Teaching Resilience: How To Build Childhood Resiliency

Teaching resilience to your child

Childhood Resilience is gaining momentum as a critical tool in preventing and addressing the current childhood mental health crisis.

  • In October 2022, the National Governors Association (NGA) named prevention and resilience building as the first of four pillars to strengthening youth mental health.
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) introduced the Resiliency in Communities After Stress and Trauma grant in 2022 to promote resilience and assist high-risk youth and families through evidence-based violence prevention.
  • Florida's First Lady DeSantis launched a resiliency initiative in Florida schools, with support from the state's professional sports teams and athletes. The initiative focused on helping students respond to childhood adversity and build key character development skills, including volunteerism, teamwork and problem solving.
  • Recent studies confirm that resiliency directly correlates to teen mental health and psychological health is influenced by characteristics like resilience and optimism.

What Is Resilience?

According to the American Psychological Association, resilience refers to how individuals respond to challenges in life like adversity, loss, risk and change, and how they rely on mental, emotional and behavioral flexibility to positively adapt and adjust.

Resiliency can be developed and practiced. It involves learned thoughts, actions, behaviors and coping skills, and is influenced by the way a person sees and engages with the world. Resilience is also influenced by having access to high quality social resources.

How Does Resilience Help Children?

Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child uses a scale to explain resiliency, with adversity and hardships on one side and coping skills and protective factors/experiences on the other. Over time, the accumulation of these positive, protective experiences and coping skills can tip the scale away from adversity and hardship towards positive outcomes.

What are these protective factors that promote childhood resiliency?

  • Connection

  • Meaning

  • Healthy thinking

  • Wellness

Resiliency won't protect your child from ever experiencing difficulties or adversity, but it will help your child manage stress and deal with anxiety and uncertainty. By focusing on resilience and providing children with a supportive environment and coping skills, numerous studies have shown that children are better prepared to manage and deal with adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress.

How To Build Resilience In Children

Here are some of the best strategies for building resilience in your child.

1. Build connections

Having at least one stable and positive relationship (with a parent or other adult) is the single most common factor for a child to build resilience. Children need to know that there is someone there to support them, no matter what, that they don't have to face adversity alone. From this one relationship, children build key skills, including the ability to plan and moderate behavior. As children grow and develop, it becomes more important to expand their circle and build a social support network. Having positive, supportive family and peer relationships is critical to a child's emotional development, self-esteem, motivation and resilience.

2. Create meaning

Expand your child's world and perspective by sharing cultural traditions and fostering a connection to a larger community of purpose – whether it's through religion or charity. When your child is young, demonstrate compassion and empathy, and show them the importance of helping others and suspending judgment. As your child grows, find opportunities for them to help others – whether it's volunteering in the community, helping a neighbor, or contributing at home. Talk about how good you feel after you help someone, and the rewards of selflessness and generosity.

3. Give your child opportunities to struggle

Don't underestimate the value of “positive stress” in your child's development. By letting your child face and learn to deal with everyday (and sometimes more profound) stressors and challenges, they build the skills and confidence necessary to deal with challenges as an adult. Rather than jumping in and trying to solve your child's problems, model problem-solving for them. Talk about how you struggled with a challenge before, acknowledge that it isn't easy, and ask them to share their ideas on how they move forward.

4. Create opportunities to build confidence and take risks

Support your child's creativity and give them opportunities to try new things, problem solve and make decisions. Avoid false affirmations and complimenting your child for things that they didn't do on their own. Remember that participation trophies don't deliver the same self-confidence that making a team on their own will. Give your child age-appropriate freedoms where they're forced to make decisions and cope when things go wrong.

5. Teach them perspective

When your child is facing a difficulty or disappointment, talk with them about it. Instead of just focusing on the negatives, ask your child to think about what they learned from the experience. Brainstorm on what actions or decisions they could have made to change the outcome, and how they might overcome it in the future. Help them reframe the challenge by asking them how it compares to others they have faced.

6. Encourage healthy choices

It's hard to feel good mentally if you're not nurturing your body. Be a positive role model for your child when it comes to nutrition and exercise. Make sleep a priority for the whole family. Show them that it's okay to take time to recoup, to be alone and disconnect. Be present when you're with your child – whether it's really listening to them when they talk or leaving your phone in your pocket or another room.

Why Resiliency Matters

“We cannot control our emotions, other's behaviors, or our environment. The only thing we have control over in this world, is our own behaviors,” explains Dr. Cari Whitlock, HYM counselor and Licensed Clinical Psychologist. “When a child realizes how much their own responses to internal and external stressors affect the situations as well as their sense of self, they get a sense of control that far outweighs the momentary relief that comes with attempting to avoid stressors.

“Coping skills and resilience do not form out of a lack of stressors , but rather, from a sense of navigating stress in an effective manner. Resiliency allows children to learn to “thrive” after life stressors have caused them to need to ‘survive'. Resiliency will not make emotional pain less during stressful times but it will help children recognize that they are on the other side of the stress. They get the opportunity to change their narrative from ‘victim' to ‘survivor'.

Written by Dr. Cari Whitlock

Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Neuropsychologist at Healthy Young Minds

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