A life-altering accident, parents’ divorce, chronic illness, crushing poverty, learning disabilities ⏤ these are all stressful experiences that children experience every day. Some of the children who experience these events struggle for years to overcome their effects. They negatively alter their lives for years to come. Other children who experience these events go on to thrive, despite this experience. They overcome these adversities with such strength and resilience that it seems almost improbable to onlookers.
Why do some children (or adults, for that matter) thrive despite adversity? What is it about them or their environment that makes it possible for them to overcome such potentially negative events?
This is the question that resilience researchers have been studying for decades. Although we hope that our children will not face any of these extremely difficult life experiences, all our children will face some type of challenge or setback. Whether it be not getting into the college of their choice, not getting their dream job, or facing relationship problems, no one is immune to life’s challenges. Beginning now, we can help prepare our children to face and cope with adversity and challenges. By learning a bit about the science of resilience, we can foster coping skills in our children that will buoy them during life’s storms.
What is Resilience?
When you consider an individual who has fared well in the face of adversity, the word “resilience” often comes to mind. But what does “resilience” really mean? In contrast to society’s understanding of resilience, it does not mean that the person experiencing the difficulty doesn’t feel the pain or stress of the event. It’s not just that they are “tough” or somehow unaffected by the challenge. Quite the opposite is true. Resilient individuals feel the pain of adversity as much as anyone; the difference seems to be that they have skills and qualities that help them cope with the challenge.
Scholars have various definitions of resilience, but most center on this idea: the ability to overcome and recover from difficulties in life. Researchers have found that a child’s level of resilience depends on both innate and environmental factors. Innate factors can be characteristics of the individual, such as temperament or personality. Environmental factors that can influence resilience could be things such as family support, relationships, or school setting. Although a child’s innate factors are often more stable and difficult to modify, we, as parents, can help foster resilience in children by influencing the environmental factors. Scholars consistently find that one of the best predictors of a child’s resilience to adversity is the presence of at least one stable, supportive adult relationship.
Although this supportive relationship cannot remove the stress or adverse situation from the child completely, this person is key in helping the child face the challenge. Since children usually have not yet developed the emotional skills needed to cope with difficulties, an adult caregiver (typically a parent) offers them the model and skills to help the child face the challenge. By being responsive to the child’s emotional needs and modeling effective coping strategies, supportive adults and/or parents provide children with the scaffolding they need to learn these skills themselves over time.
In addition to a supportive adult relationship, other outside factors can help children face adversity with resilience. One key aspect has to do with helping children learn adaptive and healthy ways to cope with stress and challenges. This piece of the resilience puzzle is perhaps most useful for parents because it represents a set of skills that we can help foster in our children even before major adverse events happen. In daily life, as our children experience minor challenges, we can support them in fostering coping skills to deal with these smaller stressors. These smaller stressors, such as failing a test, experiencing illness, or going through a friendship breakdown, provide a sort of “training ground” where children can learn and refine their coping skills. When major challenges or stressors occur later in life (as they inevitably do), our children will have at least some frame of reference for emotionally coping with difficulties.
Tips for Fostering Resilience
Scholars agree that resilience is not a fixed trait but a skill that can be learned and improved upon. Thus, just like so many aspects of parenting, we can help our children learn the skill of resilience through the ways that we interact with them on a daily basis. Here are a few ways parents can foster resilience in children:
- Avoid Overprotecting: As parents, it’s often our first instinct to try to shield our children from challenges. Experts like psychiatrist Dennis Charney, however, suggest that one way to foster children’s resilience is to support them through challenges rather than avoid them. For example, this might mean helping them practice their lines before trying out for a theater production, knowing they may not get a part, rather than avoiding trying out at all. Although these situations may cause children stress or disappointment, this form of positive stress helps them build up their “toolkit” of coping skills to help deal with challenges.
- Normalize Mistakes: Another parenting approach that can help children develop resilience is the understanding that mistakes are normal, even expected. If children grow up thinking that mistakes make them failures, they might be less likely to even try new things. When mistakes are framed as part of the normal growth process, children feel the freedom to try new challenges, make mistakes, but still move forward and grow in their skills.
- Use a Strengths-based Approach: Research has shown that parents who utilize a strengths-based approach in their parenting tend to have children who cope better with difficulties. This approach entails focusing on children’s strengths and encouraging them to use them in challenging situations. For example, if you know your child has a strength for tuning into others’ emotions, you could encourage them to use that skill when having a conflict with a sibling.
While these actions may seem not very profound at the moment, they can all help build up children’s ability to cope with challenges in a resilient way.
Resilience: A Crucial Life Skill
No matter one’s social status or career path, we all face challenges and difficulties in life. It seems the key to resilience is not to attempt to avoid these challenges but to be as prepared as possible for them with coping strategies and supportive relationships. Through our parenting strategies, we can help foster resilience in our children so they will be ready to face life’s adversities when they come.
Preview Blurb: We’ve all seen individuals (even children) who experienced traumatic life challenges and yet, despite that, went on to thrive in life. What sets these children apart? Where does this type of resilience originate? Take a peek into the science of resilience and learn how you can help prepare your children to face life’s challenges with strength and fortitude.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development, to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.