The Unlikely Reason Adversity Helps Build Resilient Kids

The Unlikely Reason Adversity Helps Build Resilient KidsLet me just say it right off the bat:

As parents, we need to be okay when our kids face adversity.

What? Are you kidding me?

No, I’m not kidding. You read that right. Now, let me explain…

My Helicopter Parent Past

Granted, I’m coming from a been there, done that perspective; my children and stepchildren are all adults. My emptier nest has led to a less impulsive, more thoughtful approach to parenting and I hope, some helpful observations.

Don’t get me wrong. I certainly did my fair share of hovering. After all, it was the 80’s: where helicopter parenting was as big as the hair styles. I thought I was doing my kids a service. What I didn’t understand was that my fly overs (if you will) could actually harm their problem solving techniques.

However 12 years into my parenting gig, I witnessed an event that forced me to give pause to the bad parenting habit I’d formed. Let me explain…

The Day My Burly Boy Became Another Child’s Punching Bag

My son was in 2nd grade. He was a big kid. And by big kid I mean that he seriously looked like a 5th grader. He came into the world huge and stayed that way until high school, where he finally quit growing (at 6’ 3”). He was able to parlay his awesome presence into an amazing football career, complete with a high school state championship ring. This football mom was (and still is) proud. But I digress. Back to 2nd grade.

I was volunteering in the elementary school office, running copies for a PTA meeting. I looked out the window, where the kids were congregating to get on buses for a field trip. Girls were talking and laughing and the boys were engaging in some friendly horse-play.

As I looked closer, I realized my son was being held by two boys on each side, while another boy (much smaller, I might add) kicked him in the back-side. Um, what?! I was furious.

How dare these little pip squeaks bully my large child?

It was my first introduction to a phenomenon I’d never heard of before — target bullying. Parents of bigger kids unfortunately know it well. A few smaller children figure out they can bully the biggest kid in class because he’s like the teddy bear you want to win at the State Fair — while he’s twice as big as they are, he’s got a soft heart inside. He’d rather walk away than engage in a fight. Which, unfortunately puts a huge target prominently on his chest, or in my son’s case, his backside.

Some big kids don’t defend themselves the way smaller framed boys do, maybe because they’ve never had to learn how to do so. After all, kids typically have a natural respect for other children bigger than them. Until now. Plus, my son knew better. He understood that he couldn’t really defend himself physically because a simple punch or kick could crack a bone on a smaller-framed boy. Then he’d be the one in trouble, not the trouble maker.

The Adversity Dilemma

So, what did I do? I stood, frozen at the copying machine, staring out the window and flush with anger. Believe me, I wanted to go full Mama Bear Mode on the little punk doing the kicking. But I hear that’s frowned upon in the PTA. Whatever.

I considered my options:

  1. I could stand there, do my PTA busy work and talk with my son later.
  2. I could rush outside, catch the perpetrators in action, and march these 8-year-old hooligans straight to the principal’s office.

It makes me shake my head as I write this, quietly whispering bless my heart. And if you’re going through it, too, believe me, I understand and completely sympathize with you.

While everything in me wanted to rush to my son’s aid, I thank God I didn’t that day.

Was I interested in how to help kids with conflict? You bet! You know I could’ve taught these boys a few things about manners. But I assure you that my son DID NOT need his Mommy swooping in for the rescue. As difficult as it was for both of us, it was better for him to manage the situation himself and be able to talk about it with me later. Kids can manage a little adversity quite well, and as adults we can help… not by protecting them from it, but by coaching them through it.

Kids can manage a little adversity quite well, and as adults we can help... not by protecting them from it, but by coaching them through it.“Kids can manage a little adversity quite well, and as adults we can help… not by protecting them from it, but by coaching them through it.”

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1. Adversity Builds Character

Adversity builds character, plain and simple.

It starts really young, too… Have you ever seen a 2-year-old climb onto a chair, fall off and bump his head? His Mommy scoops him in her arms, checks him out, and tells him to be careful. And it’s not 5 minutes before he does the same thing again?!

Of course you’ve seen it — maybe in your own house. Maybe even this morning! (Bless you, I remember those days!)

Yep, even though Mommy said be careful approximately 42 times, he does it again anyway. He’s 2 years old. It’s what they do best. Why is that? Why do kids do this?

First, the toddler has learned a new skill. He doesn’t see the inherent danger in what he’s doing, just the fun of climbing. Secondly, he knows that Mommy soothes his pain, nurturing him in such a way that not only makes it all better but also gives him courage to try again. That begins to build his character.

His great adventures have expanded his skill set: large motor skills for climbing and character skills for persevering.

Adversity grinds a certain amount of fortitude into us, a resilience that we wouldn’t otherwise have if it weren’t for those times of hardship, suffering, or pain.

In his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character (affiliate link), Paul Tough examines the link between childhood stress and life success; how non-cognitive training, like self control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, persistence, and self-confidence actually nurture a child’s potential for success more than what you usually think makes a person successful: intelligence, test scores, grades and brain building exercises.

How does a child become a successful adult? Adversity produces desirable non-cognitive character traits.

That story again: What works to raise a successful child? What most of us call good old-fashioned character. (So you can put down the Sudoku, if you’d like.)

2. Adversity Teaches Kids to Be Better

Adversity helps kids hang in there when the going gets tough.

So here’s the hard part: kids DON’T need protection or shielding from experiencing adversity. What they need is guidance from adults to learn how to manage adversity when it comes. A child who never experiences adversity becomes an adult who doesn’t know what to do when tough times come.

A child who never experiences adversity becomes an adult who doesn't know what to do when tough times come.

“A child who never experiences adversity becomes an adult who doesn’t know what to do when tough times come.”

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As much as we wish they did, kids don’t come equipped with a built-in monitor of how to handle tough times.

They need to gain understanding on how to navigate the dangerous waters of sadness, disappointment, heart ache, child anxiety and, yes, even grief and loss — so they can change the situation surrounding them with their fortitude, determination, and hope. And tough as it may be, this only comes with practice.

3. Adversity Comes on its Own

Now please don’t jump to conclusions. I’m not saying to set your kids up so they’ll have some hard knocks of life. Remember that bumper sticker: $%#^ , err…  Adversity happens.

It is part of humanity; woven within the tapestries of life are natural threads of adversity. Some folks seem to get more than their fair share, while others seem to have a magical get out of jail free card. While I can’t explain why that is true, I do know that it has the power to change people for the better — if they let it.

Some of the most wonderful people I know have had childhoods that took them through hell and back. They have been knocked down but have developed the bravery and courage to get back up and keep moving forward.

Words like strength and honor come to mind when I think of these people. Yet they weren’t born that way — they had to work for it. Words like darkness and suffering tell of the distant roads they’ve crawled along. They had to fight through the adversity when it came and allow themselves to be changed for the better. 

4. How to Master Adversity

So then, what? We now know that no matter how much we want to protect out kids from the bad stuff in the world, adversity still happens. Training them on how to handle it, how to work through it and become a stronger person for it? That’s where the real work is.

Teaching our children how to deal with hardships will serve them better than hopelessly standing by, wringing our hands, wishing the negativity away. Giving them tools to deal with the emotions that come with hardship will help them emerge stronger and more confident. It’s part of our job to help them understand that we cannot always change a situation, but we can always learn something from it.

So while it’s tempting to run interference for your children, keeping them from failures, pain, or hardships, perhaps a better plan is to let the chips fall where they may and let Junior feel some disappointment when a toy breaks from excessive banging or he doesn’t win Monopoly at family board game night.

I wanted my children to learn how to calm themselves, how to adapt to changes, learn the importance of sharing, understand that they won’t always be picked for the team, and (most of all) know that I love them no matter what. Kids aren’t born with these traits and it takes most of childhood to teach and reinforce them.

But once these character and communication skills are in place it gives kids an advantage in life that can out weigh and out perform kids with higher cognitive abilities.

Let the butterfly struggle. Because in the struggle they learn to fight, grow, change, and become the beautiful creation God made them to be.

A butterfly who never struggles never gets to fly

And so, maybe you’re wondering what happened that day I stood at the copier and watched those kids gang up on my son. Strangely enough, the horse-play fizzled, the kids boarded the bus, and the day continued.

That was but a small sliver of adversity my son has navigated through. But I’d like to think that hardship among other things has taught him how to deal with tough times, which in turn, has made him both strong and teachable.

And by the way, no adult children were harmed in the writing of this article. Said son has given me full permission to write about any or all of his life, in hopes that it can help someone. See, I told you he has a soft heart!

Have you ever had something like that happen to you? Watched your child have to face adversity on his or her own? Tell me your stories in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you! 

READ NEXT: 3 Things You Can Do Right Now to Help Your Kids Discover What They’re Good At

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About Julie Hunt
I’ve lived a full life with many unimaginable joys and heartache like you wouldn’t believe. Our blog exists to encourage folks to slow down, chill out, and love more.

8 thoughts on “The Unlikely Reason Adversity Helps Build Resilient Kids”

  1. It takes great discernment to know when to just *abide* with your kids, in their pain, and when to intervene.
    But perseverance (and life experience) build both hope, and character!
    Great post.

    1. Aubrey Hunt says:

      That’s a good point, Susan… so true!! Glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. Heather says:

    This is such a fine line. It is sometimes hard to discern which is the best path. I say this because when my daughter faced adversity, instead of rising above, she immediately became the bully. She absorbed their tactics and did it to others because it is what she saw everyone else doing. Everyone told her that kids just needed to use it to become a better person. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. So now I walk the line of attempting to figure out when to step in, and when to let them battle on their own.

    1. Aubrey Hunt says:

      Oh, yes, Heather. You are so right… I think parents are the best judge of what’s happening in their kids’ lives — when to step, when not to. We know our kids better than anyone else does. But that doesn’t make it easy! You raise a really good point about kids becoming the bully because they’re just modeling what they’ve seen other kids do. That’s a great teaching opportunity, but it can be so hard to hear or see it happen. Just take it one step at a time and hang in there. Sounds like you’re doing a great job!

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