Building Resilient Kids

By Matt Krumrie | May 07, 2020, 8:11 a.m. (ET)

The definition of resiliency is simple and clear, says Tim Elmore, President of Growing Leaders, a non-profit organization that partners with schools, colleges, athletic departments, and organizations to develop today’s emerging generation of leaders.

“Resilience is the ability of an object to return to form after it’s been bent, stretched or compressed,” says Elmore, author of Generation Z Unfiltered: Facing Nine Hidden Challenges of the Most Anxious Population. “Think of a rubber band. In people, resilience is the ability to transform adversity into a fulfilling challenge. It means translating a setback into a set up. It is the key to a well-lived life.”

The key to building resilient kids is to allow them to fail without cushioning the fall, says Audrey Grunst, LCSW, owner and therapist at Simply Bee Counseling, a Suburban Chicago mental wellness center.

And for parents, the most important key to building resilience is giving your child-athlete unconditional love.

Unconditional love (I love you no matter what) teaches your child-athlete that they can fail and make mistakes, but they will be cared for and appreciated no matter what, says Grunst, also a former mental performance coach for Northwestern University’s women’s volleyball program.

In school sports—especially wrestling—some parents still have the ‘this is the way I did it, or my coach did it’ attitude because that’s what they know. So they try and instill that mentality/style on their child, even if that method didn’t work for them. They scoff at the thought of unconditional love. They believe tough love is the way to build resiliency. If one fails, or doesn't achieve goals, they must be reprimanded or face consequences.

That’s called conditional love, which is dangerous to a child/athlete, says Grunst. With conditional love an athlete thinks, ‘If I do well, I am loved. If I do poorly, I am unlovable.’

“Conditional love teaches a child that their worth is solely tied to their ability to perform,” Grunst says. “This can significantly impact an athlete’s mental health and ability to tolerate competition because the stakes feel too high—and in some cases they are. A student-athlete, no matter what, should never feel that their self-worth is tied to their on-mat performance.”

Daniel Willaert, head coach of the Cretin-Derham High School (St. Paul, MN) wrestling team and President of the St. Paul Wrestling Club, says parents build resilient kids by looking for opportunities for their child to learn and grow—not based on wins and losses. 

For example: A parent can build a resilient wrestler by encouraging them after they succeed executing a new move they worked on earlier in the week—even if they lose a match. Or, if a wrestler loses a match that was important to them—say they made the finals of a local tournament but lost—the parent encourages them to analyze areas where they could improve, and go back and practice those areas the next week. Not just dwell on losing in a finals match. Resilient kids get knocked down, shake it off, and go back to work, motivated to fix what was broken. Another way to build resiliency is to encourage kids to set small goals, and document those goals in a notebook. But don’t just document successes, document challenges along the way and how they overcame those challenges. Refer to the notebook when there are struggles.

The least resilient wrestlers, says Willaert, have what he calls “snowplow parents” who do everything in their power to clear a smooth path in front of their child.

“Someone who is resilient will look at problems as challenges to overcome, losses as opportunities to learn, and fortune or luck as a direct result of preparation and execution,” Willaert says.

Willaert is the son of a wrestling coach and has two boys—ages 6 and 3—and a third on the way. He focuses on these methods with his wrestlers, and will do so with his sons as they get into wrestling, or youth sports.

“I am a big believer in attribution theory and growth mindset. So when I work with students, athletes, and my own children, I am very mindful to praise their effort, their persistence, and the process they went through, as opposed to their innate abilities, the actions of others, and the final outcome,” Willaert says.

Parents who scold, yell at, or discipline children after getting knocked down put fear into a child, and a scared athlete won’t take chances, learn, or grow. That doesn’t build resiliency.

“Learning how to deal with winning and losing is what makes for strong individuals and people of great character,” says Steve Fraser, a 1984 Greco-Roman Gold Medalist at 198 pounds and Chief of Donor and Alumni Relations for USA Wrestling. “Yes, we all want our children to have success. However, the true lessons learned are the lessons of what it takes to give your best each and every day.”

Elmore says there are often three common barriers to resiliency: A victim mentality, isolation, and low self-esteem. He breaks down each:

Victim mentality: Too frequently, we’ve embedded a victim mentality in our athletes, Elmore says. We’ve so explained away why they couldn’t perform well, due to disadvantages, that we take the wind right out of their sails. When we say it “isn’t their fault” we can unwittingly remove their will to fight back.

Isolation: It is difficult to be resilient alone, without the support of a community or a team, or parent. Even with a strong will, young athletes may begin to fight back after a hardship, but lose hope when recovery takes too long or seems too hard. Resiliency is elusive for a person who’s isolated from a team or an individual to hold them accountable and encourage them. The parent needs to be the one to hold them accountable, and encourage.

Low self-esteem: Elmore has rarely seen a student-athlete who is resilient without a healthy sense of identity. Self-esteem is vital as it provides the foundation for belief and self-confidence. “When failure comes, a person with a strong self-image can battle back because they know they are better than a single mistake or tragedy,” says Elmore.

So, what can parents do to reduce these barriers in their child?

Build optimism instead of a victim mentality: Remove the excuses they have developed for not performing by using different language. “Lace your words with optimism and belief in them,” says Elmore.

Deepen their experience of community in your classroom, team or family: Bond with your child by being transparent and vulnerable yourself. “If you do this it will foster accountability and you will begin to cultivate trust,” Elmore says.

Expand self-confidence: Be genuine (not exaggerated) and help the child see their strengths and their value to the team or the class. Tie their identity to realities that can’t be taken away.

“Remember, it’s natural to be resilient,” Elmore says. “We just need to remove what hinders our (children) and watch resiliency surface.”

Says Fraser: “Fighting through the many struggles along the way is what builds great people. Not all of our sons and daughters will win state, national or world championships. But they all can win in life if they learn how to overcome the adversities and difficult problems that wrestling and life present.”