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Building Resilience in Children: A Key to Thriving.

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

In life there are always changes and challenges, and sometimes some unwanted curve balls. Resilience is a powerful quality that can help children navigate the ups and downs of life with confidence, adaptability, and inner strength and develop the seeds of wellbeing in childhood that are incredibly helpful for adult life.

What exactly is resilience? It’s the capacity to “successfully manage life, adapt to change and stressful events in healthy and constructive ways” (Dent, 2016: 7). Some people talk about resilience as the ability to bounce back. This is a helpful description but it can also paint the picture that resilience is all about the individual, and we know now that resilience is not an individual achievement. The capacity to bounce back, adapt to change and stress, and thrive is strongly influenced by systems and environments that surround an individual, family and community. This means relationships really matter, especially the relationship we have with the kids in our lives.

As parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, educators, mentors and family friends we often want to smooth things over for kids, prevent any distress they may experience and make sure they are happy and enjoying lots of positive experiences. And why wouldn't we? We love them. And as parents we are biologically primed to care for them, so much so that their distress can easily become our distress.

But here's the thing.

Kids need to fall down so that they can learn to get back up again. And when they do this with adults providing a safe supportive relationship ... one that doesn't over-function or over-rescue ... that helps develop resilience. I know it's tricky to get the balance right of supporting them and letting them work things out on their own, but it's worth the struggle. A tip for working out this balance is to pay attention to the child's nervous system to see if they are feeling overwhelmed and entering into fight/flight/freeze. If they are this is definitely a time to connect in a soothing supportive way. But if the stress seems manageable, and remember the right amount of stress help with growing skills and a sense of competence, then it's a time to use the pause, and be a steady, calm, confident presence. Yes, literally just a pause.

A good time to start practicing the pause is when there’s no immediate safety problem (safety always comes first), and a good way to start is to pause before jumping in to help. Just pause, observe how they are doing, and give them a chance to try to work it out for themselves before jumping in. E.g. if the child has climbed a tree and is feeling stuck but is not at risk of falling, give them a moment, and if you do need to go over, ask them what their plan is and coach them in working out how to climb down. Think of this as just another great learning opportunity! It might be hard for you, so make sure you are ready to take a few deep breaths and be kind to yourself.

At the 2023 Resilient Kids Conference Maggie Dent spoke about natural disasters, and this really caught my attention. Kids do better with parents in disaster recovery rather than being sent away to stay with relatives or friends. Why? They are with their parents so not worrying about them. They also get to see the helpers. This reminds me of what Fred Rogers said, "When I was a boy and I would see scarey things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people helping"." Another positive is that they get to join in helping. Kids do great when they experience themselves as competent and experience adults believing in their competence.

How exactly does resilience help?

The development of resilience in children offers many benefits for their overall well-being and future success including these key advantages:

  • Emotional well-being: Resilience helps children manage and bounce back from challenges, setbacks, and stressors. It equips them with the ability to regulate their emotions effectively, reducing the risk of developing anxiety or depression. Resilient children tend to have higher levels of self-esteem and a more positive outlook on life.

  • Problem-solving skills: Resilience fosters critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. Children who develop resilience are more likely to approach obstacles as opportunities for growth rather than insurmountable barriers. They learn to analyze situations, adapt their strategies, and find creative solutions to overcome challenges.

  • Healthy coping mechanisms: Resilient children acquire healthy coping mechanisms to deal with stress and adversity. Instead of resorting to harmful behaviours like substance abuse or aggression, they develop positive strategies such as seeking support from others, engaging in physical activity, or practicing mindfulness. These skills contribute to their long-term mental and physical well-being.

  • Persistence and perseverance: Resilience cultivates a sense of determination and perseverance in children. They learn to set goals, work towards them, and persist in the face of obstacles. This mindset is crucial for academic success, as well as for pursuing personal interests and achieving long-term aspirations.

  • Social competence: Resilience promotes social skills and positive relationships. Children who are resilient are more likely to develop empathy, compassion, and effective communication skills. They can navigate conflicts constructively, build healthy friendships, and develop strong support networks. These social competencies contribute to their social and emotional development.

  • Adaptability and flexibility: Resilient children are adaptable and flexible in various situations. They can adjust to changes, whether in their personal lives or the larger world around them. This adaptability allows them to thrive in different environments and be open to new experiences and opportunities.

  • Academic performance: Resilience positively influences academic performance. Children who are resilient are better equipped to handle the pressures and demands of school. They exhibit higher levels of motivation, concentration, and focus, enabling them to overcome academic challenges and achieve academic success.

  • Future success: Developing resilience during childhood sets the foundation for future success in adulthood. Resilient individuals are better equipped to navigate the complexities of life, whether in education, career, relationships, or personal growth. They possess the skills and mindset necessary to face and overcome the inevitable challenges that arise throughout their lives.

Fostering resilience in children promotes emotional well-being, problem-solving skills, healthy coping mechanisms, persistence, social competence, adaptability, academic performance, and long-term success. It equips them with the tools they need to face setbacks, overcome obstacles, thrive in the face of adversity, navigate an ever-changing world and build fulfilling lives. Who wouldn’t want this for their kids? But how do you help them with building resilience? You can definitely help your kids and teens develop resilience. What’s really important to know is that:

"Resilience is not some magical quality.

It's something that really can be built, even in difficult circumstances."

Centre on the Developing Child Harvard University YouTube Channel, 2015

Resilience is not an innate trait; it is a skill that can be nurtured and developed over time. As parents, family, educators, and caregivers, it is crucial to understand the importance of fostering resilience in children and how to do it e.g., strategies and approaches that can help in the development of resilience in children. Here are some suggested approaches:

  • Cultivate a Positive and Nurturing Environment: The foundation of resilience lies in a supportive and nurturing environment. Children need to feel safe, loved, and valued to develop resilience. Foster open lines of communication, create a warm and accepting atmosphere, and actively listen to their concerns. Encourage them to express their emotions and thoughts without judgment. By providing a positive and secure environment, you empower children to build resilience from a place of emotional stability.

  • Teach Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Skills: Resilient individuals possess strong problem-solving and decision-making skills. Encourage children to tackle challenges and make decisions independently whenever appropriate. Offer guidance and support, but also provide opportunities for them to develop their problem-solving abilities. Engage them in discussions that encourage critical thinking and teach them how to evaluate different options and consequences. Through these experiences, children learn that they have the capability to overcome difficulties and make effective decisions. Experiencing themselves as able to do this is very powerful.

  • Foster a Growth Mindset: Cultivating a growth mindset is crucial for resilience. Teach children to view failures and setbacks as opportunities for growth and learning, rather than as indicators of their worth or abilities. Encourage them to embrace challenges, persevere through obstacles, and see mistakes as learning opportunities and stepping-stones toward improvement. By praising effort, resilience, and strategies used rather than focusing solely on outcomes, you help children develop resilience and a belief in their capacity to overcome difficulties.

  • Encourage Healthy Coping Mechanisms: Resilient individuals possess effective coping mechanisms to manage stress and adversity. Teach children healthy ways to cope with challenges, like engaging in physical activities, practicing mindfulness or deep breathing exercises, journaling, or talking to trusted adults or friends. Encourage them to identify and express their emotions constructively. By promoting positive coping strategies, you equip children with essential tools to navigate stressful situations and bounce back from adversity.

  • Foster Social Connections and Support Networks: Social support plays a vital role in building resilience. Encourage children to develop and maintain healthy relationships with peers, family members (including extended family), family friends, and mentors. Foster a sense of community and teach them the value of teamwork, empathy, and collaboration. Engage them in activities that promote social interactions and help them build strong support networks. For some children this might be a sport or extracurricular activity. For others it might be helping the neighbour with some yard work. Having a reliable support system enhances resilience by providing children with emotional support, role models, and different perspectives.

  • Promote Self-Care and Well-being: Resilience is closely tied to physical and emotional well-being. Teach children the importance of self-care, including getting enough sleep, eating nutritious food, and engaging in regular exercise. Encourage them to participate in activities they enjoy and that promote relaxation and stress relief. By prioritizing their well-being, children develop resilience by learning to take care of themselves and manage their emotions effectively.

Building resilience in children is an ongoing process that requires patience, consistency, and a supportive environment. When parents, family, educators, and caregivers use approaches like these, they can empower children to develop the necessary skills to bounce back from adversity, embrace challenges, and thrive in a rapidly changing world. Resilience is a lifelong asset with many benefits. How will you help the young people in your life build their resilience?


Dr Leonie White - Clinical Family Therapist and Psychologist

Helping people grow, connect and thrive in life’s unique journey.

Please note - this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapy advice.

Please seek help from a professional if you require support.

For more information here are some resources: American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Building your resilience. Retrieved from Raising Children Network: Raising Children Network: Dent, M. (2016). Building Children’s Resilience: One Building Block at a Time. Pennington Publications: Murwillumbah NSW.

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