We can teach kids to build resilience by providing them with tools to navigate life’s ups and downs throughout their development.
“Resilience” is a buzzword that seemingly everyone uses, but not everyone resonates with it.
For some people, the expectation of being resilient in the face of adversity or trauma can cause emotional harm.
Resilience is not a one-size-fits-all concept. When raising “resilient kids,” resilience is not necessarily a state to strive for. Rather, it’s about teaching kids specific tools and coping strategies to cultivate:
- emotional regulation skills
- healthy relationships
- relationship skills
Every kid has some degree of resilience. Research from 2011 and 2021 suggests that neurobiological processes and genetic underpinnings may help explain why some kids are more naturally “resilient” than others.
Of course, resilience can’t be fully addressed without factoring in social determinants like systemic racism, socioeconomic status, and mental and physical health, not to mention the clinical implications of an ongoing global pandemic.
Still, there are ways to raise resilient kids by teaching them how to adapt to and recover from the usual ups and downs of young life. Whether you call it “resilience” or not, you can learn what kids need to succeed and thrive throughout their developmental years to achieve mental and physical well-being in adulthood and beyond.
What we don‘t mean by ‘resilient kids’
When we use the word “resilience,” we’re not implying that anyone “should” be resilient in the face of trauma, systemic racism, or adversity. Resilience means different things to different people and can minimize the difficulties experienced by many marginalized communities.
Still, even if your child is sad, disappointed, and angry, there are productive ways they can recognize their emotions and learn to process them.
The definition of resilience has evolved over the years, but most experts agree that resilience can be described as an adaptive response to difficult situations.
Current research defines resilience as the capacity to successfully adapt to challenges. A resilient child, therefore, is one who can bounce back from challenges and setbacks.
“A resilient child will take risks and continue to push forward even if they do not initially achieve the goal they desire,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, a celebrity psychologist based in Chicago.
Why are some children more resilient than others?
Some children may be more naturally resilient, but that doesn’t mean they’re superior to other children or have worked harder to get there. Plus, no matter how much resilience a child has, they can always develop more.
“Resilience is a skill that can be taught,” says Donna Volpitta, EdD, an author and educator at Pathways to Empower based in upstate New York.
Volpitta, who focuses on the neuroscience of resilience, says that resilience can be determined by the way that we think about the “Four S’s,” as described in her book, “The Four S’s of Resilience”:
- Self. What is the child’s relationship to themself?
- Situation. Does the child fully understand the circumstances involved?
- Supports. Who is part of the child’s trusting support system and are they available?
- Strategies. What helps the child work through difficult thoughts and emotions?
“We can use the Four S’s as a framework to help kids prepare for, handle, and reflect on any challenge, and when we do that, we’re proactively building more resilient brain pathways and teaching them to be more resilient,” Volpitta explains.
Everyone experiences the ups and downs of life, but for kids, an unfavorable test score, an embarrassing moment at school, or a breakup with a first love can feel devastating.
When kids develop resiliency, they can more effectively cope with life’s challenges and learn to move forward even when they feel like they’ve failed in some way.
“Children need to face challenges and learn the skills to persevere,” Lombardo says. “That includes managing their stress and inner critic.”
Teaching resilience can start right at home with a trusting adult. In fact, research shows that healthy attachments during childhood promote resiliency.
While many parents feel they have to step in and “save” their children from failure, Lombardo says that it can be more productive to help kids problem-solve how they can improve and adapt to different situations accordingly.
“Highlight values, such as kindness, grit, and empathy by pointing out when your child applies them,” Lombardo says. “Children greatly benefit from living by the notion ‘it’s not failure; it’s data’ to help them be more resilient.”
What unique challenges do kids face today?
Today’s children are growing up in front of a digital audience, sharing many intimate aspects of their lives with others in a way that no other generation has done before.
“Children are coming to use digital devices and features such as social media and gaming at an increasingly earlier age, but are not necessarily better prepared for them,” says Teodora Pavkovic, MSc, psychologist, parenting coach, and digital wellness expert at Linewize based in Honolulu.
“The challenges of navigating these made-for-adults virtual spaces are ever-increasing,” she adds.
From navigating mis- and disinformation to cyberbullying, today’s kids face unique circumstances with potentially harmful consequences. “Education around digital wellness, cybersafety, and media literacy is so incredibly important,” says Pavkovic. In addition, children navigating a digital-first world may find it increasingly difficult to develop healthy relationships in real life.
Plus, today’s youth may face unique challenges such as:
Teaching kids the building blocks for resilience can potentially help to mitigate their response to trauma, should they experience an adverse event in the future.
Because resilience is a learned skill, there are a few ways you can teach kids to process failure and move on. Kids can build mental elasticity and greater resilience by learning to recognize their emotions and work through them.
Here, we’ve identified four pillars of resilience for fostering emotional intelligence and resilience in kids.
Self-efficacy is your belief in achieving a goal or outcome and is the foundation for developing resiliency.
But self-efficacy can be challenging for some parents since it means relinquishing control and allowing their children the potential for mistakes, disappointment, and failure.
To encourage your child to develop self-efficacy, Pavkovic recommends identifying small, age-appropriate opportunities that allow your child to do and decide things for themselves on their own each day.
According to Lombardo, you could also try helping your child develop moderately difficult, meaningful goals, such as learning a new skill or fundraising for a cause about which your child is passionate.
Self-trust is your ability to rely on yourself and a reflection of your own personal integrity.
To build self-trust in your child, you can start by teaching them how to manage their stress by practicing self-care and the importance of prioritizing their own physical and emotional needs.
“Teaching your children self-care in the digital era is one of the greatest gifts today’s generation of parents can give their kids,” says Pavkovic.
Self-esteem refers to how you think and feel about yourself.
“Self-esteem will develop as a natural consequence to your child feeling more masterful, and knowing — from direct experience — that even when they make mistakes, they still have the inner resources to handle them,” says Pavkovic.
You can teach your child self-esteem by explaining the importance of clearly communicating their wants and needs respectfully.
Lombardo also recommends highlighting your child’s positive efforts. “Rather than, ‘Good job getting an A on the test,’ reinforce their effort: ‘You worked so hard to study for that test! How does it feel to have your hard work pay off?’ Or, ‘That was very thoughtful to invite the new student to sit with you at lunch!” Lombardo explains.
Kindness is your capacity to be aware of others outside of yourself and what you could do to help make their lives a little brighter or easier.
“Kindness is the natural capacity to care about others, one that we are all born with,” says Pavkovic. “Your child has this ability already, but there are always ways of helping them further exercise that muscle.”
Lombardo says you can teach your children about kindness and empathy by encouraging random acts of kindness to a friend or family member or encouraging them to volunteer for a cause that they’re passionate about.
Also, kindness and empathy can help us to forgive ourselves and others. A 2021 study shows that children who better understand the perspectives of others have a larger capacity to forgive.
Once kids have learned how to respond to life’s smaller challenges, they’ve gained the tools to navigate larger challenges, which could help in the face of severe adversity or trauma, to some extent.
But following a traumatic event, children need more effective coping strategies and professional resources along their road to recovery that go beyond the basic pillars of resilience.
“When we experience trauma, there’s a fundamental way the brain is wired to respond and remember that experience, which will have an effect on the way we experience other similar experiences,” says Volpitta. “When kids experience trauma, they may need treatment to address that.”
When to seek help
If your child has experienced a severe traumatic event, it’s important to seek professional help from a medical or mental health professional.
The tools in this article can help your child overcome basic challenges and help prepare them should they experience trauma in the future. But if your child has already endured a traumatic event, here’s where to seek professional help:
- American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
- American Psychiatric Association
- American Psychological Association
- Center for Parents and Information Resources
- Child Mind Institute
- Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health
- Kids Mental Health Information
National Institute of Mental Health
Psych Central’s resource hub “Finding a Path Through Trauma” may be helpful as well.
No child should ever feel like they have to be resilient in the face of trauma. Still, strengthening a child from the inside out can help build up their level of resilience should they ever have to face traumatic situations.
Life is full of ups and downs. Try to remind your child that if or when something bad happens at school, in social settings, or online, or if they’ve simply made a mistake, support is available. It’s good to let them know that you’re there to listen and help them adapt to whatever the situation may be.