“A resilient child can resist adversity; cope with uncertainty and recover more successfully from traumatic events or episodes”

When bad things happen why do some people have few coping strategies while others can carry on? Understanding resilience explains why some people feel powerless while others rise to the challenge.  The difference is a complex set of attitudes and skills which are can be cultivated to help children live a fuller, and more adventurous life. Resilience is not something you are born with, it is something you develop through personal experience and social support. There are 3 key ingredients of resilience:

1. A powerful sense of personal security, knowing you have a safe haven where you are loved and understood as a unique individual.

2. Strong self belief which ensures you are aware of and realistic about your personal strengths and competencies.

3. A sense of meaning and purpose which drives your efforts towards growth and achievement

Resilience makes it possible for a child to:

  • Accept a broad range of experience without undue fear or anxiety
  • Live with uncertainty and not be risk averse
  • Accept that “Stuff happens” and cannot always be prevented

As a supporting adult we can:

  • Take a strategic approach to resilience to prepare and protect children
  • Offer a resilience friendly environment
  • Teach children coping strategies to promote personal resilience
  • Make use of the 7 step Resilience Tool kit

Resilience for most children will be:  The ability to thrive, mature and continue to move forward with confidence whatever the prevailing circumstances.

Resilience is essentially the ability to maintain your personal identity, sense of purpose and belief in your own competence when circumstances are not on your side.

Promoting resilience

Young children are naturally curious and their desire to explore and discover is an essential part of personal development. Children want independence and to try new things. They resist advice and adult “interference” and early “behaviour problems” are often related to this tussle for autonomy to give the child the opportunity to try new things.

All adults, whatever their role in a child’s life, as a family member or professional, can help children get the balance right between risk and stagnation. For a child to flourish, they have to find their strengths and test their potential. They need to make informed decisions about risk and to understand themselves sufficiently to move beyond their comfort zones. This will never be a straightforward, smooth progression so they also need to know how to deal with setbacks.

For the majority of children, the setbacks are likely to be small scale, a matter of dealing with frustration and disappointment in everyday life,  rather than needing to draw on deep reserves during a major crisis.  What does more commonly affect children is persistent, low level stress rather than major trauma.  Persistent stress can be debilitating and helping children to identify what are reasonable expectations and demands in life is a first priority.  In the 21st century most people try to do too much, and consequently experience stress overload, which eventually impacts on health and wellbeing. Resilience allows you to recognise when you need to slow down or say no as well as giving you the determination to keep going with your vital activities.

Bouncing back is not the only outcome of resilience, confidence in the future and a self belief about handling whatever comes your way leads to what people have termed the ability to “bounce forward” or to eagerly anticipate possibilities with hope and optimism.

These Top 10 skills will build resilience and give young people the power to make the most of their lives.

1. Making the most of personal strengths: Children learnt more effectively through using personal strengths. By working confidently in an area where they are motivated and confident they are likely to build their creativity improve their focused attention skills and experience flow.

 2. Setting goals and finding a purpose: Children who have their sights set on something have more reason to get involved and to find ways around any obstacles they meet.

3. Humour and playfulness: Resilience depends upon you being able to manage your feelings and avoid low mood and energy dips. Laughter is a brilliant mood elevator; it is fun at the time and also releases endorphins which sustain positive wellbeing for some time afterwards. Humour can dampen down a sense of gloom and provide a space and time for breaking a low mood. Humour also allows us to re frame events and help us to see things differently.

4. Exercise and energy building: Exercise is an important part of the resilience toolkit. It works at several levels so it is important that children get regular daily exercise. The main benefits of exercise are:

  • Maintaining physical fitness provides the stamina needed to sustain effort and is an important part of the resilience toolkit to aid achieving long term goals. Being too tired to keep going can mean loosing momentum at a time when further effort just might move things forward.
  • Exercise is also a mood elevator so brings benefits on a day to day basis. Children naturally seek to be physically active and on the move. Their bodies tell them what comes naturally but unfortunately they are often not able to get active. The demands of schooling and the reduced opportunities for outdoor play from home is affecting children’s fitness. Exercise is known to be as effective in treating moderate depression as medication for adults it also reduces anxiety which should remind us how important it is for wellbeing. Exercise helps to maintain emotional wellbeing and being inactive can soon affect mood and motivation.
  • Exercise also moderates stress by channelling the stress hormones into an activity. Under stress, the sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for activity to address the threat. If this is not burned off through exercise the child will remain tense and liable to aggressive outbursts.
  • Exercise creates energy which keeps children alert and engaged. Being in the class room may involve sitting still but concentration and attention are high energy processes as the brain needs energy to do its work.

5. Helpful thinking: developing optimism: What you feel in any given situation is undoubtedly affected by your thinking. This is known as explanatory style. Explanatory style is how you make sense of what is happening to you. This can be either optimistic “it will workout well in the end” or pessimistic “this can only get worse” Optimism and pessimism are the opposite ends of the attitude spectrum of your feelings about the future.

Explanatory style also identifies whether you see an event as under your own control or managed by external forces – what psychologists call your “locus of control”. Believing that something is not under your control tends to lead to inaction-“there is nothing I can do about this” This can result in passivity “I’ll just wait and see what happens” or avoidance “I’m not going to even try this because I know it won’t work” or even denial “ this is not happening to me”

6. Positivity: gratitude, appreciation and savouring: Resilience is would be rather grim and joyless if it depended on a rigid determination to keep the show on the road under adversity. Resilience is also about perspective and balance. How serious is what is happening, is it a catastrophe or merely a frustration? Positivity which we explored in chapter 2 is a resilient mindset which you can actively cultivate to retain the healthy 3: 1 ratio of positive to negative emotions. Three key approaches which build positivity are gratitude, appreciation and savouring.

 7. Avoiding temptation: Resilience includes the ability to say no, self control is a valuable skill which allows you to resist temptation. Remember The marshmallow Test where the 5 year olds who were able to wait 15 minutes to have 2 marshmallows, rather than take 1 now instead, had fewer behaviour problems and were doing better at school when revisited some years later. Small children are generally very easily sidetracked so this was a tough task for them. Children who learn to master their impulses can more easily maintain their focus on a task which is difficult or challenging.

 8. Persistence: Persistence can be the difference between giving in and carrying on. It can differentiate those with talent who keep on perfecting their skill and those who loose heart. Edison who invented the light bulb is after many prototypes is supposed to have said “I have not failed. I have just found 10, 000 ways that won’t work”

9. Problem solving: Having a strategy to manage situations which cannot be resisted or avoided is essential. This helps to minimize the impact and to create control over the course of the adversity. Effective problem solving requires an emotional involvement and acceptance of the realities of the situation as well as a rational analysis of what is happening and how best to move forward.

10. Celebrating Success it is vital to focus not only on long term goals but what has been achieved so far. Enjoying the gradual change as things progress reduces impatience and discourages frustration.

Jeni Hooper

Child Psychologist and Wellbeing Coach


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