Parenting a child who has experienced trauma can quickly get us stuck in the cycle of focusing all our attention on managing trauma-related behaviors. However, we can sometimes forget that they also need coping skills like resilience to thrive beyond their childhood trauma and prepare for adulthood. Resilience is the ability to face life’s challenges, cope with them and then “bounce back” to thrive despite the difficulties.

Many of our kids are born with the innate skill to bounce back from challenging experiences. Many may have had that skill thwarted by the trauma they’ve endured. When we create a culture of felt safety in our homes and form secure attachments, we build their resilience.

So how do we teach our children to build up the resilience they need to thrive? We spoke several months ago with Dr. Michele Borba about her new book, Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine.** She shared the 7 character traits that every kid needs to develop resilience and thrive in their lives, along with practical suggestions for teaching each trait.

The 7 Character Traits That Develop Resilience

Trait #1: Self-Confidence

The quiet inner awareness of who I am. I know what I’m good at, what challenges I need to address, and where I belong in the world.

How to Teach It:

  • Start with your child’s strengths. What is his natural talent? How does he shine?
  • Provide opportunities for those skills or talents to grow and for him to show it to the world.
  • If you are not sure where your child shines, become a student of your child. Create some opportunities to explore a few different activities. Observe what sparks his passion or interest.
  • When you know what your child is good at, try praising the child – to others, to him, and for his efforts, not just his finished product.
  • If your child is uncomfortable with praise, let him overhear you praising his diligence, curiosity, and efforts at his skill or talent.
  • Adjust your family calendar (and your budget if necessary!) to reflect your commitment to your child’s passion.

Trait #2: Empathy

I can feel the emotions of others and form emotional connections with people I encounter.

How to Teach It:

  • Provide opportunities to verbally encourage each other as a family and model supportive, compassionate language.
  • Teach your child to look up. If making eye contact is challenging for your kid, start by teaching him to look at the bridge of the other person’s nose. Encourage any progress and praise the effort.
  • Read books and watch movies together that label emotion and engage in curiosity about those feelings-words.
  • Provide strict boundaries around technology use and prioritize face-to-face interactions over screen time.

Trait #3: Self-Control

I can regulate my impulses and behaviors. I know what my stress signs and triggers are and I have the tools to cope with them.

How to Teach It:

  • Start by observing your child’s stress signs. Track what stresses him out, what behaviors give you a hint that a stress reaction is coming, what the triggers are. It might help to journal your findings.
  • Open up a conversation with your child about what his stress signs are. In calm moments, make observations and help him learn the self-awareness of his body’s signals.
  • Teach your child to give themselves a calming word or phrase – “I got this” or “Relax” or “Calm.”
  • Teach calming breaths: inhale long and slow, exhale through the mouth twice as long as the inhale.

Trait #4: Integrity

I have a strong moral code and value system. I know what my conscience is saying, and I can stick to it even in an ethical challenge.

How to Teach It:

  • Tell yourself that you matter to your child’s development. Her conscience forms over time, and your example influences her.
  • Articulate the morals and values you want your child to carry into her adulthood – early and often!
  • Write them down together and develop a “mission statement” or core identity with your family. Ask, “how do we want to be known?”
  • Acknowledge the weight of peer pressure (you are using the trait of empathy here!) and talk about what skills she has thus far to stand up to the challenges.
  • Repeat what you want your kids to become!

Trait #5: Curiosity

I have an open-minded inquisitiveness and interest in learning. I am willing to explore new ways to solve problems that I encounter.

How to Teach It:

  • Instead of rescuing your children, teach problem-solving skills. Ask open-ended questions without offering solutions. Walk with them through some of the possible answers.
  • Brainstorm with your children when they face obstacles and give them room to explore those ideas. Work through the list and eliminate the ideas that are unsafe, unwise, or irresponsible.
  • Set up regular family meetings to problem-solve together. Start by asking the children to present their dilemmas and share evidence to support their ideas. Work through the issues together by asking questions and gaming out potential outcomes.
  • Make frequent statements – and model the message! – that failure is acceptable and even welcome in your home.
  • Stretch your child’s tolerance for failure by asking questions and engaging in curiosity with them about how to try new methods. “What didn’t work this time?” and “what might work next time?”

Check out our course, 7 Core Issues in Adoption and Foster Care

Trait #6: Perseverance

I can hang in there and push through challenging experiences. I can make strong efforts to meet the expectations of my parents, teachers, etc., even when the circumstances are challenging.

How to Teach It:

  • Concentrate on what your child CAN do and find ways to stretch those abilities just a little bit, slowly over time, but not so much that your child will “snap” under the expectations.
  • Praise the effort of enduring when it got hard or even trying to try. Don’t focus too much on the outcome or the finished product.
  • Emphasize the other character traits that went into your child’s choice to keep trying. For example, was that an integrity choice? Or was she engaging curiosity while she tried?

Trait #7: Optimism

I exhibit a generally upbeat outlook on my life that expresses hope and finds the silver lining. I can keep pessimism or despair in check even if I am experiencing failure or challenges.

How to Teach It:

  • Model an optimistic outlook for your children. Say things like, “We’ve got this,” or “I believe in you,” and “We can do hard things!”
  • Talk about where you found beauty and silver linings in your day at the dinner table.
  • Observe what your child takes in regularly – limit media input, screen time, and constant news cycles that are negative, violent, or depressing.
  • Develop scripts that you regularly use to encourage each other and point each other to hope.
  • Bring up the positive and hopeful things around you – share stories of overcoming that you come across.
  • Commit to acts of service as a family with charitable organizations in your community.

Your Walk Must Match Your Talk

As with most of the nitty-gritty of parenting, modeling the behaviors and character traits we want to see in our kids is key to lasting change. We can talk all day long about what we want our kids to do or to become. However, if our kids’ experiences with us are different than the words we use, none of what we say will stick.

5 Action Steps for Parents

It can be daunting to look at these 7 Character Traits and plan how your family can thrive together – especially if thinking about resilience is new to you. We understand that – so much of our adoptive, foster, and kinship parenting focuses on helping our kids heal from the trauma they’ve experienced. However, equipping our kids to thrive is a natural extension of the healing we work toward in trauma-informed parenting.

Dr. Borba outlined five easy, actionable steps to get us on the right path of walking out what we say to our kids:

  1. Decide this plan to build these traits into your child is doable. Start by just picking one at a time if it helps.
  2. Weave the “how to teach it” ideas into your parenting plan. Again, give yourself permission to begin slowly and build your skills as you go.
  3. Don’t try to tackle these 7 character traits on your own. Enlist the support of your network, their teachers, coaches, and other family members.
  4. Create accountability for yourself by telling one person what you are doing. Give your friend permission to check on your progress. Better yet, ask her to commit to teaching these traits in her home too!
  5. Keep working on your plan for a minimum of 21 days. It takes that long to build a habit. Trust the process and look for signs of growth and increased resilience to encourage you.
Image Credits:  Alon; Anthony J; Steven Pisano (cropped)

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