How to Build Resilience

What is Resilience?

Resilience is the ability of individuals to bounce back and move forward from adverse experiences. It is a necessary skill for coping with life’s inevitable obstacles and one of the key ingredients to lifelong success.

 

It's having better outcomes  than one would have expected based on a significant accumulation of risk factors. Resilience is not something your born with. The good news is that resilience skills can be learned and built over time. 

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Help Your Child Build

Resilience and Thrive

Resilience is:

Resilience is not:

  • Something that develops through a dynamic process involving individual factors (e.g. temperament), environmental factors (e.g. family relationships) and the interaction between those factors

  • Something that exists on a spectrum

  • Something that can change over time

  • Something that everyone can learn – to deal with current adverse experiences or to prepare for future adversity

  • Something that may look different in different settings, including family, cultural and broader community environments

  • Something a child has or does not have

  • Solely about the skills and capabilities of the individual child

  • An innate quality that only some people are born with

  • A fixed character trait (i.e. you either have it or you don’t)

  • Freedom from negative emotions

Ann Masten, one of the foremost researchers of resilience in children, writes, “Resilience does not come from rare and special qualities, but from the everyday magic of ordinary, normative human resources in the minds, brains, and bodies of children, in their families and relationships, and in their communities.” This “ordinary magic” means that children will be more able to adapt to adversity and threats when their basic human systems are nurtured and supported.

Factors that Contribute to Childhood Resilience

While many factors contribute to resilience, three stand out:

  • Cognitive development/problem-solving skills

  • Self-regulation

  • Relationships with caring adults

Essentials of Resilience

The single most common factor for children who have developed resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.1  High-quality relationships are fundamental to children’s resilience and are the principle components children and adults need to build their abilities to cope and overcome adversity. 

 

If you don't have a good health-promoting, nurturing, protective environment early in life, your basic circuitry for attention, impulse control, following directions, being able to delay gratification, self-control, awareness and flexibility. Optimism has been found to be one of the key characteristics of resilient people. The brain can be rewired to be more optimistic through the experiences it is exposed to. 

 

Being resilient is not always about feeling better or having fewer emotional reactions. It’s about managing and responding to emotions in a healthy and positive way. You,and other adults in a child’s life, play a role in helping children articulate, respond to and manage emotions. This leads us into what's called executive function and self-regulation. 

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Executive Function and Self Regulation 

Essential to building resilience are supportive relationships. High-quality relationships are fundamental to children’s resilience and are the principle components children and adults need to build their abilities to cope and overcome adversity. The ability to self-regulate behavior is one of the most important protective factors in relation with resilience. 

Executive function and self-regulation skills depend on three types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. These functions are highly interrelated, and the successful application of executive function skills requires them to operate in coordination with each other.

  • The successful application of executive function skills requires them to operate in coordination with each other.

  • Each type of executive function skill draws on elements of the others.

 

  • Working memory governs our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time.

 

  • Mental flexibility helps us to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings.

 

  • Self-control enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses.

When the components of executive functioning come together to determine behavior, this is called self-regulation. Simply put, self-regulation is the ability to stop, think, and then make a choice before acting. 

You can develop children’s resilience by helping build and strengthen supportive relationships between parents and other key figures in the child's life. 

Being resilient is not always about feeling better or having fewer emotional reactions. It’s about managing and responding to emotions in a healthy and positive way.  Parents and other adults in a child’s life, play a role in helping children articulate, respond to and manage emotions. This leads us into what's called executive function and self-regulation. 

Strategies to Strengthen and Build Resilience

Relationships with Caring Adults:

Ideally, we form close attachment relationships with our primary caregiver(s) beginning at birth. As we get older, those relationships extend to teachers, neighbors, family, friends, coaches, and others. Disrupted attachment relationships can be devastating for young children because they are still developing an internal working model of what relationships look like and because they rely so intensively on their caregivers to get their basic needs met.

By developing relationships with caring adults, whether they be parents, family members, coaches, teachers, or neighbors, children learn about healthy relationships—ones that are consistent, predictable, and safe. They receive guidance, comfort, and mentoring.

 

We know that the circuitry in the brain for these executive function and self-regulation skills is in the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that takes the longest to develop. this is the part of the brain that is among the most vulnerable circuits in the face of adversity. We have to be thinking about protecting the development of those circuits by reducing sources of toxic stress early in life. 

 

Parents can help kids build resilience and confront uncertainty by teaching them to solve problems independently. While the impulse reaction of the parent might be to jump in and help so that the child avoids dealing with discomfort, this actually weakens resilience. Kids need to experience discomfort so that they can learn to work through it and develop their own problem-solving skills. Without this skill-set in place, kids will experience anxiety and shut down in the face of adversity.

Modeling Self-Regulation

Young children have difficulty in a very chaotic environment focusing their attention. If there are many threats and distractions, children will not automatically develop the ability to focus their attention. They need adults to help them do that.

Children learn by watching and emulating the models in their lives, including parents, caregivers, siblings, and teachers. If these adults in a child’s life model strong self-regulatory skills, children will be better supported in developing their own skill sets. Here are three ways that you can model self-regulation for your child.

Making Connections

Social support is associated with higher positive emotions, a sense of personal control, self-esteem and motivation. Teach your child how to make friends, including the skill of empathy. Encourage and teach your child to be a friend in order to get friends. Build a strong family network to support your child through his or her disappointments and sadness.

 

Connecting with people provides social support and strengthens resilience. Children won’t always notice the people who are in their corner cheering them on, so when you can, let them know about the people in their fan club. Anything you can do to build their connection with the people who love them will strengthen them.

Let Your Child Know 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. If there is anything they can do themselves, guide them towards that but resist carrying them there. 

Teach Problem Solving Skills

The goal is not to promote extreme self-reliance. We all need help sometimes, and it’s important for kids to know they have help when it's necessary. By brainstorming solutions with kids, parents engage in the process of solving problems. Encourage kids to come up with a list of ideas and weigh the pros and cons of each one.

Children who may feel helpless can be empowered by helping others. Engage your child in age-appropriate volunteer work, or ask for assistance yourself with some task that he or she can master. At school, brainstorm with children about ways they can help others.

Promote Self-Confidence and Nurture a Positive Self View

Help your child remember ways that he or she has successfully handled hardships in the past and then help him understand that these past challenges help him build the strength to handle future challenges. Help your child learn to trust himself to solve problems and make appropriate decisions. Teach your child to see the humor in life, and the ability to laugh at one's self. 

Teach your child to embrace mistakes - theirs and yours. Talk about your mistakes and how it encouraged you.    Fear of failure those who avoid it lack resilience. In fact, failure avoiders tend to be highly anxious kids. When parents focus on end results, kids get caught up in the pass/fail cycle. They either succeed or they don’t. This causes risk avoidance. Embracing mistakes (your own included) helps promote a growth mindset and gives children the message that mistakes help them learn. It can be helpful to talk about a mistake you made and how you recovered from it.

Let Them Know They are Loved Unconditionally

This will give them a solid foundation to come back to when the world starts to feel threatening. Eventually, they will learn that they can give that solid foundation to themselves. A big part of resilience is building their belief in themselves. Use your family as a source of comfort for your children wrapping them with family closeness and make sure your children have lots of family time. During times of stress and change, spend more time with your children playing games, reading to them or just holding them close.

Reference:

1. Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University

2. American Psychological Association