Building Resilience in Children: The Basics

Our children will experience all the ups, downs and challenges in life. They will go through difficult times and experience life changing events. We cannot change that. As much as we want to scoop them up and lift them over the things that would cause them to stumble, we wouldn’t necessarily be doing them any favours. What we can do is give them the skills so these challenges are never able to break them. We can build their resilience. ‘Resilience’ is an engineering term meaning the force or pressure a structure can withstand before it breaks. For people, it’s the ability to recover from setbacks, adapt well to change, and keep going in the face of adversity. It’s also the ability to adapt to difficult circumstances that you can’t change, and keep on thriving. When children are resilient, they are braver, more curious, more adaptable, and more able to extend their reach into the world. The great news is that resilience is something that can be nurtured in all children and one of the most exciting findings in the last decade or so is that we can change the wiring of the brain through the experiences we expose it to. The right experiences can shape the individual, intrinsic characteristics of a child in a way that will build their resilience.

Given the time and age we live in, resilience might be regarded as one of the most important skills that an individual should possess. Yes, young people have always needed effective coping skills, but the modern world is more challenging and very different than ever before and, in comparison to previous generations, many young people today have fewer resources to deal with adversity. Our main concerns today involve the numbers of young people who are depressed, suicidal and engaging in maladaptive coping strategies such as substance abuse and anti-social behaviour. Be aware …… the behaviours teens choose now to cope become the habits of their future. Despite advances in modern life and more readily available knowledge and information, today’s modern world is not producing more resilient children, teenagers or young adults. Instead, those working in both research and the health sciences are finding the reverse happening – more teenage pregnancies, depression, anxiety disorders, violence, illicit and social drug use, family disharmony, homelessness and often lower school success and literacy rates. Adolescents are succumbing to more emotional, social and mental problems and disorders. They are also struggling with obesity, low self-esteem and self-worth, disconnection and the constant struggle with stress.

What can we as parents do? The answer is simple ….. stick to the basics:

  • Resilience needs relationships, not uncompromising independence: It is not rugged self-reliance, determination or inner strength that leads kids through adversity, but the reliable presence of at least one supportive relationship. In the context of a loving relationship with a caring adult, children have the opportunity to develop vital coping skills. Anyone in the life of a child can make a difference – family, teachers, coaches – anyone.
  • Let them know that it’s okay to ask for help: Children will often have the idea that being brave is about dealing with things by themselves. Let them know that being brave and strong means knowing when to ask for help. Also, create an environment where they feel comfortable to express their emotions appropriately.
  • Build feelings of competence and a sense of mastery: Nurture that feeling in them – that one that reminds them they can do hard things. You’ll be doing this every time you acknowledge their strengths, the brave things they do, their effort when they do something difficult; and when you encourage them to make their own decisions. When they have a sense of mastery, they are less likely to be reactive to future stress and more likely to handle future challenges. Self-efficacy can play a major role in how someone approaches achieving goals, performing tasks and overcoming challenges.
  • Nurture optimism: Optimism has been found to be one of the key characteristics of resilient people. If you have a child who tends to look at the glass as being half empty, show them a different view. This doesn’t mean invalidating how they feel. Acknowledge their view of the world, and introduce them to a different one. Learning how to be optimistic and have perspective can help protect learners against depression and anxiety.
  • Teach them how to reframe: In times of difficulty or disappointment, it will help them to focus on what they have, rather than what they’ve lost. To build this skill, acknowledge their disappointment, then gently steer them away from looking at what the problem has cost them, towards the opportunities it might have brought them. Being able to see a situation from different perspectives helps us to build resilience.
  • Model resilience: Imitation is such a powerful way to learn. Your kids want to be just like you, and they’ll be watching everything. Without pitching it above what they can cope with, let them see how you deal with disappointment. Bringing them into your emotional world at appropriate times will help them to see that sadness, stuckness and disappointment are all very normal human experiences. When experiences are normalised, there will be a safety and security that will open the way for them to explore what those experiences mean for them, and experiment with ways to respond.
  • Facing fear – but with support: Facing fear is so empowering (within the limits of self-preservation of course – staying alive is also empowering) but to do this, they need the right support – as we all do. Kids can be fairly black and white about things so when they are faced with something difficult, the choices can seem like only two – face it head on or avoid it at all costs. But there is a third option, and that is to move gradually towards it, while feeling supported and with a certain amount of control.
  • Encourage them to take safe, considered risks: Let them know that the courage they show in doing something brave and difficult is more important than the outcome. Age-appropriate freedom lets them learn where their edges are, encourages them to think about their decisions, and teaches them that they can cope with the things that go wrong. When they take risks they start to open up to the world and realise their capacity to shape it. There’s magic in that for them and for us.
  • Don’t rush to their rescue: It is in the precious space between falling and standing back up again that they learn how to find their feet. Of course, sometimes helping them up and giving them a steady place to be is exactly what they need to find the strength to move forward. The main thing is not to do it every time. Exposure to stressors and challenges that they can manage during childhood will help to ensure that they are more able to deal with stress during adulthood.
  • Let them know that you trust their capacity to cope: Fear of failure isn’t so much about the loss, but about the fear that they (or you) won’t be able to cope with the loss. What you think matters – it really does. You’re the one they will look to as a gauge for how they’re going. If you believe they have it in them to cope with the stumbles along the way, they will believe this too. This isn’t always easy. We will often feel every bump, bruise, fall or fail. It can be heartbreaking when they struggle or miss out on something they want, not because of what it means for us, but because of what we know it means for them. But – they’ll be okay. However long it takes, they’ll be okay. When you decide, they’ll decide.
  • Build their problem-solving toolbox: Self-talk is such an important part of problem-solving. Your words are powerful because they are the foundation on which they build their own self-talk. Rather than solving their problems for them, start to give them the language to solve their own. Some ideas – What would [someone who they see as capable] do?; What has worked before?; Say as many ideas as you can in two minutes, even the silly ones? Lay them on me. Go.; How can we break this big problem into little pieces? Guide them, but let them come up with their own solutions.

Above all else … let them know they are loved unconditionally. This will give them a solid foundation to come back to when the world starts to feel wobbly. Eventually, they will learn that they can give that solid foundation to themselves. A big part of resilience is building their belief in themselves. It’s the best thing they’ll ever believe in.

“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”  Confucius