Insights from Dr. Michele Borba, author of Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine
What can you do to create a more adaptable child? Michele Borba, Ed.D., says the answer is simple: Give them plenty of practice.
“If we can help our kids practice coping with ambiguous situations, they grow mentally stronger and more confident in handling the bumps and bruises of life,” says Dr. Borba, the author of Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine. “Helping kids learn to be flexible and pivot with change is crucial to resilience—but it’s so new that teaching the skill is not part of most parents’ toolkits.”
In other words, if this is new to you, you’re not alone. Here are strategies you can use to help kids cope with uncertainty so they are better prepared for an inevitable lifetime of unknowns:
Acknowledge that uncertainty is painful. One of the hardest things in life is not to know what’s coming. A study found most people would rather know for certain that they’re going to get an electric shock than to not be able to predict it. Acknowledge to your kids that uncertainty isn’t easy. “Life doesn’t come with a guarantee policy and will throw us curve balls. We just have to deal with it and move on.”
Identify how your child handles uncertainty. Recognizing a child’s “ambiguity style” helps a parent know how best to respond. Here are behaviors that may signal that your child needs help handling uncertainty.
- Moodiness, irritability, or meltdowns when things go off course
- Needs excessive reassurance: “Is everything going to be okay?”
- Excessive clinginess or separation anxiety
- Headaches, stomachaches, trouble sleeping
- Excessively asks for information or checks news outlets
- Repeatedly checks things to try and ensure safety
- Excessive worrying and ruminating about situations
- Procrastinates or avoids situations that might have bad outcomes
Resist the urge to fix. Parenting styles like helicoptering or rescuing don’t help kids manage the lumps and bumps of life but rob them of learning resilience. Instead of telling your child, “You don’t have to,” or, “I’ll do it,” say, “You got this!”
Add stress in manageable doses. One study found that attempts to control uncertainty may be less effective for reducing fear and anxiety than increasing individual ability to tolerate uncertainty. So, aim for the “Goldilocks Spot”: experiences that stretch them a little outside their comfort zones (not “too stressful,” not “too easy,” but “just right”). Each success with uncertainty boosts confidence and helps kids realize they have the strength to endure.
Support but don’t give too much reassurance. Too much soothing can cause kids to depend on us. Better to help kids learn to deal with letdowns so they’ll be able to handle it when we’re not there to bolster them. Do praise your child’s personal efforts to handle disappointment or change. “The game cancellation was a letdown, but inviting your friend over was a great way to handle your disappointment.”
Teach “what ifs.” The path to success is never a straight line, so we must prepare our kids for detours. The best way is using everyday moments: “There’s no guarantee that you’ll get that class (camp, college, job), so what’s your Plan B?” Or, “I know you’re hoping to go swimming, but let’s come up a back-up plan in case it rains.” Keep posing “what if” scenarios until your child can say, “It’s okay; I have my Plan B.”
Just breathe! Mindfulness means slowing down to notice what is happening in the moment without judgment, and it is proven to reduce children’s stress and increase calmness. Teaching the practice to kids can help interrupt their negative thoughts brought on by uncertainty. “Slowly breathe in like you’re smelling a flower, and then exhale like you’re blowing out a candle while counting to ten. Then start over again from one. Focusing on how your breathing feels helps prevent your mind from wandering to a worrisome place and helps you be calm in the moment.”
Stress the positive. Helping kids focus on the positive things that could happen, not the bad things that might prevail, can help them embrace change. It also is a tool they can use to quiet their fears. “You’re upset that camp closed, but what’s something positive that happened? You never would have learned to play guitar.”
Focus on what you can control. Uncertainty can make kids feel powerless and increases anxiety (“I can’t do anything”). So, help your child focus on what he can control to ignite possibilities in the midst of ambiguity. “I know you’re disappointed because you can’t invite friends to your party, so let’s think of how you can hold a virtual birthday.” A calm “I got this” mindset is the best ammunition to fight the uncertainty and help kids manage unpredictable times.
Don’t pass on your worries. How well you deal with uncertainty strongly predicts how well your children will cope. Projecting calmness and confidence allows children to better manage their own feelings to distressing news and information. You don’t have to pretend that everything is fine, but do let them know that you’re willing to pivot and change directions to get through whatever comes your way. So can they.
Of course, if your child continues to have trouble coping with change, despite your best efforts, talk with your healthcare provider or trained mental health professional, urges Borba.
“It is up to us as the guiding adults in our children’s lives to help them process the uncertainty we are facing and manage its accompanying feelings,” says Borba. “Each success boosts their ‘I can get through this’ beliefs and increases resilience. While we cannot predict the future, we can prepare our children for a new uncertain normal.”
More about the author.
Michele Borba, Ed.D., is the author of Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine and UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, and is an internationally renowned educational psychologist and an expert in parenting, bullying, and character development. A sought-after motivational speaker, she has spoken in nineteen countries on five continents, and served as a consultant to hundreds of schools and corporations including Sesame Street, Harvard, U.S. Air Force Academy, eighteen U.S. Army bases in Europe and the Asian-Pacific, H.H. the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and a TEDx Talk: “Empathy Is a Verb.” She offers realistic, research-based advice culled from a career working with over one million parents and educators worldwide. She is an NBC contributor who appears regularly on Today and has been featured as an expert on Dateline, The View, Dr. Phil, NBC Nightly News, Fox & Friends, Dr. Oz, and The Early Show, among many others. She lives in Palm Springs, California, with her husband and is the mother of three grown sons.