As parents, we want to protect our children from harm.
But we know we can’t shelter them from every single threat or challenge that may come their way, now or in the future.
So we want our children to be able to cope with stress and change – to bounce back from whatever life throws at them.
In short, we want to raise resilient children.
Fortunately, resilience isn’t some elusive innate quality – it’s not a “you’ve either got it or you don’t” proposition.
Rather, it is something that’s built and strengthened through specific life experiences.
What Is Resilience?
Resilience is the process of handling different types of stress and recovering from trauma or adversity in tough times.
From early life hardship or abuse to loss of a parent, fractured relationships, loss of a loved one, job loss, health problems, or natural disasters – trauma can come in any number of packages. A resilient person can keep functioning and even thrive afterward.
Resilient individuals recover faster and more completely from adverse experiences, and may even emerge relatively unscathed from severe hardship.
Developmental psycologists have long been fascinated by the fact that some children who have faced trauma can come out mostly unharmed, while others crumble. They wanted to know why.
At first, researchers focused on identifying individual characteristics that are potential risks such as personality traits and vulnerabilities that could contribute to negative outcomes in children1. But later researchers turned this approach on its head: They started looking into factors that contributed to positive outcomes in at-risk children, instead2.
They call these factors “resilience factors” or “protective factors.”
These are the variables that, when present in a child’s life, correspond to being more resilient and better health outcomes.
Not only that, but they also seem to add up: The more protective factors are present, the better the chance a child can adapt positively to difficult circumstances.
However, the risk factors add up, too.
Children exposed to six or more risk factors are 2.5 times more likely to develop externalizing disorders, such as conduct disorder, violent crime, and substance abuse. They are also 1.8 times more likely to develop internalizing disorders that affect children’s mental health, such as depression and anxiety disorders2,3.
The concept of resilience for kids is essentially the accumulation of protective factors vs. risk factors.
Think of it like a scale: Stack the protective factors on one side and the risk factors on the other.
Children become resilient when the effect of the protective factors outweighs the risk factors. This means that children with a history of significant adversity may require a lot more positives to tip the scale and become resilient.
Resilience Factors That Can Help Children Adapt
So what are the protective factors that can help children cope with hardship?
Protective factors can be grouped into three general categories: family, community, individual. They touch on various issues, but there’s a recurrent theme that runs through many of the protective factors: connection with supportive people.
Indeed, six decades of research indicate that a child’s resilience mostly depends on their connections to other people, rather than their own inherent qualities4.
Examples of resilience factors that can help kids adapt5.
1. Family Factors:
- Good parenting.
- Low family stress.
- Sound parental mental health.
- Absence of alcoholism, drug abuse, etc.
- Sense of safety.
2. Community Factors:
- Support and engagement from extended family members.
- A supportive relationship with a mentor.
- Positive school experiences.
- Safe neighborhood.
- Close community.
- Social support.
- Part of religious or faith community.
- Extracurricular activities.
3. Individual Factors:
- Adaptive emotional skills.
- Perception of control and the child’s ability to impact one’s own life.
- Self-esteem and self-efficacy.
- Having the ability to dream and a sense of purpose in life.
- Social skills and communication skills.
- Sense of humor.
- Physical health.
- Higher intellectual capacity and cognitive competencies.
- Gender: Girls tend to be more resilient than boys.
- Easy temperament.
- Favorable genes.
- Advantaged socioeconomic status.
How to Build Resilience In Children
Given this understanding of protective factors, we can form specific strategies to help build children’s resilience.
Some of these factors cannot be changed, such as a child’s genetic makeup or gender, but there are many others that can be actively provided for or supported.
Here are four proven strategies for raising resilient kids:
1. Warm, Responsive, Supportive Parenting is The Best Way
The most common protective factor for youth resilience is having at least one close, positive relationship with a warm, responsive, and supportive parent or adult caretaker.
When parents build a positive parent-child relationship, they can futher teach or instill in them other protective factors.
Parents can build strong relationships through what child development experts call authoritative parenting. This parenting style is characterized by high responsiveness coupled with high expectations.
Authoritative parents are warm and responsive to their children’s emotions. They facilitate the development of emotional regulation which is a key protective factor. They also allow autonomy and encourage independence, helping their children gain a sense of control of their own lives – another significant resilient factor.
Authoritative parenting is also associated with other valuable factors like self-esteem, social competence, and communication skills.
Tough love parenting, in contrast, does not support these protective factors. This style of parenting is less likely to produce strongly resilient kids.
2. Teach Problem-Solving and Coping Skills
Directly teaching coping skills can help raise resilient children.
Coping mechanisms are not only useful for dealing with severe hardship – but they’re also helpful for handling everyday challenges and transitions. So parents can treat changes or difficult times as opportunities to instill these skills.
Through learning to cope with changes in their everyday lives positively, children build a sense of self-efficacy and perceived control that will carry them through future challenges.
Positive coping skills include:
- Problem-solving skills
- Ability to make realistic plans
- Positive reappraisal of stressful situations
- Regular exercise
- Extracurricular activities and group activities
3. Work Towards a Healthy, Stable Environment
Parents can also help their children become resilient by working to ensure they have positive home, school, and social environments.
Seeking help for any mental health or marital issues, finding ways to become more resilient themselves, and modeling coping strategies are all ways parents can improve their home environment.
At the same time, parents can get involved in their children’s schooling and work with teachers to ensure a positive school experience.
And, finally, they can support their children in developing positive social networks, as well as keep them away from peers who may have a harmful influence.
4. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Strive to create a positive and healthy environment for our children, but don’t keep them in a bubble.
We can’t maintain a perfect home or protect our children from all possible school and social stressors.
And the good news is that we don’t need to.
That’s because not all stress is harmful to children.
Children need stress to build up a tolerance. Gradual exposure to stressful times – at manageable levels – can actually help them develop coping strategies to become resilient. Psychologists call this eustress or positive stress because it can promote growth in coping skills.
But there’s one key caveat: The help of a supportive adult is critical in managing stress and turning stress exposure into a resilience builder.
It’s a simple process
Stories abound of young people who’ve overcome great adversity or recovered from horrific experiences, only to thrive and prosper.
It might have been easy to imagine that to thrive against the odds, something extraordinary is required.
It might have been convenient to believe that children can develop these abilities through play or activities.
But in reality, all we need to develop resilience is everyday connections and support. It’s that simple.
Resilience expert, Ann Masten, has found that resilience, far from being exceptional, is actually quite common. She called this the “ordinary magic”6.
Human brains are malleable. This malleability or “plasticity” is greatest in early childhood. Therefore, the formative years are the optimal windows of opportunity.
The earlier we start strengthening our children’s capacity to cope with times of stress, the better. It’s much harder, although possible, to rewire our brains as we grow older.
Healthy development of resilience is an ongoing process, not a fixed point or end goal7.
From Resilience Theory, the conceptual framework psychologists use to understand how resilience works, we know that it fluctuates over time and circumstances. A child may struggle in one domain but adapt well in another. The child may also be more or less resilient at different points in time2,8.
Final Thoughts on Resilience in Children
Strengthening the protective factors to help children build resilience is a process. Parents play a big role in helping their children learn to adapt to whatever’s coming their way so they will thrive in the face of adversity.
- 1.Zimmerman MA. Resiliency Theory. Health Educ Behav. July 2013:381-383. doi:10.1177/1090198113493782
- 2.MASTEN AS, OBRADOVIC J. Competence and Resilience in Development. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. December 2006:13-27. doi:10.1196/annals.1376.003
- 3.Fergusson DM, Horwood LJ. Resilience to Childhood Adversity: Results of a 21-Year Study. In: Luthar SS, ed. Resilience and Vulnerability. Cambridge University Press; :130-155. doi:10.1017/cbo9780511615788.008
- 4.Masten A, Barnes A. Resilience in Children: Developmental Perspectives. Children. July 2018:98. doi:10.3390/children5070098
- 5.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
- 6.Masten AS. Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist. 2001:227-238. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.56.3.227
- 7.Fletcher D, Sarkar M. Psychological Resilience. European Psychologist. January 2013:12-23. doi:10.1027/1016-9040/a000124
- 8.Masten AS. Global Perspectives on Resilience in Children and Youth. Child Dev. December 2013:6-20. doi:10.1111/cdev.12205