How to Raise a Resilient Child - Part 1
Updated: Feb 15, 2019
At the heart of anxiety is a proclivity to overestimate the likelihood of feared outcomes and to underestimate one's ability to handle it if those outcomes do come to fruition. We can help kids think more logically and realistically about the true likelihood of their feared outcomes, but without addressing the second part - the part where they underestimate their ability to handle it - the anxiety is more likely to recur. Instilling resilience and bravery in our kids is one of the best ways we can help to not only diminish anxiety if it already exists, but also to help prevent anxiety from forming. The "How to Raise a Resilient Child" blog series will present effective parent-led ways to help your kids build resilience. This week, we start with #1....
Provide labeled praise for acts of bravery
There are two kinds of praise that we can give our kids: unlabeled praise and labeled praise. Unlabeled praises are general, positive statements that we give our children to show approval or attention. Examples of unlabeled praise include, "you're so brave!", "I love you", "that's wonderful!" Unlabeled praise is not specific to an action. Labeled praise, on the other hand, is a specific verbalization that expresses a positive evaluation of your child's behavior. For example, "you're so brave for asking Timmy to play with you at recess" or "I love how you're going to try it even though it's scary" or "I admire your attitude of 'giving it a go'." Unlabeled praises (the non-specific ones) are great for building your relationship with your child and for building his or her self-esteem. But, these kinds of praises are not very reliable for changing behavior. The good news?
Labeled praises, which take just a little extra thought, are highly effective for creating behavior change (including helping your child to act and think more bravely).
Using labeled praise to increase resilience/decrease anxious symptoms is a deceivingly simple approach. And, I say "deceivingly simple" for two reasons.
Reason 1: Creating a labeled praise, once you know what labeled praise is, sounds pretty easy. And don't get me wrong, it's not rocket science. But, giving labeled praises that are effective for creating the exact kinds of change you want to see in your child requires some foresight and thoughtfulness. To do this, think about exactly the kind of specific bravery you want to increase in your kiddo (or, another way to think about it is: in what area(s) is my child too anxious?). For example, is your child anxious/shy in social situations? Does he avoid trying new things? Are there specific places where he tends to get anxious and withdraw/avoid? Once you know the situations in which you'd like to see your child exhibit more bravery/less anxiety, make a concerted effort to "catch him being brave" in those situations. For example, let's say your child is anxious and shy in social settings. 9 out of 10 times, he averts eye contact and stays quiet when faced with a social interaction with non-family. Rather than giving attention to that 90%, keep your eye out for that 1 out of 10 times that he engages socially and immediately shower him with attention and labeled praise for it ("that was so awesome how you talked to Jenny when you got to camp today"; "you did a great job of asking your coach a question"; "you were so brave to talk to the waitress at the restaurant"). When we give attention to the 90% of the time that our kids are engaging in anxiety-driven behavior, we are inadvertently rewarding that behavior with attention and building an identity for the child that is rooted in anxiety. If, instead, we focus on that 10% of the time that they step out of their comfort zones, and we give them labeled praise and increased attention for those behaviors, that positive reinforcement will increase that brave behavior and help the child to build an identity as someone who is resilient.
Reason #2: Labeled praises are incredibly - shockingly - powerful. As someone who is an admitted cynic of things that seem too good/easy to be true, I was skeptical about the power of a simple labeled praise when I first learned about this parenting tool in graduate school. After years of witnessing firsthand the dramatic behavior changes that occur when parents start using labeled praises effectively, I can attest that I've never seen this approach fail to incite at least some change. Often, it is combined with other evidence-based techniques to create the most powerful impacts, but it is a great place for every parent with an anxious kiddo to start. Everyone wants to be acknowledged for their efforts and successes, so this approach feeds the part of the primal brain that yearns for that recognition; in turn, this increases the likelihood that your child continues to engage in the brave behavior that brought him that attention from you in the first place.
To learn more about cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety, please feel free to contact the office of Dr. Inna Leiter (in Media, PA) for an initial 15-minute consultation at 267-551-1984 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.