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Q. My son seems to take everyday frustrations and disappointments so hard. My daughter, on the other hand, doesn't seem bothered by the same things. How can I encourage my son to handle things as well?
A. Why are some children easygoing while others seem high strung? Some tense and rigid while others are flexible? Some very sensitive while others appear sturdy? The answer lies in a combination of nature and nurture -- your child's inborn temperament plus what she learns as she develops.
We now know that babies are born with many temperamental traits, and prized among them is resiliency -- the ability to absorb life's disappointments and bounce back. Some children, right from the start, seem to possess this wonderful quality. As infants, even when they're tired or hungry they rarely fuss or cry; as toddlers they pick themselves right up with a smile when they fall down; as preschoolers, they don't dissolve into tears when it's another child's turn on the tricycle, and as schoolaged children, each time they make a mistake, instead of falling apart, they renew their efforts to get it right.
But fortunately, even if your child wasn't born resilient, you can still teach her a lot about how to negotiate life's hurdles more easily. But to do this, you need to understand what behavioral characteristics contribute to resiliency. These include:
Now that you know the characteristics of resiliency, here's how you can help your child:
1. Empathize, don't minimize your child's feelings. Even though you may feel that your child is over-reactive, surprisingly, young children whose feelings are acknowledged, recover more quickly and develop more self-regulating skills than children whose feelings are diminished or denied. This is because they identify with your soothing of them and can then soothe themselves. An example: You can say, "I'm sorry your teddy bear got lost at the park. I know you're sad because he was your favorite stuffed animal," instead of, "Stop that crying! You've got lots of other bears."
2. Encourage your child's attempts to work. A child whose efforts are encouraged -- rather than just the outcome -- learns to persevere and develop better resources to enhance achievement. Try saying, "You're working really hard on that block building. If you can finish the tower, it's going to be a real tall skyscraper and you'll be proud of yourself."
3. Don't over-praise your child. A child whose every effort, no matter how slight, elicits enormous parental praise is not able to develop a capacity to tolerate any frustration, nor can she build any real skills. For example, consider saying, "I can see how hard you tried to get the colors just right for the sunset. Good job!" rather than "That's the most beautiful picture I've ever seen. You're a great little artist."
4. Help your child put things in perspective. No matter how easygoing your child's temperament may be, remember that he still isn't born knowing how to deal with the unpredictability of life, or how to remain hopeful when he's upset. He needs you to lend him your perspective. You can do this by explaining things in a way such as this, "I know you're unhappy because you wanted to be a goalie on the hockey team. But goalies need to really move fast to block the play, and that's hard. But you're big and strong for your age and that's really important too. I think you'll be a really good defensive player for the team."
Understanding what underlies resiliency, and reinforcing these skills for your child as he develops, helps him learn how to face life with confidence and competence. With resiliency your child will learn how to bend instead of break when things can't go his way, and he'll be better able to mobilize his strengths to meet the challenges that lie ahead.
Dr. Siegler is the director of the Institute for Child, Adolescent and Family Studies in New York City, and the author of two award-winning books for parents, "What Should I Tell the Kids? A Parent's Guide to Real Problems in the Real World," and "The Essential Guide to the New Adolescence: How to Raise an Emotionally Healthy Teenager." She is married and the mother of two children.