Caregivers can adapt CBT strategies to help their kids solve problems and build resilience.

By Judith S. Beck, PhD

Resilience has become a buzzword in parenting recently, with dozens of books, websites, blogs, and social media accounts all claiming they can help caregivers raise resilient kids. At the core of resilience is the ability to overcome hardship and solve the problems that life inevitably sends our way. Teaching kids that most problems can be solved is both a practical and optimistic outlook that will serve them well. Strategies from Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) can help people with problem solving—but how do these strategies apply to kids? And how can parents and caregivers implement these techniques when their kids have a problem that needs to be solved?

Let’s say your child comes home from school visibly upset. You can tell they’ve been crying, and when you ask what’s wrong, they say something like, “I have no friends,” or “I’m stupid and I can’t do anything right!”

The first thing you’ll need to do is to be empathic with your child. You can say something like, “I’m really sorry you’re upset.” Next, make sure your child is in the right mindset to solve problems. If the child is experiencing intense emotions, they likely won’t be ready or willing to work with you to solve their problem. You’ll want to help bring them closer to their baseline level of emotion first. Here are some techniques you might try to help bring your child back to baseline:

  • Name the emotion. Helping your child name what they are feeling can help them understand what they are experiencing, and can also put some distance between them and the intensity of the feeling. You can say something like, “It sounds like you are feeling sad, is that right?” Once you’ve identified the emotion, you can validate your child by expressing understanding: “It makes sense that you feel that way.”
  • Distress tolerance techniques. You might find that a simple breathing exercise, like slowly breathing in while counting to four, and then breathing out while counting to four, and repeating this for a couple of minutes (or longer) can help your child self-regulate. Other kids might benefit from listening to their favorite song or watching a funny video on YouTube to help shift their emotions.
  • Strong sensations. If your child is severely distressed, sometimes strong sensations, like splashing cold water on their face or holding a package of frozen vegetables can help bring them back into the moment. Then you can try one of the other techniques above.

Once your child has returned to baseline, you’ll want to gather more information about the problem. Treat the conversation like a fact-finding mission—in the process you’ll try to help your child see that their problem isn’t as black and white as they had initially thought. You might ask questions like, “So, your friend Emma was mean to you… what about your friend Sawyer? I know Sophie is in your class—was she mean to you too?” or “So you got a bad grade on your math test… I remember you turned in a science assignment last week—did you get a bad grade on that? How about on your art project?”

When you have gathered all the information and have a clear picture of the extent of the problem, you can move to problem solving. If the child is having trouble with friends, you could ask them if they’d like to invite someone over whom they haven’t had a problem with. Or help them figure out a way to stand up to a bully, or approach someone they’d like to be friends with. If you discover that your child’s interpretation is correct, and they truly have no friends, you might want to speak to the teacher directly to find out what’s going on. The teacher may be able to recommend an appropriate child to set up a playdate with.

If your child is struggling academically, you’ll want to help them understand that even though they may have gotten a bad grade in a certain subject or subjects, they’ve always been strong in another subject, or in another area, like athletics or creativity, or being a good friend or a caring sibling. Help them see that there is so much more to being happy and leading a meaningful life than getting good grades. (If you don’t believe that yourself, you might want to examine your own beliefs and how they may be affecting your child.) Then you can make a plan to get them the help they need academically, either by getting them some tutoring sessions, or setting up a study group with some other kids, for example.

It will be much easier to help your child see other areas where they excel if you have made a point to catch them when they are doing something good and comment on it as a matter of course. So often caregivers get caught up with commenting on what their child is doing wrong that they forget to comment on things—no matter how small—that their child is doing right. At the conclusion of the problem-solving process, the take-home message to your child should be, “Even if you are having a problem with [peers, schoolwork, etc.], you are still a wonderful and terrific kid, and this is how I know it…” Your reasons will be all of the things your child is doing right that you’ve already pointed out to them and regularly reinforced with positive feedback.

Solving problems is a crucial life skill that is often not taught adequately (or at all!). Teaching your child how to effectively solve problems is an important part of raising a resilient child.