When you’re a kid, everything is a tragedy. Somebody cut the waffle in half and not quarters? Tantrum. Can’t finish a puzzle? There’s something wrong with you. Not allowed to go play with the other kids? Your. Life. Is. Over. As a parent, you cannot change this, but you can help your son or daughter bounce back in a way that ensures they also bounce back when the stakes are much, much higher.
Enter Andrew Zolli, who wrote the book on resilience. Seriously—it’s called Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back. Like you, Zolli is preparing his kids to persist, recover, and thrive amidst adversity. “If I could give you the three Rs of resilience I’d have written that book already,” says Zolli.
Fortunately, the book he did write has some sound guidelines that can apply to kids who pick themselves up and dust themselves off. “When you think about the core of resilience, it’s the quality of our relationships, the quality of beliefs, the habits of mind, and our sense of agency.”
Donald Miechenbaum, a clinical psychologist at the University of Waterloo, developed this idea of “stress inoculation,” or how exposing people to a controlled amount of stress makes it more manageable. “Some adversity teaches us how to deal with adversity,” says Zolli. “It prepares us for the likelihood. It allows us to rehearse. Too much tips us into a situation where we’re not as high-functioning.”
As a parent you should be encouraging your kid to take more risks—not less—even though it may have the side effect of failure. Let them know that they’ll lose, they’ll suck at lots of things, and they’ll get hurt—but it’s okay, because feeling those feelings will give them more tools to get through it the next time. “It’s not cruel to let your kids experience feelings of pain, because it’s essential they’re able to process it.” You may remember your dad’s shorthand for this: “It builds character.”
Needless to say, Zolli isn’t a fan of participation trophies. “We actually need to say, ‘Sometimes you don’t win, that’s okay. You’re still loved by us and you don’t have to be good at everything,'” he says.
One of the best ways to let kids recover from failure is to talk about what a loser you were. “One of my kids was taking a class, and clearly not good at it. [One solution] to that might be, ‘I’m going to buy you ice cream, because you feel bad.’ But instead we ended up talking about things I wasn’t good at when I was young—and I’m still not.”
It may be trite to say, but with knowledge comes power. “As a child you’re not in control, and you don’t understand why,” says Zolli. “Giving kids a framework for understanding a why is a supercharger for resilience.” Explain why something stressful has to happen—getting shots at the doctor, weathering a big thunderstorm, or surviving Kingda Ka—and you’re giving them a feeling of control.
“You have to give a four-year-old boy a wide berth to take the corners of life, says Zolli. “You want kids to pivot and sit quietly to do something, and that’s hard. They’re going to fail at it. My 4-year-old and I do an exercise before he plays the piano. He came up with the word, steady. It’s his mantra. Now, I ask if he feels steady at the piano before he begins and he takes the corners from one thing to another, much more efficiently.”
Your children look up to you as a model of resilience, so every time you lose your shit in traffic or to the Starbucks barista (“Who the hell is named Tog?!”) you’re suggesting that this is an appropriate way to respond to challenges in life. “The tension is that when you’re parenting you don’t want your kids to see you [freak out]—you want to provide a safe space. When life comes at you, vocalize, in age-appropriate language, what’s going on.”
If your friends look like the cast of Friends, a) who is the Chandler and b) it’s not diverse enough. Encouraging your kids to build a social network of all different types of people isn’t just a PC thing to do, it also helps them empathize and “see themselves in the other.” Because people who have a sense of solidarity have natural resilience—like those buddies in The Walking Dead.
Zolli not only wrote Resilience, but became an example of it for his kids. After having massive open-heart surgery a few years ago, he was in a pretty weak state and certainly not up to having his kids bounce on a cracked-open sternum. He calmly explained to them that he was fragile and they couldn’t roughhouse.
“We did a lesson on what fragile meant. I told them, ‘It’s especially important that you not jump on daddy for any reason,’ That Christmas we put band-aids in my son’s stocking. He took them out and made a zipper of band-aids down his chest and said, ‘Look Daddy, I’m fragile too.’ We gave him the lesson about what it meant, explained what was going on with me, and made this moment of profound empathy. We think of kids as default narcissists, but that’s because you have to be narcissistic to learn. Even kids as young as 3 can understand themselves and people around them if you take great care to do it.”
This article originally appeared on Fatherly and is reprinted with permission.