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Raise a Resilient Child: When your sensitive child is anxious, easily discouraged, or unmotivated

How do you raise a resilient child when your sensitive child is anxious, easily discouraged, or not very motivated?

I hear the following from many parents I work with:

“I’m worried that if I let my child “get away” with behavior–such as being unmotivated, trying to get out of things, getting easily discouraged, or whining when something is difficult–that they won’t grow up to be resilient and confident. What can I do to help my child become more resilient?”

Another variation of this concern that I hear from parents is this: “Will I spoil my child if I don’t push them, especially when they’re anxious, or feel they can’t do something?” (I also wrote about that here.)

It’s often an automated response in their nervous system.

Often discouragement, low motivation, or a tendency to be fearful or reluctant to try new activities can be an indication that the nervous system is *so* overloaded that it’s gone past the point of fight/flight, and a freeze response has been activated.

This is more common in highly sensitive kids, because they’re so sensitive to stimulation from their environment that it’s easy for them to get overstimulated.

When anxiety or fear is that great, you’ll never be able to teach resilience by pushing your child further.

You need to create “safety” in the nervous system, which helps your child regulate. Here’s why.

You can’t override the response

If something is too scary or anxiety-producing, the nervous system gets flooded with too much stimulation and the person shuts down. The autonomic nervous system goes into a freeze response. 

When you’re in a freeze response, you have limited capacity to learn, because blood supply to many parts of your thinking and emotional brain are shut down in preparation for death. (You’re not actually dying, but in a freeze response, the nervous system is receiving signals that death is imminent.)

When this is the case, you may be able to get your child to do what you’ve been encouraging them to do if you instill enough fear, but the cost is high. It’ll damage the connection in your relationship, and they won’t develop true resilience. (And chances are that if they’re spirited as well as sensitive, no amount of fear or threats will get them to do what you’re pushing them to do if they’ve really made up their mind).

So what can you do as a parent if you’re seeing this in your child?

The key is to understand that children (and all humans) gain courage and expand their capacity for what they can do by working at their  “edge”.

Working at their edge means that the sympathetic nervous system may be a little more activated than usual (meaning they may be a little bit anxious), but not so much that they get aggressive, or flee, or shut down. They’re not *immobilized*.

You can start by helping your child begin to notice their body sensations, so they can begin to learn where their edge is.

  • For example, do they notice the feeling in their body when they start to feel nervous? Where in their body is the feeling? Is it big or small? What makes it bigger? What makes it smaller? (e.g., does thinking about taking one small step make it feel a bit smaller?) 
  • Is there a small step they can take that feels okay and safe? A step that when they think about taking it, they’re maybe a little nervous, but not so much that they’re immobilized?
  • For example, if they’re scared to swim all the way across the pool, maybe they start by swimming 3 strokes, or by swimming until they count to 5. Perhaps the second time they try, they can swim until they count to 10.

Resources for safety and calming. When they’re trying something that they’re nervous about, is there something that can help them feel safer? Examples might be:

  • Knowing that you’re nearby if needed. 
  • Having someone to call for help.
  • Having a favorite stuffed animal to cuddle if they wake up scared in the night.

It’s tempting to compare yourself to other parents who seem to have success with “pushing” their kids. It can make you second guess your instincts, and believe that perhaps you should do the same. Perhaps you’ve seen other kids who were pushed go on to gain more skills and courage as a result. 

But all kids are different, and if your child is highly sensitive and already has some anxiety, they’re more likely to shut down. If you’re seeing clear signs that your child might be having a fight/flight or a freeze response, you’ll help them gain true resilience by tending to their feelings and helping them build courage using baby steps, rather than trying to force them to override their feelings.

True resilience lasts a lifetime

To help your child develop true resilience, you can:

  • Help them learn to work at their edge, 
  • Help them to know where their edge is by becoming aware of their feelings and listening to them, and 
  • Teach them to use resources to help calm themselves. 

Those are skills they can use to keep building resilience throughout their lifetime.

🌷 Tip for Success: Kids with higher self-esteem and self-confidence are more resilient. If you’d like to learn more about how you can support your kids with self-confidence and self-esteem, see details about Raising Confident Kids, an online course available now.

**Image Credit: Debra Brewster, Unsplash