By Heather Lonczak, Positive Psychology Program
Most of us are familiar with the expression “that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It turns out that this is only partially true – not everyone possesses the ability to persevere following trauma.
Indeed, while some people crumble in the face of adversity, others are somehow able to adapt successfully. Given its emphasis on human capacity, fulfillment, and healthy development; Positive Psychology is particularly invested in understanding the emotional quality that not only manages to shield some people from the impact of adversity — but actually enables them to thrive.
This protective emotional armor is called RESILIENCE.
When it comes to building-up resilience, the earlier the better. Not only are young people more amenable to change because their brains and personalities are still developing; but, because young children are often exposed to stressors, it certainly makes sense to empower them with resilience-promoting tools early enough to curtail negative outcomes.
In this article, we will shed some light on the intangible, yet invaluable, quality of child resilience – such as what it means, why it’s important, and how to encourage as much of it as possible – as early as possible.
“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall”
(Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1900)
What is the Definition of Child Resilience?
Historically, the concept of resilience is actually nothing new.
Humans have a long history of fascination with stories about people overcoming great adversity. Multiple labels have been proposed to identify emotionally hardy kids, such as “stress-resistant,” “successful high-risk kids,” and “invulnerable,” (Masten, 2012).
However, George Vaillant, an early pioneer of the resilience-focused literature, was dissatisfied with the notion of “invulnerability,” feeling that it was unempathetic to the child’s experience of trauma. Vaillant thus instead proposed the term “resilience” (Hauser, Allen & Golden, 2006) – a term which has stuck with social scientists and practitioners ever since.
While several definitions of resilience have been proposed by researchers, the following definition is among the most accepted and utilized for both adults and children:
Resilience is “the process of, capacity for, or outcome of successful adaptation despite challenging or threatening circumstances” (Masten, Best & Garmezy, 1990). Along these lines, children are considered resilient when they experience prosocial development despite adversity (Masten, 2013).
Importantly, resilience is not a magic bullet or special power; it has in fact been conceptualized as a type of Ordinary Magic (Masten, 2014); given that, although powerful, some level of resilience is attainable to everyone.
Resilience is not automatic, but is instead a learned behavior that becomes internalized and applied during stressful times (Greenberg, 2007), thus enabling resilient individuals to survive and rebound following extreme challenges.
And like all things psychological, the concept of resilience isn’t exactly simple. Resilience is a multi-dimensional process, consisting of a cluster of skills that vary depending upon a particular situation.
Why is resilience so important?
If there’s one thing we can always be sure of, it’s that adversity is inevitable. Moreover, while every generation has had its own unique challenges; it also can be argued that the demands, anxieties, and pressures faced by young people today present an exceptional challenge to healthy development.
But here’s the good news:
When bad things happen, there is something we can control — our response. Individuals can either crumble or, as Dr. Gregg Steinberg describes in his Ted Talk, they can “’fall up’ by using their “painful experience as a chisel to free their authentic self, to become the person they’re meant to be” (Steinberg, 2015).
Fortunately, there are a number of invaluable psychosocial and environmental qualities that safeguard against or minimize the impact of serious issues on young people today.
These are the qualities the make-up resilience; qualities that a guide published by the Center on the Developing Child describes as influences that “Stack the scale with positive weight and optimize resilience across multiple contexts” (Harvard University, 2019).
Because resilient children have the emotional buoyancy to thrive in the face of adversity, the concept of resilience is of paramount importance to parents, practitioners, and teachers for whom positive youth development is a priority.
Resiliency research most often focuses on identifying the protective mechanisms associated with positive adaption in children.
In this vein, an extensive look at the substantive literature (e.g., Blaustein & Kinniburgh, 2018; Gavidia-Payne, Denny, & Davis et al., 2015; Grotberg, 1995; Petty, 2014) reveals the following domain-specific qualities that promote child resilience:
- Individual/Internal to the Child Domain: Intelligence, agreeable temperament, optimistic outlook, problem-solving skills, self-esteem, self-efficacy, emotional flexibility, active lifestyle, emotional regulation, humor, autonomy, empathy.
- Social/Family Domain: Secure infant attachment to a caregiver, warm and supportive parents, parental harmony, prosocial bonding to a supportive adult, meaningful peer friendships, healthy sibling relationships, social competence, cooperative learning skills, ability to solicit help, parental supervision, effective parenting skills.
- Contextual/Environmental Domain: Safe neighborhoods, high-quality schools, community closeness, access to after-school programs, supportive extended family, successful school experiences, valued social role (e.g., job), positive mentors, faith-based or other meaningful community membership.
The Child Resilience Theory
In order to develop programs aimed at promoting child resilience, researchers have proposed several explanations of how child resiliency actually works. In their review of the resilience literature, Yates and Masten (2012) describe three such theories as follows:
The compensatory model: This model suggests that protective factors function as neutralizers of risks by having an independent opposite effect on the development of risks (e.g., increased parental supervision may have a compensatory effect on children from dangerous neighborhoods by predicting better school achievement independent of the increased neighborhood risks).
The protective factor model: This model suggests that the risk for particular outcomes is moderated by protective mechanisms. This model is further delineated by two sub-models: 1) The risk-protective process, which operates by minimizing links between either risk and undesirable outcomes; and 2) the protective-protective process, which operates by increasing the impact of promotive factors.
As an example of the former protective factor model, a group of kids from high poverty families might achieve academic success due to the protective effect of effective schools/teaching.
The challenge model: This model is described as an inoculating process in which children exposed to early risks may actually be better equipped to cope with future stressors. In other words, by surviving early stress or trauma, the child becomes steeled against future deleterious outcomes.
This idea clearly circles back to the notion that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. As such, it is a tricky concept to apply because whether or not early exposure is protective or actually damaging is dependent upon the nature and degree of early risk. For example, a child from a military family who experiences a lot of school transitions might actually become really good at making new friends.
On the other hand, if the child is exposed to so many moves in and out of schools that his/her ability to make friends becomes compromised, the child may not be able to successfully cope and become socially isolated.
Of course, both of these examples are also influenced by a number of covariates; such as child temperament, intelligence, social support, etc. (e.g., it might be predicted that an outgoing child with a mellow temperament will experience frequent moves far differently than a more introverted, anxious child).
While each of these theories provides a useful model for broadening knowledge of the theoretical processes involved in building resilience, such discussions are more meaningful when augmented with real-life examples of what resilience might look like.
But first, let’s consider the following question: How do you know if you have Resilience?
Although people may store-up large amounts of resiliency, one doesn’t really know if they have it until they actually need it. As such, resilience can be conceptualized as a sort of emotional insurance. Masten (2012) describes two ways in which child resilience is often gauged:
- Meeting Age-Related Developmental Goals: In this example, a child would be considered resilient if he/she was on target with meeting important developmental milestones such as learning to walk or using language.
- Attaining Adaptive Psychosocial and/or Behavioral Outcomes: In this example, a child would be considered resilient if he/she experienced positive prosocial outcomes such as quality peer relationships, emotional well-being, and academic and/or career-related achievement.
But let’s go a step further and think about how a resilient child might look.
3 Examples of Resilient Child Development
You probably know of or have read about someone who has overcome enormous odds. One such example from the late 1990s is that of Romanian children in orphanages who were revealed by reporters as suffering from the consequences of extreme neglect, deprivation, and gross developmental delays.
Despite these atrocious conditions, many of the Romanian children who were adopted into nurturing homes developed normally – meeting key developmental milestones (Alvord & Grados, 2005). As these children thrived in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, they certainly represent a profound example of the ability to overcome formidable obstacles.
Child survivors of natural disasters represent another example of the power of resilience. For example, the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka that devastated everything in its path and killed nearly 31,000 people, exposed millions of children to unprecedented trauma. Despite the unimaginable losses the children of Sri Lanka suffered, a subset of them experienced healthy development.
Researchers examining the tsunami’s impact on adolescents identified positive mother-child relationships as a key protective influence that was associated with resilience among the disaster’s surviving youth (Wickrama & Kaspar, 2007).
Finally, in his deeply moving Ted Talk, Michael Kalous (2017) provides several heart-wrenching examples of children who’ve overcome and sometimes even thrived following severe trauma.
Kalous shares a very personal example of his own traumatic childhood, which was characterized by extreme instability and abuse. Yet, Kalous also describes how he was able to grow into a healthy, successful adult (e.g., college graduate, intact marriage, stable employment, etc.).
Considering his miserable childhood, many people often asked Kalous why he was so well-adjusted despite his background. In response, Kalous notes the following five protective mechanisms as instrumental in promoting his resilience:
- Having a Hero: For example, a spiritual or human moral compass that is accepting and forgiving.
- Having a Refuge: For example, somewhere such as a school where a child can escape stress.
- Having a Place of Solitude: For example, a peaceful place of serenity such as the outdoors.
- Having a Voice: For example, Kalous literally describes how participation in the choir enabled him to be heard and helped him to externalize his internal feelings.
- Having a Purpose: For example, serving others as a way to provide perspective and to foster a sense of purpose.
How to Build Resilience in Children
Based on data from the International Resilience Project, which is a large-scale study of child resilience with participants drawn from 11 countries (Yates and Masten, 2012); it may be useful to consider the following three sources from which kids draw resilience:
- I HAVE Sources: These refer to resilience-promoting external supports and resources.
- I AM Sources: These refer to internal resilience-promoting qualities, such as feelings, attitudes, and beliefs.
- I CAN Sources: These refer to resilience-promoting social and interpersonal skills.
Framing resilience in this way is helpful for identifying the nature and degree of a child’s key sources of strength. For example, does the child have a caring adult he/she can talk to? Is the child optimistic about the future and confident in his/her skills? And can the child establish quality peer friendships?
Of course, identifying the most powerful predictors of child resilience (e.g., internal locus of control, self-esteem, self-regulation, social competence, social support, etc.) is essential; but how do we, as parents and teachers, provide the type of environment that will most reinforce these valuable qualities?
School-based Approaches for Building Resilience
Not only do children spend a significant amount of time in school, but the school context also provides an opportunity for establishing meaningful peer relationships and building self-efficacy.
By taking advantage of the educational setting to build resilience, multiple key protective mechanisms can be developed in kids; such as meaningful participation, social competence, achievement, and high expectations, prosocial relationships with teachers and students, etc. (Johnson, 2008).
Beyond the positive impact of school itself, elementary school-based interventions that enhance teacher effectiveness, parenting skills, and children’s social skills; also have been found to increase adaptive behaviors and to promote positive youth development (Catalano, Berglund & Ryan et al., 2004; Catalano, Oesterle & Fleming et al., 2004; Lonczak, Abbott & Hawkins et al., 2002).
Similarly, the Alvord-Baker cognitive-behavioral curriculum, which is a systems model involving 12-14 social skills group sessions per semester, draws on multiple resources (school, family and community) to provide an integrated approach to enhancing youth resilience (Alvord & Grados, 2005).
Child resilience development in the school setting also has been enhanced using relaxation exercises and visualization in order to promote self-regulation. Relaxation techniques can be tailored to fit with each child’s particular needs, with the child ultimately learning how to apply these techniques confidently and independently (Alvord & Grados, 2005).
Finally, the online publication “Dimensions of Early Childhood” provides several articles that suggest evidence-based methods for enhancing resilience in a school setting (e.g., peer mentoring, inclusive classrooms, etc.), as well as a specific list of ways adults can help students to “bounce back” (Southern Early Childhood Association, 2014).
Similarly, the American Psychological Association’s website offers a resilience guide for teachers and parents.
Raising Resilient Kids
Family is undoubtedly the most important system affecting child resilience.
By providing a supportive environment with open communication and effective parenting practices, children are given a huge head start in terms of building resilience (Newman & Blackburn, 2002). By practicing prosocial parenting, parents hold a highly influential position when it comes to cultivating a child’s capacity for resilience.
Along these lines, research suggests that child resiliency is supported by an authoritative parenting style, which is warm and supportive; yet also appropriately demanding in terms of expectations (Baumrind, 1991). In other words, authoritative parents provide consistent limits in a loving way.
Similarly, in her highly recommended parenting podcast: Respectful Parenting Unruffled, Janet Lansbury (2018) describes numerous relatable examples where resilience and positive youth development are enhanced by the use of respectful parenting (e.g., supporting a child who has differences, raising self-directed children, promoting confident leadership, etc.).
Along with these effective parenting styles, the following list contains a number of more concrete and specific ways in which parents and caregivers can promote resilience in children (Brooks and Goldstein (2003):
- Build Empathy: Help your child develop empathy by teaching him/her how to really consider and visualize the struggles faced by others.
- Identify a Go-To Person: Make sure your child has a close and supportive adult he/she feels comfortable confiding in.
- Listen: Ensure that your child feels like you aren’t simply hearing, but are truly tuned-in to what he/she has to say.
- Accept Children for Who They Are: Avoid pushing your child in a direction he/she doesn’t want to go; but instead, celebrate the person he/she is.
- Identify Strengths: Find-out what your child is really good at and offer encouragement and support.
- Do-Overs: Make sure your child knows that mistakes along the way are okay; present them as learning experiences and areas where he/she can try to do better next time.
- Develop Responsibility: Give your child opportunities for developing mastery and responsibility, this will encourage self-esteem and -efficacy.
- Offer Meaningful Participation: Offer your child opportunities to engage in activities he/she really cares about.
- Teach Problem-Solving: Show your child ways to deal with problems, providing both role modeling and encouragement.
As an additional tool for parents, there are ten specific phrases connected to the desired goal that can be used to help kids to learn and internalize resilience when faced with a problem (Grose, 2013). These phrases are presented in a useful chart for parents and teachers, but here are a few examples:
- For the Goal of Humor: “Come on, laugh it off.” Helping your child to see the humor in a situation, as this is a powerful tool he/she will be able to apply in many difficult situations in life.
- For the Goal of Providing Hope: “I know it looks bad now, but you will get through this.” There is really no doubt that fostering a sense of optimism gives children a big advantage when it comes to many prosocial outcomes.
- For the Goal of Positive Reframing: “What can you learn from this so it doesn’t happen next time?” Reframing helps children to have a more realistic and healthy perspective of a situation. Children with emotional flexibility benefit from a good repertoire of coping solutions to draw from when needed.
“I would like to be known as an intelligent woman, a courageous woman, a loving woman, a woman who teaches by being”
Maya Angelou (2013)
Developmental psychologists are well aware that having expectations for child behaviors in the absence of parental modeling (i.e., “do as I say, but not as I do”) is not an effective way to achieve parenting goals.
Children will model after what they see – perhaps regardless of what they hear. Thus, parents are more likely to raise resilient kids if their children see them as strong and competent role models who do not crumble under pressure.
To model resilience, it is instructive for parents to consider how we tell our own stories – do we frame obstacles with optimism and apply effective strategies? Do we recognize and communicate challenges only as negative, or do we also recognize areas where they may be advantageous (Grotberg, 1995)?
Do we communicate with our children about areas where we have been resilient in our lives? Allowing your child to see you as a competent and strong survivor provides an invaluable lesson in resilience that he/she can emulate in times of adversity.
How to Teach Resilience to Teens
Adolescence can be a highly challenging period, as teens try to navigate social, peer and school pressures; while experiencing major emotional and physical changes of their own. As they attempt to distinguish their own identities, adolescents are often involved in increased risk-taking; and teens exposed to early trauma or social isolation are even more likely to get into trouble (Blaustein & Kinniburgh, 2018).
Thus, the importance of teaching resilience to adolescents as a way of fostering a healthy developmental trajectory cannot be understated. But where to begin?
The Enduring Influence of Parents
While some may assume that, as teenagers increasing rely on peers for support, the influence of parents becomes minimal. This is not true. Just as with younger kids, parental figures are absolutely essential for helping adolescents to overcome difficult struggles (Wolin, Desetta & Hefner, 2016).
Indeed, by fostering a sense of mastery and internal locus of control, adults help to empower a teen’s sense of personal responsibility and control over the future (Blaustein & Kinniburgh, 2018). In fact, the presence of nurturing adults who truly listen has been reported among emotionally resilient teens (Wolin et al., 2016).
Parents, teachers and other adult role models play a key role in helping teens to draw on their own natural resilience as a way of promoting hope, faith, optimism, and strength in the face of adversity.
A Structured Approach to Teaching Teen Resilience
Drawing from the results of Project Resilience, Wolin and colleagues (2016) provide a structured format for promoting resilience among teens which can be implemented by parents, teachers or therapists.
The authors suggest group sessions in which teens are able to discuss and build upon their own strengths. In doing so, the goal is to reframe painful events from the past as situations in which the teens were able to draw upon their strengths to survive. The following seven resiliencies are described as a sort of “mental map” that can help adolescents cope effectively with adversity (Wolin et al., 2015):
- Insight: Help your teen develop resilience by asking him/herself questions that reveal personal truths.
- Independence: Help your teen develop resilience by teaching autonomy and self-reliance.
- Relationships: Help your teen develop resilience by establishing meaningful connections with others.
- Initiative: Help your teen develop resilience by taking charge of his/her life.
- Creativity: Help your teen develop resilience by using his/her imagination to deal with feelings.
- Humor: Help your teen develop resilience by finding the humor in difficult situations.
- Morality: Help your teen develop resilience by encouraging him/her to do the right thing.
How Can Young People Develop Resilience Themselves?
Considering what we know about resilience-promoting qualities, young people can most definitely take an active part in increasing their own stores of resilience.
Based on a comprehensive review of the child resilience literature (e.g., American Psychological Association, 2019; Blaustein & Kinniburgh, 2018; Gavidia-Payne et al., 2015; Oliver, Collin & Burns et al., 2006; Petty, 2014; Sanders, Munford, Thimasarn-Anwar et al., 2015., Wolin et al., 2012), there are a number of important resilience-promoting activities that kids and teens can implement themselves. These activities are summarized below.
16 Resilience Activities for Kids
- Do Volunteer Work: When it comes to encouraging resilient, compassionate and empathetic kids; there really is no substitute for helping others in need. Service work draws thoughts away from the self toward concern for others. This altruistic mindset promotes responsibility and autonomy while making a difference in society. Truly, what better way is there to add meaning and purpose to a young person’s life than to support others?
- Get a Job: If employment is feasible for the teen’s lifestyle and schedule, having a job fosters resilience by building a sense of independence, self-efficacy, and the type of pride that comes from taking on responsibility and earning one’s own money.
- Get Involved in Extracurricular Activities: Engaging in fun and rewarding activities promotes youth resilience by enhancing mastery, social interaction, and joy.
- Practice Self-care: Healthy self-care behaviors such as adequate sleep, good eating habits, and physical exercise promote resilience by encouraging a balanced lifestyle that provides young people with the strength and energy to deal with stressful situations.
- Be Optimistic: Optimism is a recurrent theme in the resilience literature, as seeing the positive in a situation is an important way to encourage young people to have a resilient mindset that supports adaptive coping.
- Try Relaxation: Given that relaxation is incompatible with stress, techniques that involve deep breathing and relaxation are important and manageable methods that kids and teens can apply on their own in order to support emotional balance.
- Listen and Learn from Others: Young people who know how to solicit and learn from guidance offered by others benefit from additional resilience resources they can utilize when needed.
- Try New Things: While trying things that may be unfamiliar or scary, it also leads to the discovery of rewarding and enjoyable activities. Taking such risks also supports a youth’s self-esteem, autonomy, and mastery.
- Practice Empathy: As noted earlier, empathy is exceedingly important for fostering resilience in young people because it supports a compassionate and giving mindset with less emphasis on one’s own problems.
- Set Reasonable Goals: Young people, particularly adolescents, often find themselves stressed due to feeling overworked, overscheduled and unable to meet desired goals. Teens have greater amounts of resilience when they experience a sense of pride that comes with achieving manageable objectives.
- Take Breaks: Many young people feel enormous academic pressures and are often extremely driven toward achievement. While dedication is positive, it is also important for healthy psychological and physical health to take necessary breaks.
- Establish a Consistent Routine: Maintaining structure is an important way for young people to feel in control and to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
- Form Meaningful Friendships: The peer connections made by kids and teens are key influences on involvement in healthy versus risky activities. Resilience is enhanced when young people establish meaningful, prosocial bonds with peers.
- Be Aware of Stressors: Young people are not always aware of the underlying stressors that make life more difficult. For example, an adolescent whose grades are suffering, may not realize the connection between his/her declining grades and a schedule characterized by low sleep and poor study habits. By identifying these stressors, a teen is able to make life changes that promote resilience.
- Accept Change: By learning that change is an inevitable part of life, young people will develop the mental stamina to accept transitions as learning experiences.
- Find your Passion! Adults and adolescents alike enjoy more fulfilling lives when they participate in meaningful activities. It is by discovering these underlying passions that a life of resilience and joy becomes possible.
A Take Home Message
The following idea represents the primary message for readers to take away from this article:
Resilience is a powerful protective construct that is also malleable; it is a learned behavior. In other words, if you or your children are not particularly resilient today – there is still plenty of hope! You cannot always control what happens, but how you respond is up to you. In fact, it is empowering to know that there are MANY things that can be done to minimize risk and to promote healthy youth development and well-being.
This article provides numerous evidence-based qualities and activities that support the goal of building-up resilience in kids and teens. Promoting these resilience-enhancing tools among young people is instrumental for helping them to build invaluable emotional armor – armor that will enable them to actually thrive in the face of major obstacles.
Best wishes on your journey toward a life of optimism, meaning, and resilience!
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