial element of resilience.
To help, keep phrases like these in mind:
- I see that you’re really, really mad!
- Wow! Sophie taking your book really made you so angry!
- When I’m frustrated, my heart goes boom boom like a drum. Does yours?
- I see you’re having a hard time. That darn jacket is tricky!
Once you acknowledge feelings, help your child find a solution. (Resilient kids keep trying!) The trick here is to offer help—but not jumping in to fix the issue for them. Instead of simply putting your tot’s raincoat on for her, say something like: Try laying your jacket on the floor upside down and putting your arms through the holes.
Allow some healthy risk-taking.
Safety first, right? Right. But there is a big difference between insisting on seatbelts and scooter helmets and allowing your tyke to butter their toast or play on the climbing structure at the playground. While the first two are seriously dangerous, the other actions are what experts dub “healthy risks.” These are risks that nudge a kiddo out of their comfort zone, but would result in very little or zero harm if they were unsuccessful.
Look at the toast scenario: Could your child hurt themselves with a possible butter knife cut? That is possible. But the chance that your tot could leave the breakfast table feeling super accomplished and autonomous is, perhaps, even more possible and a worthy risk to take.
Taking these kinds of low-stakes risks—and then succeeding—does wonders for motivating children to pursue even more achievements. Heck, even failing can work toward kiddos testing out new ideas and exploring their capabilities. Fun fact: Not all healthy risks are tinged with the chance of physical danger! Things like participating in a new-to-you game, speaking up in an unfamiliar setting, or sampling an unusual food are all ways kids can learn to push themselves and become more resilient.
Model resilient behavior.
Ever let a curse slip out in front of your tyke then have the pleasure of hearing it parroted back at you in front of the in-laws? If so, you are well aware that kids are watching—and listening to—your every move.
Make it work for you! One of the very best ways to teach children resilience is to model it, complete with narration. So next time you come head-to-head with a stressful situation, pay attention to your coping strategies and your language.
Say you’re stuck in traffic, which has made you late for daycare drop off. Say out loud, Yikes! There are so many cars today. I’m feeling frustrated, but I know that deep breaths can help me feel better. Wanna do them with me? Labeling your emotions and talking through your problem-solving ideas is an everyday lesson in how to cope with adversity. And when you do blow a gasket over traffic (you are human, after all), simply own your behavior. I got pretty mad at all those cars, huh? Tomorrow, let’s leave a little early and if we still wind up late, I’m going to practice my calming belly breaths.
Make sleep a priority.
Sleep is key to pretty much everything in life, including your child’s capacity for resilience. Think about it like this: When you stay up too late scrolling Insta and then get up too early to, say, tackle a bedwetting clean-up, how prepared do you feel to handle the stress of a behind-schedule, bumper-to-bumper commute or to take a creative risk at work? (Likely, not the most prepared.)
In short, a lack of sleep doesn’t set you up for a resilient day. And that goes double (triple? quadruple?) for your toddler, whose brain is way more immature (and rigid) than yours. When a toddler is faced with a roadblock and gets frustrated or upset, their brain center that controls language, logic, and patience literally shuts down, leaving resilience far out of reach. And research tells us as much: A report in the journal Nature and Science of Sleep found that sleep problems in children are strongly associated with poor resiliency.
Even an irregular bedtime schedule can take its toll on resilience, noted a 2018 report in the journal Sleep Medicine. (Learn more about why toddler routines are super important.) The best course of action? Keep your toddler on the same wake-and-sleep schedule every day; allow white noise to help soothe your kiddo to sleep; and snuggle with your toddler in a dim, calming, and screen-free environment at least 30 minutes before night-night. (If you’re still struggling, try this patience-stretching trick that works wonders on sleep-skirting tots.)
In the end, remember: Your toddler is still very much learning the ways of the world. (Wasn’t it just yesterday they were SNOO-size?!) They’re super-new at expressing their feelings and frustrations. So, keep at it! Give oodles of cuddles; demonstrate the whole keep-calm-and-carry-on mentality; allow your toddler to see you make your own rest a priority; and continue to try, try again no matter what roadblock you encounter.
For even more advice about bolstering your toddlers' resilience (and sleep!), check out “Happiest Toddler on the Block."
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.