In recent years, psychological resilience has become a popular topic on parenting blogs and pop psychology websites. Do a search on Google and you will find lots of articles teaching parents how to raise resilient children or what resilience skills to equip their children with to succeed in life.
In this article, we will review what resilience is according to decades of scientific research, dispel misconceptions and show how parents can reliably foster its development in children.
Table of Contents
Resilience in children
As parents, we want to protect our children from all harms.
But we know it is impossible to shelter them from every single threat or adversity.
So we want our children to be able to resist stress, cope with changes, bounce back from difficult life experiences and have positive outcomes.
We want our children to be resilient.
Why Is Resilience Important
Resilience is important because resilient people bounce back from adversity. They maintain competent functioning despite hardship and go on with life. They also recover faster and more completely from difficult life experiences1.
Resilience helps these people emerge from severely disadvantaged circumstances relatively unscathed.
What Is Resilience
When it comes to resilience, we often think of captivating stories of individuals who possess extraordinary character or talents to overcome heavy odds in life.
There seems to be something remarkable or special about resilient people, often described as invulnerable or invincible.
That’s probably why in earlier resilience studies, researchers often focused on identifying personal qualities of resilient children, such as exceptional inner strength or belief in oneself2.
Nowadays, websites and blogs also teach parents how to help their children gain “resilient skills”.
However, after decades of studies, researchers find that resilience is actually a rather ordinary phenomenon and is more than just a person’s own characteristics3.
So what exactly is resilience?
Resilience is a dynamic psychological process or capacity through which individual who has been exposed to adversity, trauma or significant source of stress develops positive adaption over time4.
Resilience is the capacity to cope with stress and recover from adversity – such as early life hardships, relationship problems, serious health issues, workplace stress, bereavement and natural disasters.
It is a dynamic process that can change over time or vary in different situations in life.
Resilient adaptive system represents a stable trajectory of healthy functioning after a highly adverse event5.
Resilience Protective Factors
Resilience is not a list of personal qualities, characters or skills although individual differences in traits and skills contribute to one’s adaptive capacity.
Psychological resilience is the result of a complex combination of external and internal factors.
These resilience factors are called protective factors.
Protective factors can alter a person’s response to hazards that predisposes to a maladaptive outcome, thereby increasing the probability of a positive adaptation.
These factors include individual (inborn and learned), family and environment factors.
The effects of protective factors are accumulative, meaning, the more protective factors are present, the better chance a child can adapt positively to adversity.
On the other hand, multiple adversities are not only accumulative, but they also intensify the toxic strength of each individual risk factor.
For example, children exposed to 6 or more adverse factors during childhood are 2.5 times more likely to develop externalizing disorders and 1.8 times more likely to develop internalizing disorders compared to those with low exposure to adversity6.
Whether a child develops resilience depends on whether the amount of protective factors can outweigh risk factors.
This is why in the face of adversity, some children can still emerge unscathed and flourish.
The presence of multiple protective factors can tip the scale towards positive outcomes.
Here is a list of resilience factors research has uncovered that contribute to resilience development in children7.
- Good parenting
- Low family stress
- Parental mental health
- Absence of alcoholics, drug abuse, etc.
- Higher intellectual capacity (IQ)
- Girls are found to be more resilient than boys
- Easy temperament
- Genetic inheritance
- Advantaged socioeconomic status
- Ability to dream or sense of purpose in life
- Perception of control and ability to change one’s own life
- Cognitive competencies
- Emotional regulation
- Physical well-being
- Social skills
- Communication skills
- Sense of humor
- Multi-cultural competencies – capable of acting competently in several cultures if needed
Environment / Community Factors
- Supportive extended family
- Close relationship with a mentor
- Positive school experiences
- Part of religious or faith community
- Extra-curricular activities
Building Resilience In Children
While we cannot change some internal protective factors, such as genetics (at least not yet), parents can do a lot to affect or introduce protective factors into children’s lives.
Here is a list of strategies that can help build resilience in children.
1. Warm, Responsive And Supportive Parenting
Whether a child can adapt to challenges largely depends on their connections to other people and external systems rather than from within their body and mind.
Six decades of research have found that the single most common factor to help build resilience in children is having at least one close, positive relationship with a parent, caregiver or other adult who is warm, responsive and supportive to the child8.
Parents, in particular, can foster many aspects of protective factors if they use authoritative parenting to build a positive relationship with their children.
Authoritative parenting is characterized by high responsiveness and high demaindingness.
Authoritative parents are warm and responsive to their children’s emotional needs facilitating the development of emotional regulation and empathy.
They are democratic, allow autonomous and encourage independence helping their children gain a sense of control of their lives.
Kids of authoritative parents also tend to develop better self-esteem, social competence and communication skills, all of these are resilience protective factors.
2. Teach Coping Skills
Science tells us that children who have the ability to cope are more resilient.
Coping mechanisms are not limited to severely disadvantaged circumstances.
Parents can instill these skills when their children encounter changes or difficulties in everyday lives.
Positively coping with changes in everyday lives is important because children can build a sense of self-efficacy and perceived control.
Positive coping skills include:
- Problem solving
- Ability to make realistic plans
- Positive reappraisal of situations
- Regular exercise
- Extracurricular activities and group activities
3. Provide A Healthy, Stable Environment
- Become a resilient parent yourself and model how to apply coping strategies
- Seek help if there is mental health or marital issues in the family
- Support developing positive social networks and keep the child away from peers who exert bad influence
- Work with school to ensure a positive learning environment
- Involve in the child’s academics and help facilitate trusting relationship with teachers
4. Age-Appropriate Manageable Stress
Living in a healthy, stable environment is a protective factor for children to develop resilience.
But providing a safe, positive environment doesn’t mean becoming an overprotective parent.
Not all stress is harmful to children.
Eustress (positive stress) can promote growth in coping skills with the help of a supportive adult.
Resilience can develop through gradual exposure to stressors at a manageable level.
Having a grownup’s support is critical in building resilience in this process.
Resilience And The Brain
Human brains are malleable. This is called plasticity of our brains.
We can rewire and develop resilience throughout our lives.
But plasticity decreases as we age. Our brains are most adaptable in early childhood. It is much harder to rewire when we grow older.
The earlier we start strengthening our children’s capacity to resist stress, the more likely our children will develop resilience.
Final Thoughts On Resilience In Children
Resilience is the result of a combination of protective factors. But some factors are more important than others. Having coping skills alone does not replace the value of having a positive relationship with a grownup. Therefore, tough parenting does not help raise resilient children. Authoritative parenting does – another reason why it is the best parenting style.
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- 2.Luthar SS. Resilience in Development: A Synthesis of Research across Five Decades. In: Developmental Psychopathology. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 2015:739-795. doi:10.1002/9780470939406.ch20
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- 5.Southwick SM, Bonanno GA, Masten AS, Panter-Brick C, Yehuda R. Resilience definitions, theory, and challenges: interdisciplinary perspectives. European Journal of Psychotraumatology. October 2014:25338. doi:10.3402/ejpt.v5.25338
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- 7.Kumpfer KL. Factors and Processes Contributing to Resilience. In: Longitudinal Research in the Social and Behavioral Sciences: An Interdisciplinary Series. Kluwer Academic Publishers; :179-224. doi:10.1007/0-306-47167-1_9
- 8.Masten A, Barnes A. Resilience in Children: Developmental Perspectives. Children. July 2018:98. doi:10.3390/children5070098