What is Resilience?

Resilience is the capacity to recover from stress, challenge, tragedy, trauma, or adversity. Resilient children are braver, more curious, more adaptable, and more capable of fully participating in the world. The great news is that resilience is something that can be nurtured in anyone, including children.

In times of stress or adversity, especially during the seemingly endless pandemic, the amygdala located in the brain is activated, the heart rate increases, and adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone) are pumped through the body. Consequently, the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s control tower responsible for problem-solving, is disabled.

One of the most exciting recent findings is that brain-wiring can be changed through the experiences we expose it to through a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. Resilience calms the amygdala and reactivates the prefrontal cortex. This causes a reversal of the physiological changes from stress, expanding the capacity to recover from, adapt to, or find a solution to stress, challenge, or adversity.

Strategies to Build Resilience

Parents can help their children to build resilience and confront uncertainty by teaching them to solve problems independently. While a parent’s instinct might be to jump in to save the child discomfort, this is counterproductive as it weakens resilience.

Kids need to experience discomfort to work through it and develop their own problem-solving skills toolset. Lacking this skill-set, children will continue to experience anxiety and shut down in the face of adversity.

Some strategies to build resilience in children include:

1. Promote Healthy Risk-Taking

It’s very helpful to encourage kids to take healthy risks. Healthy risks are defined as those that push children beyond their comfort zone but result in negligible harm if they are unsuccessful. Encourage children to take safe, calculated risks. Tell them that the courage they show in doing something brave far outweighs the outcome.

2. Resist the Urge to Fix It and Ask Questions Instead

When children come to their parents to solve their problems, the natural parental response is to lecture or explain. A more effective strategy is to ask questions. By bouncing the problem back into the child’s lap with questions, the parent is encouraging the child to think through the issue and independently come up with solutions.

3. Teach Problem-Solving Skills

The objective is not to promote complete self-reliance. Everyone needs help sometimes, and children must know they have help. By brainstorming solutions with kids, parents engage in the process of solving problems more independently but not exclusively on their own.

4. Label Emotions

When stress hits, emotions are activated and we are vulnerable to losing control. Teach your children that all of their feelings are important and that putting a label on those feelings can assist them in making sense of their experience. Let them know that it is alright to feel anxious, sad, or afraid and reassure them that bad feelings usually pass.

5. Embrace Mistakes—Theirs and Yours

Children who avoid failure lack resilience and tend to be highly anxious. Parents who focus on results get their kids in the pass/fail vortex. Either they succeed or they don’t. Such a mentality promotes risk avoidance. Embracing their mistakes and yours helps build a growth mindset and sends kids the message that mistakes help them learn.

6. Model Resiliency

Inviting children into your emotional world in an appropriate way helps them to see that sadness, stuckness, and disappointment are part of the human condition. When expressing emotion is considered normal, there will be safety and security that will pave the way for them to emotionally explore their own experiences, and learn how to respond accordingly.

7. Let them Know that it’s Okay to Ask for Help

Most children have the mistaken notion that being brave is about dealing with things by themselves. Help them to understand that being brave and strong means knowing when and how to ask for help. While you want to cultivate independence, it is just as important to teach them that you relieve them of the burden of thinking they are alone.

8. Build Feelings of Competence and a Sense of Mastery

Consistently nurture in them the feeling that they can do hard things. This will flow from your acknowledgment of their strengths, their courageous acts, and their resolve to do something difficult. When children feel a sense of mastery, they are more likely to handle challenges in the future.

9. Nurture Optimism

It has been found that optimism is one of the key features of resilient people. Because of neuroplasticity, the brain can be rewired to be more optimistic. This doesn’t mean invalidating negative feelings when things go wrong. First, acknowledge their view of the world, and show them the possibility of a better one.

10. Teach them How to Reframe

Another key to resilience is reframing challenges in ways that feel less threatening. Help children to focus on what they have as opposed to what they lost in times of difficulty. After acknowledging their disappointment, gently steer them away from looking at how the problem has made things more difficult to the possibility of new opportunities.