Cultivating Resilience in Children

By James Farrat, LMSW

Resilience. It's a mysterious concept in psychology and a mysterious trait in human beings. It's mysterious because we are still trying to understand how it works and how we can get more of it. Resilience can be loosely defined as a process or way of being that allows a person to adapt and overcome significant stressors and/or events (e.g. trauma, bullying, personal failure, abuse, poverty, etc). Some people have called being resilient as simply, “bouncing back” from adversity. Have you ever met a person who lost their business, but then opened a new one in a short amount of time? Or a friend who bombed on an exam, only to get an ‘A’ in the class? Perhaps you remember that kid who was bullied in high school, only to find out he became a successful entrepreneur. We could call all of those people resilient. 

My father grew up in Washington Heights in the late 60’s and early 70’s. He talks about how the neighborhood was tough and that some of the kids he grew up with “made it out,” while others did not. Why did some of his peers survive (and even thrive) in the environment they lived in, while others did not? Is this something that is quantifiable? Can we teach it to our children?

I came across a blog called A Child Grows in Brooklyn where they regularly look at parenting and child issues. One blogger posted on raising resilient children, and it was helpful in conceptualizing what building resiliency in children looks like. One of the biggest takeaways was that unstructured play for children is one of the best ways a parent can help their children develop their own resiliency. So much of the way we play with our children is based on helping them get out of stressful issues. However, during play children can create and solve their own problems and build up their internal world that allows them to test their stress-boundaries and problem-solving skills. We sometimes say, my daughter/son can’t handle this situation, he/she is too “sensitive, weak, <insert deprecating word>.”  We assume our kids can’t handle it and when we see them melting down, we solve the issue for them. Instead, we can actually show them through gentle, patient intervention that they can solve their own issue.

The blog post quotes an author, Kenneth Ginsburg, who writes about children developing “Seven Crucial C’s of Resilience.” He notes them as:

  1. Competence: the ability to handle situations effectively
  2. Confidence: the solid belief in one’s own abilities, rooted in competence
  3. Connection: a solid sense of security that produces strong values and prevents destructive alternatives
  4. Character: A strong sense of self-worth and confidence
  5. Contribution: The realization that the world is a better place because you are in it
  6. Coping: The ability to manage stress with a wide repertoire of positive strategies
  7. Control: An understanding that you can shift outcomes by choosing positive behavior

Ginsburg sees resiliency as an “inborn tool” that all people are born with. It is up to the parent to create a healthy environment for their child so that they can develop their own resiliency muscle. If we see it as being in all of us, it is something that can be nurtured and cultivated even at an early age. Helping kids seek relationships that create love and trust, offering them encouragement and reassurance, being a supportive role model, and showing them how to manage their emotions under stress all contribute to building resiliency in children. 

So the next time your child is struggling, before you step in to solve the problem, think about how you can show them how they can solve their own problem.

James Farrat, LMSW is therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would like support with parenting issues, contact Cobb Psychotherapy and see how therapy can help.