3 Ways You Can Help Children Build Resilience

When we talk about resilience, we’re talking about being able to meet challenges and changes in life and not be mowed down by them, and optimally, achieve a positive outcome. This certainly does not mean that being resilient in the face of challenge means you aren’t affected, that you don’t feel upset, or struggle. It means that you are not crushed by challenges. You do not give up or deteriorate when faced with difficulties and adversity. It is also true that not everyone will respond to the same situation with the same resilience. We all have different capacities for resilience in the face of stressors, and this has to do with our early life experience.

Capacity for resilience is built starting with our early relationships and experiences, which in turn affect our developing brain, genetic expression, and capacity for resilience in the face of adversity. Children need secure, responsive relationships with caregivers who promote their development, regulatory abilities, and foster resilient thinking skills. Because resilience is a skill, we can continue to grow our own resilience, and those of the children we are close to.

This is a large topic, so today we will focus briefly on three areas important to resilience:

  1. Supportive relationships
  2. Managing emotions
  3. Resilient thinking

Supportive relationships. Having a secure, supportive, and responsive relationship with a caregiver is the major protective factor for children in the face of traumatic experiences and life stressors. Children need adults who provide a relationship in which they feel safe and supported and know they matter and are valued. Adults support children when they build relationships with children that let children know they are heard and seen. Adults also need to provide the structure and consistency that helps kids feel safe. This helps children to know what to expect and that their needs will be met by a caring adult. Safe and secure relationships not only provide a protective factor for children in the face of adversity and stress, but also support children’s ability to flourish and build their own social network and resilience.

  • Letting your child know, “I see you, I hear you, I am here for you” through your actions and words is incredibly important to their sense of security and support and develops the foundation for their resilience. We do this when we give children undivided attention to hear them and support them, in good times and tough times.
  • Providing consistent and predictable routines also supports children’s resilience, especially in the face of change or life stress. This allows them to put more of their effort into coping and self-management around challenging or unpredictable stressors, because the rest of their world and routine is for the most part predictable.

Managing emotions. When children are in situations where they need to draw on their resiliency, the first step is to be able to manage emotions and reactions to difficult situations. This does not mean that they shouldn’t have any not-so-good emotions. Instead, it means that they are not completely overrun with powerful feelings that leave them hopeless and unable to cope, or lashing out in harmful ways. This aspect of development is huge, and we have other posts here and here about how to build emotion management and regulation skills. Children who have been exposed to adverse life experiences or trauma may have deficits in their brain development and abilities to handle their emotions or react in helpful ways. Learning effective coping skills is a crucial step in resilience.

  • As caregivers, we can help our children deal with strong feelings by:
    • Learning to take deep breaths and other breathing exercises to calm down
    • Using words to get along with others, get help, or problem solve
    • Stepping away from stressful situations to help manage emotions and reactions
    • Learning how to read other people’s emotions in helpful ways
    • Reframing experiences can also be an important step in helping kids to be resilient. Often it is difficult for children not to take accidents personally (another child knocks our blocks over and it feels like a purposeful attack), or to attribute negative intent to other’s actions. We can teach children to understand intentional vs. accidental behavior, and learn to read other’s emotions and intent, which can help in numerous situations.

Developing resilient thinking: coaching children to think solutions focused. An important factor in emotional resiliency is feeling like you have some sense of control in the situation. Understanding that a stressful situation is not permanent, and that you have the capacity to find solutions or become more skilled can really help. This doesn’t mean that we must feel like we can completely change the situation, just that there are things within our power to help us cope with or overcome difficulty. When we know that our child is struggling through a difficult time, it is normal to want to take away or remove these bad feelings. We might cuddle them, display matching concern, or try to fix the problem for them. Or we might go the opposite direction and want to toughen them up by telling them “it’s fine” and “don’t feel sad”. Instead, we can listen to children’s struggles, help them name what they’re feeling in a calm way, and support them to think about how they might do something about the situation. In essence you’re letting them know, “I see you, I hear you, your thoughts and feelings matter, and I’m here to help”. We may not be able to remove the stressor, but we can coach our kids to build their coping and problem solving skills, and practice seeing difficulties as challenges to tackle rather than feeling helpless in the face of crushing defeats.

One of the most helpful ways we can teach our children to be resilient is to model it ourselves. This often looks like thinking out loud to narrate what we’re doing. When we practice solution-focused thinking during less stressful times, it will help to build the habit to do this when things are really hard.

  • This might sound like, “I am struggling to follow these directions and getting really frustrated. This is not as easy as I thought it was going to be, but I’m not going to just give up. What can I do to make this easier or help me in this situation? I could take a break and come back to it when I’ve calmed down, or ask for help to understand it better. I think I’ll ask my friend. She knows more about this and can help me talk it through and figure it out.”
  • Or you could talk about a time where something did not work out for you. Instead of seeing it as a failure, you saw the big picture and understood that this just meant you had more to learn, or needed to find a different approach. When we can focus on the little steps of progress toward our goals rather than not yet achieving those goals, it helps us to be more resilient by focusing on solutions and effort rather than failure.

We all develop different capacities for resiliency depending on our experiences and support. The good news is: we can build on whatever we have so far, even as adults. With hard work and thoughtfulness, we can all begin to grow our own abilities, and those of the children we care for, to become more resilient.

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Image: © Vladislav Zhukov | Dreamstime.com


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