Raising the Resilient

August 2019 View more

Life is hard—Adam Russo wants to make sure your kids can handle it.

In this excerpt adapted from his book, Unwritten Rules, therapist and author Adam Russo offers four strategies to combat today’s parenting culture—overempathizing with and overprotecting children—that set our kids up for failure as adults. 

Most parents speak about their desire for their kids to be “successful.” For many, this means successfully thriving in academic, social, athletic, or artistic arenas. Parents focus on these things because they are the gateway to what they want for their children in the long term: material wealth and happiness. 

But here’s the rub: This line of thinking just isn’t true. The most successful and happy adults are those who have developed the skills to be adaptive and independent. They are able to control and understand their emotions, align their behaviors with how they feel, and operate freely in many different environments without having to change the core of who they are. But this kind of success is inherently slow and hard to achieve.

Instead, adults are pushing their kids down roads where they believe they will experience success the fastest, with the least amount of hardship, and to be “winners.” Many adults do this, and it’s a complete paradox with no good outcome for the children. We see the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world and say, “Why not my kid?” A billionaire at 23? That would be a good life, of course. But if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. The reality is that most kids will grow up to be … average. 

Yes, average. And our job as parents is to prepare them for their average lives. But we spend more time preparing them for a life of greatness that they will most likely never achieve, instead of preparing them for their average life full of problems and disappointments. 

Average isn’t bad—it’s just hard. And because it’s hard, there are character traits that are essential to thrive in a life that will be challenging, exciting, nerve-racking, disappointing, and tragic. Many parents instead focus on preparing their children for a “better life” while looking for the rules to follow in order to guarantee that their kids will be “successful.” But children will inevitably face hardships, challenges, and struggles. The real question is: How equipped will they be to handle them? 

Parents have to make a clear choice in their homes—they must answer the question as to whether they should parent for short-term outcomes, or real, long-term success in their professional and personal lives as they enter adulthood. 

Embracing the truth of these four parenting strategies, using 12 clear-cut tactics, will help parents best cultivate the perseverance, empathy, and grit that can turn children into truly successful adults. 


While our culture becomes more “instant,” the things that lead to success haven’t changed. It still takes hard work, determination, motivation, failure, and perseverance to be successful. No matter how convenient our culture becomes, or how many barriers get removed in order to streamline processes to make our lives easier, or how many devices are created to help us be productive, being able to delay gratification will be essential to success in any field.  

But for some reason, parents now expect that “the best” should happen quickly and easily for their kids—this is the biggest hoax that parents project onto kids today. Hardships are impossible to avoid, yet we raise our kids with the “instant” culture belief system: As long as they say, do, and act in the right ways, they will have no struggles. Parents sell the idea that there is a formula to completely avoid adversity, even when no such formula exists. 

And this is how our culture perpetrates this greatest travesty on our kids: Rather than teaching that life is hard and challenging, we’re teaching not only that it shouldn’t be, but that there’s a way to beat it.


Focus on the endgame

Children, parents, teachers, and coaches often focus on outcome: Did you win? What was your grade?

If a child really wants to get an A in a class, the value isn’t in whether he actually gets the A—that’s a result. The value is in the process of obtaining the A. How committed were they? How hard did they work?

Kids who get straight A’s without having to study are at a disadvantage compared with the kids who have to work hard to earn Bs. The hard-working B students are practicing how to deal with and manage adversity without a perfect outcome at the end. This process mirrors life. Kids need to practice managing adversity in their lives. Otherwise, they will be ill-prepared for the future.

Students who are unable to emotionally manage anything less than an A in their classes believe they have fallen short, are scared of the future academic consequences, and struggle to allow themselves to appreciate their hard work and diligence, even though the outcome wasn’t what they wanted. Many of these kids struggle to manage anxiety, and they believe they really can control outcomes of situations by their hard work. Hard work doesn’t solve all issues, and there must be an acceptance that no matter how hard one may work at accomplishing the right things, the wrong things can and will happen eventually.


Technology is now a large part of an adolescent’s life. While the technological advancements in our culture have been great, they create difficulty for many families.

Students are able to connect instantaneously with whomever they would like through all types of messaging apps and social media platforms. Many adults and kids are not prepared for how to manage the downside of these technological advancements.

Parents spend much of their time on social media, and their personal relationships may depend on its use. Because of this, parents may overidentify with their child and not want to set limits on social media for fear of destroying their child’s social life. They fear if they had limits, their social lives may also be destroyed.

Just like everything else, social media can be a good thing, but only if used in moderation. It becomes a problem when people feel like their lives are horrible because they really do believe the “idealized representations” that they see posted. Further, they then believe everyone else (whoever that is) is doing “better” things than they are—and is “exceptional.” The cognitive distortions snowball to a point to where an individual now has created a reality based on images that they see and posts they read. Young people are especially susceptible to this, which is why panic sets in when they can’t engage with social media. They do not see the average lives that their friends lead, yet “average” is what we all are.


Now that many functions of our day-to-day lives can happen quickly and easily, it’s incumbent on parents to teach kids to … wait.

If your child wants a new video game, do you buy it for them? Or, do you make them earn it through chores? If your child wants more than anything to be a good basketball player, but after practicing for three minutes in the driveway, returns inside sulking because they haven’t yet made a basket, do you only console them? Or do you empathize with the struggle and make sure they go out and keep trying? If your 10-year-old is watching TV and asks if you can get him or her a drink, what do you do?

While it may be not be a big deal for you to get the drink or buy a video game, you should encourage your kids to get these things on their own. Learning how to delay gratification now will be essential to success in any field later.


I’ve given presentations to thousands of parents over the years, and in my presentations I ask, “Who here lives a completely wonderful, anxiety-free, worry-free, stress-free life?” I get laughter in response. So how is protecting our kids from experiencing real-life emotions going to benefit them in the future if we all know that life is chock-full of negative emotions?

We must be real. Life is hard and filled with many struggles. Our ability to respond in effective ways to these struggles is what makes people great. Kids will all have different fights to fight. But if they’re not prepared to manage the negative emotions when these battles come, they’re being set up to lose. As parents, we can’t guarantee their success, but we can ensure that they are best prepared for the fight.


Allow emotional conflict 

As much as we as parents seem very prepared to have kids experience the behavioral consequences of their actions (child spills milk, child cleans up), we tend to want to protect them from the emotional consequences of their actions. Parents work tremendously hard to have their kids not feel feelings like shame, guilt, embarrassment, fear, and anxiety. But there is great value to kids learning these emotions. Through experience, children learn that they don’t want to feel negative emotions, much a like a child who touches a hot stove and gets burned.

There is a belief that kids “can’t handle” negative emotions. This is simply not true. It’s the parents who can’t handle watching them. Parents want to make the status quo acceptable so they don’t have to make choices that will create tension, conflict, and negative feelings with their kids, even though these things will better prepare their kids to be successful in the future. 

Foster intrinsic motivation

Virtually all choices people make in life have a behavioral consequence. But people make many of their behavioral choices because they believe the outcome will align with what they want to feel emotionally. If kids don’t understand negative emotions, then is there any decision that they can make that feels wrong? And this is, without question, the most important reason why kids should feel anxiety, guilt, and shame at young ages.

If a child feels shame about a behavior, it’s important for a parent to identify the feeling, but reinforce the positives of the child. Children learning the skill of opposite emotions being simultaneously true (otherwise known as ambivalence), is an essential life skill. 

Be consistent

Parents often let poor behaviors slide out of fear of hurting their child’s feelings. Parents inherently know that challenging their child is the right thing to do as a parent. But because they don’t want to lose the positive relationship that they have with their child, they back off. Then the child continues to repeat the poor behavior and a parent can’t do anything about it.

Strategy #3:  MANAGE EMOTION

Most kids can’t learn how to manage emotions independently and adaptively—that must be taught. Anxiety is just a feeling that we all have. The ones who are able to keep anxiety in its place are the ones who can learn what this feeling is, how they experience it, and how to best cope with it.


Normalize anxiety

By acknowledging that anxiety exists, that it’s common, and that it’s manageable, parents are able to lay the groundwork to their kids that just because they are feeling something uncomfortable, it doesn’t have to be a catastrophic experience for them.

Test reality

Reality testing is a powerful way to challenge thoughts when kids are anxious. Reality testing simply means asking the question, “What’s the worst that can happen?” In our imagination? Quite a bit. If we use the example of a 10-year-old who has to give a speech in school, his initial fear is that he’ll perform poorly and other kids will make fun of him. But if we take that fear and break it up into three distinct possibilities, it doesn’t sound that bad:

Best-case scenario: Child will perform very well and be pleased with himself.

Worst-case scenario: Child will not do as well as he’d like and have to “fight through” the presentation. But the other kids will not care all that much; they may even feel bad for him.

Most-likely scenario: Child will do fairly well, and be relieved when it’s over.

If we can challenge kids to consider that these three scenarios really are the most likely, suddenly their anxiety doesn’t have to feel that powerful. It can help them learn that the overwhelming feeling of anxiety is just that, a feeling. It’s not a predictor of a major impending failure that they are going to experience in their life. This then prepares children to put the emotion of anxiety in context. And that’s the most important part of anxiety: How to use it appropriately in context of what is actually possible given the situation they are (or will be) in.

Avoid intervention

Children often use their anxiety to get out of something they don’t want to do—it’s a trap that many parents fall into. They see the anxiety and tears that their kids show and immediately empathize with their child. 

But through choice or fear, we cannot expect to avoid challenging situations in adulthood. How many adults give work presentations that terrify them? Struggle to manage a situation with their parents or other family members? Adults can’t avoid situations that are difficult. Giving kids the idea that somehow it is possible for them to accomplish this feat is a tremendous detriment to their ability to grow up to be adaptive and independent.

Strategy #4:  Require Accountability

Parents can make many excuses for themselves to in order to let the little things go. But if that’s all they do, then there is no way the child will learn how to be responsible for themselves and cope with the anxiety and frustration they will inevitably face when they enter the adult world.


Limit Praise

Over the past 10 years or so, pop psychology made its
way into the mainstream concluding that the better kids feel about themselves, the better they will perform in school, the more confident they will be socially, and the
less likely they will be to engage in substance use or be sexually promiscuous. When kids have a strong sense of themselves, they are assertive and confident in most all other aspects of their lives. 

Culturally, we boiled it down to its most common denominator: Praise kids all the time. This oversimplification and clear lack of examination of its consequences is what has created a problem that exists in many towns and cities across the country—entitled children.

Be realistic

Constantly reinforcing the positive, without the negative experience, paints a picture of life existing in a perfect vacuum for the child. Because of the way the environment at home works, they believe that all environments should reflect the same way. The kids who grow up receiving constant, positive reinforcement without being held accountable are at a tremendous disadvantage—they haven’t been taught how to adapt and be successful in the real world.

Communicate expectations

Parents must be relentless in communicating to their children what the expectations are, and they must not be afraid to hold their children accountable to the natural consequences of their actions. By consistently setting clear expectations and holding their children to them, kids can learn how to display behaviors that will help them succeed and adapt well into adulthood.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Adam Russo is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and founder of Edgewood Clinical Services. He lectures extensively on mental health issues in youth, parenting strategies, and other issues that impede child development (including a 2016 TEDx Naperville talk, We Must Teach Kids to Fail).

Photography By Olivia Kohler