Moving from seeing our children as fragile to resilient

by: JoAnne (Jo) Dempsey (she/her)
Associate Marriage and Family Therapist
YMCA Youth and Family Services

TW: Self-harm, suicidal ideation

Let’s face it - dealing with all that surrounded the COVID-19 crisis has been tough on you as parents, and your kids. You are probably wondering if you have what it takes to bounce back and foster any form of resiliency after such an enormous challenge. Life has been disrupted and now that most restrictions have been lifted, we are wondering when we will begin to feel normal again, engage in the community as before, and trust that the world is safe enough to let go of our fears little by little.

It is a deeply rooted need, an innate instinct for parents to want to protect their children at all costs, but what if that cost involved our children and teen’s ability to value their own competence, build autonomy, confidence, and character, and to develop the important value of altruism that helps them understand their contribution to making the world a better place?

And now that we are transitioning into a post-pandemic parenting style, how do we raise our level of expectation, and nurture resilience in our children?

Kenneth R. Ginsberg states in Building Resilience in Children and Teen: Giving Kids Roots and Wings, “Kids may not be as fragile as we tend to think they are. They are born with the strengths and abilities to cope with adversity, and learn from their mistakes…However, they will not choose to develop those inner resources unless they are given the opportunities to do so.”

Remember when they were children when they would fall and immediately look for you to see your reaction? They trusted you in this vulnerable moment to affirm that they were OK or to inform them that further attention was needed. They looked to you to affirm their safety, their ability to handle things, and they still do. They need your help in recognizing good stress versus bad stress. Your belief in your children deeply matters in their development. Kids are looking to you to see whether they can believe in their own capabilities to manage their lives and be successful. This helps even the youngest of kids to believe in their relevancy as contributors. It tells them that they are a part of the conversation, develop a mindset focused on growth, and consider how their voice matters.

What would it look like if we helped our kids see and find their competence? Would that build their confidence, greater connections, a sense of empathy, and altruism? Would it allow them to feel that they do have a sense of control? How do we teach our children to manage good stress and participate in the “progressive struggle” to develop their character and trust in their own capabilities?

As caregivers, we may become worried about the emotional well-being of our children. We may even have a teen who is self-harming or has talked about dying. While you should always take these things seriously, you can also re-connect with them in a way that suggests you believe them, that you are there to support them, and model how to overcome stress when it is intolerable. That is what any good therapist would do, too.

How do we build these resiliency muscles in our children and teens?

  1. Realize that this process is a gradual realization. Just as much as we want to protect them, there are also times that we can rush our kids trying to make them independent before they are ready. The goal here is to create a sense of interdependency and not independence. How can they be a part of the family system and begin contributing? This creates security in an environment of unconditional love where parents expect the best from their kids.
  2. Set expectations by leading by example. By managing our uncomfortable emotions as we help coach them toward realizing their strength, we are helping children and teens learn how to manage their emotions. They need your guidance to identify and communicate their feelings, so they can self-soothe and have a sense of control.
  3. Listen without judgment and allow them to express their emotions freely. Let them stumble through it without trying to fix it. Empower them to create their own solutions.
  4. Teach children and teens to accept personal responsibility for their behavior, to reconcile, make amends, and compensate, even in cases of an accident. Sometimes this is modeled by us; apologizing for the misguided anger or admitting you “messed up” opens the door for more vulnerability and personal responsibility.
  5. Help them maintain a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset and to see failure as an opportunity to grow.

About the Author
JoAnne (Jo) Dempsey (she/her), Associate Marriage and Family Therapist with the YMCA Youth and Family Services in San Diego.

Jo is a high school teacher by day and a family therapist by night at the Y’s Community Counseling Clinic, a non-profit therapy setting offering therapy to the community on a sliding scale fee. For more information, please contact [email protected]. To learn more about counseling services the Y provides, visit