Building strong children: Promoting resilience to help children bounce back

How do you build strong children? Promoting resiliency in childhood can give your child the tools and skills to deal with stressful events throughout their lifetime.

Resilient children almost always have a strong relationship with at least one responsive adult.
Resilient children almost always have a strong relationship with at least one responsive adult.

All parents want to protect their children, equipping them with the skills needed to live long and happy lives. This desire is even more pronounced when we think about the stress, strife and trials that exist in the world for everyone. So then, how do we protect our children from these negatives while also preparing them for the world? The key is resilience.

Resiliency is often defined as the ability to bounce back from struggles, to deal with and recover from unfortunate or hard circumstances. It can also refer to someone’s reaction or response to stressful situations, how vulnerable they are to negative outcomes as well as their ability to demonstrate a positive response when faced with hardships. Think of resilience as the toolbox we carry around to solve our problems – resilient individuals have access to good, solid and dependable tools. Whether it is through illness, loss, family stress, natural disasters, traumatic events, violence or even smaller, daily stressors, children face their fair share of roadblocks to emotional contentment and stress-free living. Individuals who have the most positive outcomes to these events show resiliency.

Research has shown that an individual’s level of resiliency is partly due to biological or genetic factors. Some people are simply born better able to manage these stressful situations. However, the development of resilience is not completely out of our control. Instead it is a mixture of these biological factors and protective factors. Protective factors are the things that children, adults and communities possess that help them cope with life’s challenges. Just like you load your child up with protective gear (helmets, kneepads, etc.) when they participate in potentially dangerous activities, you want to outfit your child any and everything you can to safeguard them from hurt. Just like strapping protective gear on an active child, adults can help them develop protective factors they can wear every day.

Resiliency is really the ability to balance negative influences with positive protective factors. Imagine your child sitting in the middle of a teeter-totter in which one side holds the negative and the other holds the positive. When life’s inevitable stressors occur, they pull the child down towards the negatives. It may not be possible to keep the negatives from building up, weighing the child down in the process. But if we load children up with positive skills, support and experiences, we can counterbalance the negative and increase the positive functioning of the child.

The resilient child

According to “Supportive Relationships and Active Skill-Building Strengthen the Foundations of Resilience” from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, resilient children tend to show the following:

  • Strong relationships. They almost always have a strong, positive and supportive relationship with at least one responsive (aware, engaged and receptive) adult. These relationships are not limited to parents or primary caregivers, they can also be with extended family, neighbors, teachers, coaches or other community members.
  • Self-mastery. Children who are confident in their own abilities and believe they can deal with tough situations are primed to react more positively when confronted with adverse conditions.
  • Self-control. When children have the skills to regulate their own behavior, engage in goal setting and problem-solving and can manage their impulses, they have a developed set of skills useful in coping with stress.
  • Solid communities. Connection or ties to their larger community can help protect children from the effects of stressful events. These communities might consist of participation in faith-based organizations, cultural traditions or other community activities.

Resilience 101

Adults can have a strong influence on a child’s resiliency. The book “Raising Our Children to Be Resilient" has some tips on how to raise resilient children:

  • Protective factors. Help your child develop protective factors by increasing social connections, giving them solid support and increasing your own resilience. (Check out the Strengthening Families Initiative for more tips on increasing your family’s protective factors.)
  • Creativity. Provide outlets for creativity and self-expression, it gives children the opportunity to address and manage negative situations.
  • Choice. Teach children we have a choice in how we react in feelings and actions to adversity. Remind them we have control over how we react to negative situations.
  • Optimism. Show your child how to look on the sunny side! Help your child look for the good in all situations and give them hope for the future.
  • Humor. Like optimism, laughing in the midst of adversity and finding humor in tough times can help your child bounce back and move forward.
  • Self-worth. Identify and emphasize your child’s strengths. By increasing their self-confidence, they are able to utilize their strengths to address negative influences

By working to help your children develop resilience, you are preparing them to handle whatever life throws at them. With resilience building, you can help your child get back up, dust themselves off and keep moving forward.

For more information on resilience, check out the Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child’s video series on resilience and the American Psychological Association’s tips and strategies on resilience.

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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