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Building Resiliency in Children

By Specialized Children’s Services Director Lorna Mattern

No matter what we do, we cannot protect our children, our families, or ourselves from adversity.  It is, after all, a natural part of life.  We have all experienced some kind of adversity such as work or school problems, illness, a divorce, loss, or crime.

Some of us, however, seem to handle it better than others.  Why is that?  One reason we are able to adapt is because we are resilient.   

Resiliency can be defined as the capacity to successfully adapt in the face of adversity, and develop social and academic competence despite exposure to severe stress or simply the stress of today’s world.  In other words, according to one 15 year old high school student, “resiliency is about bounding back from problems and stuff with more power and more smarts”.

Children, youth, and adults who “bounce back” share similar characteristics.  They generally have a feeling of self worth and confidence, a sense of personal control, use positive life skills such as good decision making, assertiveness, and impulse control, and they have a sense of humor.  Genetics play a part in resiliency, but these and other characteristics that form a resilient person can be taught and need to be nurtured over time.   

As adults and caregivers we are responsible to teach, practice, and use “bounce back” strategies to help our children, and for that matter, to help ourselves.   Providing children with the tools they need will allow them to respond to the challenges of adolescence and young adulthood and to navigate adulthood successfully.  In order to nurture resiliency, we need to work in different areas.  Within each area, the following factors foster resilience in children and youth:

Within the Family

  • Close relationships with at least one caring and supportive adult who is a positive role model.
  • Authoritative parents who are high on warmth and support but who also provide structure.
  • Positive family climate with low family discord between parents and between parents and children.
  • A home environment that has rituals and routines such as shared dinner times.

Within the Schools  

  • Youth feel their school cares about them as students and cares about their learning (otherwise known as a feeling of “School Connectedness”).
  • Ties to pro-social organizations such as clubs, sports, or extracurricular activities.
  • Opportunities to learn and develop talents.

Within the Community

  • High levels of public safety.
  • Youth feel connected to and respected by their community
  • Civic engagement is made available, such as opportunities for helping others.
  • Support of cultural and religious traditions

There are many ways to help foster resiliency in children and adolescents which also help adults grow and learn to adapt better for themselves.

  • Provide activity that is a challenge where they can succeed.
  • Express confidence in your child.  Point out their strengths.
  • Be kind, respectful and firm.
  • Increase parental involvement in school.
  • Remain calm and understanding when your child is upset.  Listen.
  • Never let your child believe you don’t love them.
  • Become involved in your child’s education and activities.
  • Ask children for help.
  • Let your child learn from their mistakes.  Don’t rescue your child.
  • Exercise together.
  • Volunteer together.
  • Look on the bright side.  Be positive. 
  • Help your child set future goals and make a plan to reach them.
  • Help your child accept and understand their feelings.
  • Help them make friends and be a friend.

Protecting our children against all of life’s unexpected painful events is not possible.  Giving them a sense of competency and the skills to face adverse circumstances can be a valuable legacy of all parents.  Resiliency can be built by understanding these important foundations.  The more we practice these approaches, the better able our children will be to weather whatever life brings.

“The resilient child is one who ‘works well, plays well, loves well and expects well’” (Bernard 1997)


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