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 according to resilience theory.
Table of Contents
Natural disasters, crime, war, accident, and abuse are unfortunate but sometimes unavoidable parts of life.
Psychologists, psychiatrists, and pediatricians have long been fascinated by the striking fact that when facing adversity, some children come out relatively unscathed while others crumble.
They want to know why some children seem to be more resilient than others.
What 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 time.
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 life1.
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 experiences
Resilience helps these people emerge from severely disadvantaged circumstances relatively unscathed.
As parents, we want to protect our children from harm.
But we know it is impossible to shelter them from every single threat or adversity in life.
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 to raise resilient children.
Resilience is a simple concept — bouncing back after adversity. But studying and understanding it is a hard subject in psychology.
Let’s turn to resilience theory that can help us figure out how to build resilience in children.
Resilience theory is the conceptual framework for understanding how some individuals can bounce back in life after experiencing an adverse situation in a strength-focused approach2.
The roots of resilience research can be traced back to half a century ago when psychologists studied the outcomes of children who were at high risk for psychopathology.
Among these children, a subgroup of them did not develop any psychopathological disorder and grew up with surprisingly healthy patterns.
In the past, psychology researchers often focused on identifying risk factors and vulnerabilities that could contribute to poor outcomes in children3.
This deficit-focused approach in developmental research was replaced by a strength-focused approach when resilience researchers started looking into the positive variables that contributed to good outcomes in at-risk children.
Resilience theories were then proposed to explain what and how these promotive factors work to help children overcome the negative impacts of risk exposure4.
Unlike most other theories, resilience theory is not a set of determined hypotheses or principles.
Rather, it is a framework that keeps evolving over the years as researchers learn more through studies and analyses.
In fact, there have been four waves of resilience research that have continuously refined and redefined resilience theory5.
Among the many different models of resilience theory, several common characteristics have emerged and are agreed upon by most researchers.
Dynamic Process, Not Traits
In the early days of resilience research, psychologists focused on identifying the personality traits responsible for the positive outcomes in that subset of children6.
The assumption was that resilience was created by some static internal quality of an individual.
After decades of studies, researchers realized that resilience is more than just personality traits. Instead, resilience is the capacity of a dynamic process adapting successfully to disturbances that threaten a child’s function and development7.
Ordinary Resources, Not Extraordinary Personalities
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. Only certain extraordinary people were able to overcome extremely harsh conditions
That’s probably why in early resilience studies, researchers often focused on identifying the personal qualities of these children, such as exceptional inner strength or belief in oneself.
Nowadays, websites and blogs also teach parents how to help their children gain “resilient skills”.
Researchers later found that resilience was actually quite common when the operation of basic human adaptation systems was protected and in good working order. If those systems were impaired, then the risk for developmental problems became much higher.
Resilience expert, Ann S. Masten, called this the Ordinary Magic8 because it’s the ordinary resource, not extraordinary quality, that protects us.
Three types of protective factors are found to protect the adaptation systems: individual, family, and community.
Although individual assets such as temperament, intelligence, and genders do contribute to resilience, factors that reside outside of us often play a significant role in determining whether a person can adapt positively or not.
These are ordinary resources one can draw from family and community, such as parental support, adult mentors, close community and safe neighborhood.
Changes Over Time
Another new concept about resilience is that it can potentially fluctuate over time and across different domains.
Adaptation is not a fixed system; rather, it is a developmental progression with new strengths and vulnerabilities coming from different life events over time.
Resilience is also not an across-the-board phenomenon.
A child can adapt well in one domain but struggle in another.
The child can also respond well early in life, but fail to adapt over time if their adaptation system is not well protected.
Resilience Vs Resiliency
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.
Some people even refer to this as resiliency, as though it’s a child’s characteristics.
The problem of using this term is that it implies a person is to blame for the “lack of resiliency”.
But now that we know resilience is actually a dynamic process and most protective factors come from outside, researchers start referring to it as resilience or resilient adaptation, rather than resiliency or resilient child.
In Resilience Theory, a resilient adaptive system represents a stable trajectory of healthy functioning after a highly adverse event9.
The positive adaptation is likely caused by a complex combination of external and internal factors.
But you can view adaptation as a seesaw. Stack the resilience factors on one side and the risk factors on the other.
Resilience results when the effect of the resilience factors outweighs the other side and tips the scale.
These resilience factors, also called protective factors, may alter a person’s adaptation to hazards positively.
Resilience factors seem to add up. The more resilience factors are present, the better chance a child can adapt positively to adversity.
Risk factors also seem to add up. But not only that. They also appear to intensify the toxic strength of each other.
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 adversity2,10.
So for children who have a history of risk factors, they may require a lot more resilience factors to tip the seesaw to the positive side.
Three Protective Factors
The three types of protective factors are:
- individual (inborn and learned)
Here is a list of protective factors research has uncovered11.
- Good parenting
- Low family stress
- Sound parental mental health
- Absence of alcoholics, drug abuse, etc.
- Higher intellectual capacity (IQ)
- Girls are found to be more resilient than boys
- Easy temperament
- Favorable 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
Related: Emotional Regulation
Environment / Community Factors
- Supportive extended family
- A close relationship with a mentor
- Positive school experiences
- Safe neighborhood
- Close community
- Part of religious or faith community
- Extra-curricular activities
Note that protective factors are not necessarily causing factors.
Protective factors are elements that researchers have found to be associated with resilient outcomes, but haven’t proven a causal relationship yet.
Despite the uncertainty, these elements by themselves are good to have in a child’s life whether they can directly cause resilience or not.
How To Build 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.
Resilience is not a list of personal qualities, characters or skills although individual differences in traits and skills contribute to one’s adaptive capacity.
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 adult who is warm, responsive and supportive to the child12.
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 demandingness.
Authoritative parents are warm and responsive to their children’s emotional needs facilitating the development of emotional regulation and empathy.
They are democratic, allow autonomy 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.
Related: What Is Authoritative Parenting
2. Teach Coping Skills
Science tells us that children who have the ability to cope have better resilient adaptation.
Coping mechanisms are not limited to dealing with severely disadvantaged circumstances.
Parents can instill coping skills when their children encounter ordinary 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:
- 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 a bad influence
- Work with the school to ensure a positive learning environment
- Involve in the child’s academics and help facilitate a 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. But having a grownup’s support is critical in building resilience in this process.
The Resilient Brain
Human brains are malleable. This is called the plasticity of the brain.
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.
So the earlier we start strengthening our children’s capacity to resist stress, the more likely our children will develop resilience capabilities.
Final Thoughts On Resilience
Resilience is likely 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 love parenting does not help raise resilient children. Authoritative parenting does – another reason why it is the best parenting style.
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