How to: Build Resilience in Children

Resilience is essentially our capacity to rebound from stressful or challenging experiences and is one of the key Citywise traits. It is an important trait to build in young people, and it can be developed from a young age.

Read on for three top-tips adapted from author Donna Jackson Nakazawa and psychologist Rick Hanson, on how you can build resilience in children.

1. Buffering against stress: If you lose your temper, make a repair right away

A large body of research has found that chronic and exaggerated amounts of stress can put our health at serious risk. A branch of this research which deals with adverse childhood experiences has found that early stressful experiences can overstimulate a child’s stress response system, leading to inflammatory reactions in the body and brain which contribute to loss of grey and white matter in the brain, the higher likelihood of disease as well as mood disorders and depression.

The best way to prevent toxic stress among children is to take care of yourself and grow in resilience as a parent. Yet regardless of how good you are at self-care and remaining calm, anyone can feel stress building up and lose their temper, whether this be directed at, or witnessed by a child. What really matters in these situations, according to Nakazawa, is what you do afterwards. It is important to apologise to your child, explain what happened and why you reacted (or over- reacted) in the way you did.

Experiencing large amounts of stress in childhood can lead to trauma or higher adverse childhood experiences (ACE) scores. Both of these can lead to poor academic results, substance abuse, challenging behaviour and health problems such as cardiovascular disease. However, you can prevent stressful experiences, such as losing your temper, from having lasting consequences, by making a repair right away. Admitting that your behaviour fell short of the ideal will help to prevent a frightening memory from sticking. It will also help to establish trust between you and your child.

To apologise doesn’t mean to ignore what caused you to lose your temper. If this was due to your child breaking the rules it is best to apologise, while affirming that this behaviour was not good. That way you are admitting that your immediate response was wrong, while standing your ground as a parent.

2. Countering the bad: Emphasise the good

A resilient individual uses positive emotions to find positive meaning in, and rebound from, failure or an overwhelming encounter. Yet research shows that we are much better at taking in the negative than the positive. Since bad experiences could be threatening, our memories are built to notice and remember painful experiences right away. That is why, according to John Gottman, it takes as many as five good interactions to make up for a single bad one.

Therefore, to build resilience in children you need to help them notice and take in the good. Be attentive to the little things. A beautiful view, an animal in the forest or the smell of dinner. Talk to your child about the beauty of that moment.

Besides being attentive to the bad and remembering it easily, we also ruminate, repeating in our mind negative experiences. We keep them alive this way by thinking about them and staying with them. To counter this, in addition to helping children notice the good, you can also help them repeat it in their mind, thinking about it and staying with it. This is a powerful tool to counter the strength of negative experiences. You can ask children additional questions about the little positive things. How do you feel when you pop the soapy bubble? What does the smell of dinner make you feel? What are you grateful for right now?

As Dr. Rick Hanson explains in the second half of this video, just having positive experiences isn’t enough to help us properly take in the good. We need to learn to stay with these experiences. Help children savour the good experiences, that they may sink in and become a resource that they can use to find positive meaning in everyday challenges. When you emphasise the good and help children delight and dwell on those moments, they build new, positive neural networks that enhance resilience.

3. Overcoming difficulty: Don’t solve all problems for them

That last thing you want is to add to a child’s stress load. However, resilience develops by overcoming problems. If a child manages to overcome a problem on their own, they grow in grit, character and yes, resilience. It can be difficult to differentiate between harmful experiences and experiences that will prepare children to hold their own in a tough world.

Nakazawa gives the following example of the difference between safe and unsafe struggles. If your child left their notes in school and can’t prepare for a test, it is not helpful to take over and write to the teacher demanding an extra day for revision. It is better to let them solve this safe struggle. You could say something like “It sounds like you have a problem, but I know you can handle it. What are your options?”

Children grow through opportunities to deal with hardship and difficulty, and hearing that their parents trust them to solve their own problems further validates their self-esteem. At the same time if a child is facing bullying; struggling with learning disabilities or emotional health problems; harmfully experimenting with sex, drugs, or alcohol; or coming up against abuse of any sort, it’s the job of a parent to intervene. These kinds of struggles are unsafe, and this kind of stress is toxic. It won’t develop grit or resilience and it can hurt their bodies and brains.

It is important to be reminded that there is no such thing as a perfect parent. But the new science on stress and resilience can provide us with ways to counter the stressful and negative, to emphasise the positive, and to overcome the difficult. We can use this science to help children build resilience and support them in living happy and healthy lives.

For a full version of some of these tips and more tips like these, read this article:

Further resources

For the original ACE study see: Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., … & Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. American journal of preventive medicine, 14(4), 245-258.

More information on how childhood adversity can affect the brain:

For more information on what emphasising and wallowing in the good looks like, and what the positive effects of this are, watch this TED talk by Dr. Rick Hanson:

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