How to Raise Resilient Girls

Ellen Duffield

August 21, 2022

The first woman ever to be elected President of an African country, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, once said, “The biggest predictor of success is not IQ, it’s resilience.” Reading the Bible stories of Deborah, Ruth, Hagar, or Mary through this lens, we see just how true this is of our faith as well.

Certainly, being able to get up after being knocked down, to try again after a massive failure, and to grow stronger and wiser as a result, are crucial skills for our daughters. It seems that while we may have differing amounts of inherited resilience, we can all develop more. Here we will explore three ways to guide our daughters to develop resilience.

Resilience is a gift wrapped in adversity

Nobel prize winner Marie Curie wrote, “Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence…We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.” James 1:2 teaches us to “consider it all joy when we encounter various trials” not because they are fun, but because they build steadfastness which leads to maturity. Resiliency is largely about mindset.

Just as our physical muscles develop through working them vigorously, our resiliency grows best when in use. The way we navigate our own stressors not only models healthy strategies but also shapes our girls' sense of themselves. It can be so tempting to bubble wrap children to keep them safe, yet that is teaching them that we don’t think they are strong enough to handle life.

Encourage your daughter to try new things

The people we most admire often have experienced debilitating setbacks and yet kept going. Walt Disney was once fired for “not being creative enough.” Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, had her first writings rejected thirty-six times. Vera Wang failed to make her first goal of being in the Olympics and her second goal of becoming the editor in chief at Vogue before becoming a famous clothing designer. Trying new things in spite of disappointments is an important skill.

Tell your children the stories of over-comers

Setbacks can not only strengthen our resolve (if we let them), they build our character.

As Elizabeth Kubler-Ross so beautifully puts it “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found a way out of the depth. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” Setbacks can give a fuller sensitivity to the world, which in turn equip us for the next journey.

Celebrate learning without ignoring the pain

Celebrate with your daughter what she is learning without minimizing the pain of what she is experiencing. Some falls may be big, painful, and public. Others will be small, private, and painful. Pain is the common denominator of falling. And getting back up is the common denominator of brave, resilient girls. Help her to do so.

The way we tell these stories is critical. Do we tell it as a learning story fraught with insight and tinged with humor and humility? Or do we tell it (or hide it) as a shame-based story that debilitates? As Sharon Blackie writes, “We make sense of our world and fashion our identities through the sharing and passing on of stories. And so the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it, and the stories that are told to us by others about the world and our place in it, shape not just our own lives, but the world around us.”

Resilience develops among trusted others

Teaching strategies to weather difficult times well, before they happen, is key. It is easier to say, “Remember when we talked about…” than to suggest strategies in heightened moments. One of the most powerful strategies is reaching out to trusted friends. Stanford professor, Kelly McGonigal, reminds us that not only is some stress good for us but also that connecting with others during times of stress releases oxytocin, making us more resilient (read her interview).

Learning how to both be and seek out a good friend is an important life-long skill. Choosing the right analogy can help. Girls can be mean. That is a whole different topic, but for now lets consider there are at least two ways of thinking about other girls: as a threat or as an ally. People who see the world through the former lens tend to live by the Tall Poppy rule: if someone excels above the crowd they need to be ‘lopped off.’ No wonder our girls are making themselves smaller! However, people who see the world through the latter lens live by the Three Sisters Rule. Many Indigenous people plant corn, beans, and squash in hills of three. The corn springs up first, offering support for her sister the bean, who, in reciprocity, fertilizes the soil for the corn. The slowest sister, squash, spreads out over the ground, providing a natural mulch and shade from the glaring sun while benefiting from the gifts her two sisters offer.

Some girls allow their insecurities to make them poppy loppers. Talk about this with your daughter and frequently remind her there is an alternative.

Resilience is closely linked to hope

But what about the adversities that would crush us if they could? The ones that break our heart? Even here there is a hard won gift. Psalm 34:18, 19 reminds us that “The Lord is near to the broken hearted and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous but the Lord delivers [us] out of them all.”

The word "broken hearted" here comes from two Hebrew words meaning “to burst” and “inner life.” In fact the word for inner life is the combination of two metaphors meaning house and staff (the place of our strength). To be brokenhearted is to have our world shattered. The word for ‘crushed’ is the same word as contrite, meaning crushed, crippled, or broken. Self-sufficiency gone. Humbled. Unable to stumble on alone. The kind of brokenness only a miracle could heal.

Fortunately God is near to the brokenhearted: saving the crushed in spirit. The word for ‘near’ means, “close enough to touch.” It is important for our daughters to know that even though God may seem distant during times of challenge, he is actually very near, and that even though it may seem like he is crushing us, it is actually the things that would destroy us that he is destroying.

This is why hope is so closely linked to faith. Maria Corazon Aquino, 11th President of the Philippines, once said, “Faith is not simply a patience that passively suffers until the storm is past. Rather, it is a spirit that bears things--with resignation yes, but above all with blazing, serene hope.”

About the author — Ellen Duffield

Ellen is the author of BRAVE Women: Building Bridges to Transformation, The BRAVE Way: Where Will Your Brave Take You Today? and a BRAVE Girls Curriculum. She is currently working on a BRAVE resource for boys and men. [email protected],

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