How Can We Help Children Become More Resilient?

Child looking curious while climbing tree in summerResilience is the ability to bounce back from adverse events or challenges. These might include stressful incidents or trauma, among others. Some people may be more naturally more resilient than others, but resilience is a trait that people can work to develop and strengthen.

Typically, children experience either chronic stress or acute stress. Chronic stress, such as exposure to a hostile divorce, parental neglect, poverty, parents with mental heath concerns, or conflict in the home, is ongoing and lasts much longer. Acute stress, such as witnessing or experiencing violence or being in an accident, is intense but shorter-lived.

Children found to be resilient despite adverse circumstances have what’s called an “internal locus of control.” In other words, these children perceived that they, not the circumstances affecting them, were in charge of the outcome. They saw themselves as determining their own fate.

The foundation for developing resilience in children is a combination of supportive relationships, experiences that have a positive impact, and the development of adaptation skills. For example, a common thread in children who develop resilience is the presence of a loving and supportive parent or caregiver. When children have at least one adult in their lives who is responsive, who can be a buffer when they experience trauma, it is less likely that their emotional development will be interrupted.

The Development of Resilience

Resilience tends to develop and strengthen in the face of adversity, but a combination of protective factors can contribute to its growth. In particular, the combination of nature and nurture can determine a child’s ability to develop resilience.

Several factors are vital to the probability that children will develop resilience in the face of adversity:

  • Positive relationships between children and adults
  • The ability to monitor and regulate emotions
  • Opportunities to develop skills for adapting to the environment
  • A sense of self-efficacy
  • Facilitation of faith and hope
  • Integration of cultural traditions

The ability to cope with the common stresses of everyday life is one of the building blocks of resilience. Parents generally want to protect their children from everyday stress and mild discomfort. That is natural.

But not all stress is harmful. In fact, facing the challenges of life can allow children to develop problem-solving skills. When parents give children the chance to solve problems on their own (and remain available to help when asked), children can better learn to cope with life’s stresses and begin to develop self-efficacy. This can help them develop adaptive skills over time and learn to trust their own abilities and strengths. When children have faith that they can cope with adversity on their own but know they have the support of a trusted adult, the odds of their coping successfully with adversity increase.

How Can Children Become More Resilient?

The brain is the most trainable early in life. But it is never too late to develop resilience.

Strategies that can help older children develop resilience include:

  • Regular physical exercise
  • The practice of mindfulness and other stress-reducing strategies
  • Programs that strengthen executive function
  • The development of self-regulation skills (emotional regulation)
  • Seeing adults model these behaviors

Another powerful factor in the development of resilience is the way a particular event is perceived. Is it seen as something traumatic, or is it seen as an opportunity? Reframing an event originally seen as negative in positive terms can change how children view the event. Likewise, responding to an event in an objective (as opposed to reactive) way can also have an impact on a child’s perception of what happened.

When parents give children the chance to solve problems on their own (and remain available to help when asked), children can better learn to cope with life’s stresses and begin to develop self-efficacy. 

Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. If children exaggerate stressors in their own minds, the stressors can become something much bigger than they actually are. Children can create a self-fulfilling prophecy in this way. If they view an event as “the worst thing that could happen,” it is more likely they will experience it that way. Framing adversity as a challenge and a chance to grow may lead to a very different experience than framing adversity as a threat, perceiving it as traumatic, and continuing to dwell on it.

Changing the locus of control from external to internal has also been shown to produce more success in resilience. For example:

  • “The world doesn’t happen to me.”
  • “I am in charge of how I cope with challenges I am faced with.”

In Conclusion

The good news is that anyone can learn the cognitive skills that result in resilience—young children, older children, and adults. Adults can help children develop resilience by embracing their own mistakes and learning from them while encouraging children to do the same. Making sure children know it is acceptable to ask for help, and encouraging them to seek help when they need it, benefits them and fosters resilience. Labeling emotions can also help children make sense out of what they are experiencing. By doing so, they become better able to experience a full range of emotion, understand it is normal to experience these emotions, and learn that even difficult emotions will pass in time.

If you would like to explore more strategies for developing resilience, or believe your child may benefit from additional support, a qualified counselor can help.

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