When you’re trying to be an exemplary employee and a rock-star parent, things can get hectic. In fact, November 2015 Pew Research Center analysis of Current Population Survey data found that roughly four in 10 parents in two-income households have a tough time balancing their home lives and responsibilities at work. And that can be stressful.
Amid all the hustle there are some worries parents can let go of, says clinical psychologist David J. Palmiter Jr., PhD, and author of Working Parents, Thriving Families: 10 Strategies That Make a Difference. Forget the concept of work-life balance, he says. It doesn’t exist. And the worries that you’re giving your kids the short shrift because both of you work? There’s no evidence to support that either, he says. In fact, there are many things that working parents worry about that aren’t really a big deal. But cultivating resilience is something that shouldn’t be overlooked, he says.
How important is resilience? It could have long-term health implications. A study published in the February 1, 2016, issue of Heart found that young men with low stress resilience scores were 40% more likely to develop high blood pressure later in life.
So how can you teach your children to bounce back—especially when you’ve got limited time? Try these tips.
When life gets chaotic, parents tend to think about "the highest-yield thing we can do with our kids," says Ken Ginsburg, MD, a pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He is also the author of Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings.
How can we make sure they’re doing okay? That usually means a focus on grades or what they’re producing instead of who they really are, Ginsburg says. That’s a quick way to undermine our relationships with our children and, ultimately, their resilience.
"Ask yourself, what are the traits I need to help instill in my child so they will be a healthy, productive 35-year-old? Those traits are having a sense of meaning and purpose in your life and having a commitment to repairing the world, to being empathetic, being hardworking, having tenacity, being creative, being innovative, of having collaborative skills and being able to be coachable, to take constructive criticism and to be resilient," he says.
Working parents know that distracted feeling all too well. When you’re at work, you may feel guilty or distracted about what you’re missing at home. When you take off early to catch your child’s soccer game, your work email or Slack list may keep pulling at your attention. One of the most important things you can do to foster resilience is to work on the quality of your relationship by spending time when your attention is devoted to nothing but your child. That kind of focus can have a long-ranging impact.
"It has a very powerful impact on the relationship between parents and kids. That quality of that relationship, research suggests, has benefits that accrue into midlife and are very resilience-enhancing," Palmiter says.
Another way parents can enhance resilience is to give authentic praise. Palmiter says that when we love our children, we can be tempted to shower them with empty praise. Did your kid ground out on the ball field? Great job! Did she do her homework? Throw a parade! The motivation is good, but the impact can undermine resilience.
"Sometimes we do things that end up not being helpful. For instance, praise for things that really aren't praiseworthy, or disproportionate or vague praise," he says. That takes away from the value of praise when it’s given for a real accomplishment, he says.
Palmiter says that the way we monitor our children’s behavior can also contribute to their happiness and resilience. Monitor them too closely, and the relationship can become strained because the child doesn’t have a chance to test his or her freedom, but too much leeway can leave the child walking "through a minefield," he says. Regularly re-evaluate your level of intervention and supervision to be sure it’s appropriate for your child.
Ginsburg says that one of his biggest fears for kids today is that they are afraid to fail. Protecting kids to such a high degree that they don’t ever fail or feel the pain that comes with failure is undermining them later in life, he says.
Instead of fixing every situation or heading off failures before they become real, create clear safety and morality boundaries—for example, having a curfew or being clear about not engaging in certain risky behaviors—but then let your children hit a bump in the road every now and then. It might be the consequence of getting a poor grade after not studying for a test or not making a sports team after tryouts. Those small failures hold big resilience lessons, he says.
Children learn a great deal through watching their parents, so one of the best things you can do to impart important lessons is to model them, Ginsburg says. If you’re sacrificing your own well-being to be child-centered, you’re sending a message that your child will remember later in life.
"The greatest gift you can give your kids is actually to take care of yourself, to be a healthy, functioning, loving household. Then you're modeling what a 35-year-old or a 40-year-old is supposed to look like," he says.