Resilience is the capacity of an individual to adapt to events and changes by "bouncing back" thereby continuing their healthy functioning, and building their capacity to cope with future life events and hardships. Young people who are resilient tend to be more hopeful, confident and possess higher self-worth when times get tough.
However, resilience is not a personality trait that a person is born with, rather, most children living in supportive families and communities learn ways to adapt under normal circumstances just as they learn ways to be resilient when times are difficult.
This hot topic describes what resilience is, what impact resilience has in children's and young person's lives, what you as a parent or carer can expect to see if your child's resilience is low, and things you can do to assist them regain their capacity to be resilient.
What is resilience?
Even after very harsh or difficult life circumstances children have been known to thrive. Individuals spring back and survive by consciously and unconsciously engaging a complex array of resources and protective factors available to them through their environment as well as through their own personal attributes.
External or environmental resources that may be drawn upon by children and young people include relationships with family, with other caring adults and peers, school experiences, cultural beliefs and practices, success in sports and other social pastimes and activities. Internal resources include things like temperament, physical capacity, intelligence, endurance or psychological strength.
Not all resilient children and young people display the same characteristics of resilience however there are a number of predictors of resilience many of which can be actively encouraged and taught:
- problem-solving skills and ability to focus
- emotional and behavioural regulation
- self-efficacy, self-worth and a positive self-perception
- believing that life has meaning and hope
- being involved with faith based or other group affiliations
- feeling valued for some trait or ability
- having friends who are accepted in the child's circle
- feeling connected to school and having an effective school experience
- living in an effective community (e.g., safe, with emergency services, recreation centres, options for young people)
- experiencing the presence of caring, competent adults in their life (eg., parents, carers, teachers, extended family members)
What can you expect to see if a child's resilience is low?
Accumulated traumatic and upsetting events can interfere with a child's or young person's resilient response. The high intellect child might actually be vulnerable as they process stressful situations in a developmentally advanced way (compared to others their age). The young person may appear resilient and calm, fulfilling daily responsibilities at home and school, but internally they may be depressed or anxious. These quiet types do not always attract the attention of adults in the same way as those children or young people who externalise their non-coping behaviour. Some children will react to severe stress behaviourally or emotionally but overall there is no one consistent way that resilience is displayed across all children or young people.
The main concern for a parent or carer is to look out for signs that a child is developing a pattern of recovery from setbacks so that they can learn and grow from their challenging experiences.
What can parents do to create resilient children and young people?
Three ways a parent or carer can assist their child to be resilient are through promoting a sense of mastery, a sense of relatedness and emotional reactivity:
Sense of Mastery
Encouraging experiences of success for the child will enhance their sense of mastery. A sense of mastery builds hope in children. It is important as well that they are assisted to realistically understand that mastery is not achieved instantaneously but is something that must be strived for and worked at. Some strategies that may be helpful to develop a sense of mastery in children and young people include:
- Adventure education programs mimic the same internal and external factors required for resilience, and are a great way for children to experience mastery of a novel, challenging situation.
- Encourage your child to use positive thinking: Teach them to say "I think I can" when something difficult comes up. Read stories and watch shows that model children demonstrating positive expectations in the face of difficulty.
- Introduce the idea of breaking tasks into smaller steps and tackling them one at a time.
- Encourage them to praise themselves for their achievements of the day each night before they go to sleep.
- Talk with them about their strengths and give them a chance to elaborate, enhance and generalise these strengths. Demonstrate how a strength used in one context can be used in another.
- Specifically praise their practice and effort to achieve mastery.
Sense of relatedness
Children need relationships with caring adults other than their parents or carers (such as teachers, minsters, neighbours). These supportive relationships influence and foster resilience because the perception or belief that support is available is in itself an aspect of resilience even if it is never actually accessed.
- It can assist to discuss your child's supports with them so that they can be ready should a stressful event occur. For example if they arrive home from school and the house is locked and no one is home discuss how they would utilise community supports e.g. neighbours, family members.
- Practice what they would say to get the assistance they need in various situations. Who would they ring? What questions would they ask?
- Teach your child how to calmly explain what is upsetting them, speaking clearly and in non-accusatory language, using eye contact, thinking about and understanding the feelings of others in the situation and promoting empathy and sharing.
- Assist your child to think about the consequences of actions or decisions they make e.g., "Are you sure about drinking this caffeinated drink so late in the evening? Remember you have an early swimming class and your squad rely on you to be on time".
- Give them choice so that they can understand consequences e.g., "If you put your favourite shirt out for the laundry I will have washed it ready for the next time you want to wear it. You can leave it in the corner if you choose but leaving it to be washed and dried at the last minute means it will most likely not be ready in time."
Children vary in the way they react emotionally - some are more intense than others or more sensitive. Others have a wider window of tolerance and recovery whilst some will react more quickly or take longer to regain balance. Recovering from being upset and being able to moderate emotional reactivity are necessary for personal resiliency.
Things a parent or carer can do to assist include:
- Helping your child with relaxation and self-talk that assists to settle their reactions along with breathing and other techniques so that they learn to "self sooth".
- Educating your child or young person in how having a high level of emotional reaction leaves then vulnerable. They may think less clearly, or upset others who may then avoid them. Or they may even hurt others who may retailiate back so that relationships breakdown.
- Helping them to realise that the longer it takes to recover the longer they will feel upset and uncomfortable.
- Child counsellors/psychologists can assist children and young people develop techniques for identifying triggers, anticipating them and then managing their responses.
- Discussing an upsetting event and helping them to identify what triggered their emotional reactivity. Getting them to work out some other ways they could have managed the situation will assist them with emotional flexibility and self-regulation.
Who else can help?
You may wish to contact your local parenting help service/s for further information.
- Seligman, Martin. (1998). Learned Optimism. New York, NY: Pocket Books.
- Worsley, Lyn and Fordyce, Ruth. The Resilience Donut - http://www.theresiliencedoughnut.com.au/images/product/file/The_Resilience_Doughnut_-_Building_Resilience_in_Children_and_Young_People.pdf
- Worsley, Lyn. Building Resilience in Three Australian High Schools, Using the Resilience Doughnut Framework - http://www.theresiliencedoughnut.com.au/images/product/file/Building_resilience_in_three_australian_schools_2014.pdf
- Linke, P. (2010). Promoting resilience in young children. Educating Young Children: Learning and Teaching in the Early childhood Years, 16 (2), pp35-38
- Theron, L., Liebenberg, L and Unger, M. (2015). Youth resilience and culture, Nertherlands:Springer
- Resnick, M and Taliaferro, L. (2011) Resilience in Encyclopedia of Adolescence, Volume 1, pp 299-306.
- Prince-Embury, S. (2014). Three-factor model of personal resiliency. Chapter 3 in Prince-Embury and Saklofske, D. (2014). Resilience Interventions for Youth in Diverse Populations, Dordrecht, Springer.
- Ibid p 34.
Updated: June 2015