Building resilience in children is more than teaching children life skills. Let’s find out what resilience is and how the four science-backed tips can help raise resilient kids.
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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.
But how can we do that? The good news is that researchers are finding that 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 stress and recovering from trauma or adversity.
From early life hardship or abuse to 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 painful life experiences, and may even emerge relatively unscathed from severe hardship.
Childhood psychology experts have long been fascinated by the fact that some children who’ve faced trauma can come out mostly unharmed, while others crumble. They wanted to know why.
At first, researchers often focused on identifying risk factors 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, risk factors can 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, such as depression and anxiety disorder2,3.
Resilience 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 adversity may require a lot more positives to tip the scale and become resilient.
So what are these protective factors that can help children adapt and cope with hardship?
Researchers have identified numerous factors that they group into three general categories: family, individual, and community. They touch on various issues, but there’s a recurrent theme that runs through many of these 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.
Let’s take a look at these three categories of protective factors, and then we’ll discuss how to foster them in our children5.
- Good parenting (more on this later)
- Low family stress
- Sound parental mental health
- Absence of alcoholism, drug abuse, etc.
- Emotional regulation
- Perception of control and ability to impact one’s own life
- Self-esteem and self-efficacy
- Ability to dream or having a sense of purpose in life
- Social skills and communication skills
- Sense of humor
- Physical well-being
- Higher intellectual capacity and cognitive competencies
- Gender: Girls tend to be more resilient than boys
- Easy temperament
- Favorable genes
- Advantaged socioeconomic status
- Supportive extended family members
- A close relationship with a mentor
- Positive school experiences
- Safe neighborhood
- Close community
- Support group
- Part of religious or faith community
- Extracurricular activities
4 Science-Backed Strategies to Build Resilience In Children
Given this understanding of protective factors, we can form specific strategies to help build it in our children.
While some of these factors can’t be changed, like the genetic makeup of each child or their sex, there are many more of them that we can actively provide or support.
Here are four proven strategies for raising resilient kids:
1. Provide Warm, Responsive, Supportive Parenting
The single most common factor in building resilience is having at least one close, positive relationship with a warm, responsive, and supportive parent or another adult caretaker.
Plus, when parents build a positive relationship with their children, they can teach and instill in them many further protective factors.
Parents can build this positive relationship 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, facilitating the development of emotional regulation, 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 factor.
Authoritative parenting also encourages other valuable factors like self-esteem, social competence, and communication skills.
Tough love parenting, in contrast, does not support these protective factors and is less likely to produce strongly resilient kids.
2. Teach 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 ordinary changes or difficulties as opportunities to instill these skills.
In addition, through learning to cope with changes in their everyday lives positively, children can build a sense of self-efficacy and perceived control that will carry them through future challenges.
Positive coping skills include:
- Ability to make realistic plans
- Positive reappraisal of 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 a positive home, school, and social environments.
Seeking help for any mental health or marital issues, finding ways to become more resilient ourselves, and modeling coping strategies are all ways parents can improve our 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 exert 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. In fact, children need stress to build up tolerance. Gradual exposure to stress – 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 thereby turning stress exposure into resilience builder.
Resilience Theory: It’s a Process
Stories abound of people who’ve overcome great adversity or recovered from horrific experiences, only to thrive and prosper.
It would be easy to imagine that it takes something extraordinary to thrive against the odds. But in reality, what we need to build resilience is as simple and ordinary as everyday connections and support.
Expert Ann S. 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. So the earlier we start strengthening our children’s capacity to resist stress, the better. Although possible, it’s much harder to rewire our brains as we grow older.
It’s important to remember that 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 and building resilience are all part of the process. Parents play a big role in helping our children learn to adapt to whatever’s coming their way.
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- 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