If you had to make a list of the most important traits and skills you wanted your child to develop, what would you include? For many parents, “resilience” would be somewhere near the top. Mental health professionals and school principals promote resilience as a skill that children should develop to become more confident and capable, but what does it mean, exactly? What does resilience look like, and how can parents help their children to become more resilient? Read on to find out where the latest research is leading and what myths about resilience have been debunked.
What is Resilience?
The process of resilience is often misunderstood, and many people mix it up with simply being strong-minded or battle-hardened. Resilience is all about the way we find our way back from stressful situations in order to resume our regular lives. Our capacity to recover depends on so many different things, from our communities to our genes, but on an individual level, resilience depends on the way we experience stress. The physiology of stress is extremely complex, but let’s start by conjuring up a picture in your mind…
Your journey from calm to stress, and back again
Imagine that you are in a comfortable cottage at the top of a hill. This cottage represents your “calm.” It’s a pretty great place to be. However, it doesn’t completely shut out the world and it’s not possible to stay there all the time. You can’t help leaving the cottage once in a while, even just for the sake of exercise, but you usually stay close to home. Once, you opened a cupboard and found a nest of scorpions, so you slammed the cupboard shut and ran straight out the door, right to the bottom of the hill. Another time, you were carrying a stack of heavy boxes and your foot slipped on a pebble, sending you rolling halfway down the hill. Last year, a heavy storm caused some flooding, and you were caught in a mudslide when the earth beneath your feet gave way.
These unexpected events represent the setbacks and traumas we all experience. Most of us have to confront shock, loss and damage at some point, and on a smaller scale, we all cope with frustrations and disappointments. When stressful events occur, our bodies naturally unleash a cascade of chemicals designed to help us cope, whether that is a fight, flight or freeze response. The fall is unavoidable. Stress, in this scenario, is a bit like gravity. There’s no way around it; we are tumbling down that hill.
Resilience is the path we take to get back. To get up and walk back to your “cottage” is a slower and more effortful process than crashing down the hill. It might be painful and tiring, and we might wander in circles for a while, but if we can find the path back, we will settle into calm again.
Now that you have that image in mind, it might be easier to understand why resilience can vary from person to person, or even from one event to another. After all, your ability to walk up a hill depends on more than just a positive attitude. To assess your capacity, you might consider:
- Were you injured on the way down?
- How far did you slide down the hill?
- How often does this kind of tumble happen?
- Are you well, or have you been feeling depleted?
- Do you have experience getting back up this kind of hill?
- How steep is the hill?
- Do you have someone you can call to help you back up?
- Do you have a good pair of shoes?
The myth of “choosing resilience”
All too often, resilience is treated as a personal choice or a kind of moral strength, when in fact, a large part of our resilience comes to us via our genetic makeup or the community resources around us. Researchers like Dr. Stephen Porges have demonstrated that even in the first few days of life, there is a measurable difference in our ability to recover from stress. Dr. Thomas Boyce explored a related idea in his 2015 book, “The Orchid and the Dandelion”, describing the lifelong differences between children in how they respond to illness, neglect and hardship. Dr. Boyce found that due to differences in specific genetic markers, some children are like “dandelions” and can thrive where they are planted, while other children are more like “orchids” in that they will have poor physical and mental health outcomes without a suitable environment, compared to their peers.
In recent years, the “orchid” vs “dandelion” framework has been challenged by psychologists such as Dr. Jay Belsky, who argues that children have individual sensitivities that vary throughout their lives. Dr. Belsky’s research points to a more nuanced understanding of stress susceptibility, describing children as a “mosaic” of both the orchid and the dandelion. For example, one child may be able to thrive despite high levels of parental conflict in the early years, but the same child might crumble later on when support from friends becomes scarce. Careful research is starting to show that resilience is not an “all or nothing” trait, and we are uniquely vulnerable in our own ways.
The cost of hardship
If we fail to understand the importance of context and individual vulnerabilities, then we risk blaming people who struggle with resilience, assuming that they simply aren’t showing enough “grit.” We may also fail to provide enough support and protection to vulnerable children, under the mistaken assumption that their resilience will naturally develop through hardship.
In fact, the opposite is often true. Intense hardship (including violence, abuse, neglect, and other forms of family de-stabilization) can actually alter a child’s physiology ability to process stress in years to come. The greater the number of these “adverse childhood experiences” (often abbreviated as ACEs) a child endures, the more likely they are to overreact to perceived threats and get stuck in an agitated state for long periods. This pattern has been described as “toxic stress” because prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems can lead to adverse health outcomes later in life, including heart disease, diabetes, addiction and depression.
Children with neurodivergent profiles (e.g., Autism, ADHD, intellectual disabilities) may also experience elevated levels of stress in childhood. Not only are these children at higher overall risk of abuse from adults, they may experience more struggle in everyday life. Differences in social communication styles can lead to social isolation and bullying, and sensitivities to noise, light and scent can make some environments physically painful, so these children are often experiencing a set of traumas and stressors that neurotypical children do not face.
Where does “resilience” come from?
Now we come to the real question: what makes a person resilient? At each stage of our lives, we have different needs, so building resilience is a process with distinct stages. In other words, resilience-building interventions must be delivered at the right time, or they can backfire. Here’s what we know so far:
Building resilience in childhood: laying the foundation
Research has found that warm, responsive parenting is one of best predictors of resilience later in life. During childhood, solid family bonds and a sense of security set the stage, helping the brain develop in order to cope with stress and trauma later on. When you gently support your children as they deal with everyday challenges, they learn to trust themselves. When you help them by calmly listening and co-regulating their big emotions, they learn to find their way back to calm. At this stage, resilience is being built from the inside out.
If you’re looking for a good guide for resilience-building in childhood, Dr. John Gottman’s model of “Emotion Coaching” is an excellent (and evidence-based) description of the kind of parent who helps to build a child’s resilience. In his book, Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child, Dr. Gottman describes four types of parents. Needless to say, the first three types are not providing the type of warm, responsive encouragement children need in order to regulate their emotions and develop trust in themselves.
- The “Dismissing” parent uses ridicule to downplay the situation, e.g., “There’s nothing to cry over” and “Are you kidding? You’d better learn how to toughen up.”
- The “Disapproving” parent is controlling and judgemental in response to distress, e.g., “I can’t believe you’re being so dramatic,” and “How can you make a fuss over every little thing?”
- The “Laissez Faire” parent tries to ignore or mollify, e.g., “Well, that’s just the way things are,” and “It’s fine, you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
- The “Emotion Coaching” parent shows empathy, while validating and listening, e.g., “That sounds really hard,” and “I’m here for you.” This approach helps the child to manage the emotions, and then decide how to solve the problem.
The gift of emotion coaching is that it provides support for the child in regulating stress, but it doesn’t make the problem itself disappear. Emotion coaching also leaves room for the child to look for a solution, use coping strategies, or ask for assistance.
Building resilience in adolescence: discovering new strengths
Whether they admit it or not, adolescents still need the support of their parents, but during this period, they are also discovering what they can accomplish on their own. At this stage, the adolescent brain is developing the capacity for more executive functioning skills and self-control, and this opens up a new world of challenges. Neurodivergent children may be on a slightly different timeline here, and they will need more support with tasks that require executive functioning skills and emotional self-regulation, but this time of their lives is just as full of opportunity to gain mastery of skills and a sense of self-efficacy. When adolescents are given the chance to test out their new abilities and enjoy those powers, while surrounded by family support and peer acceptance, they are building their ability to deal with adversity.
As you support your adolescent’s resilience, keep in mind:
- Your adolescent is likely to seek out new experiences to test out their strengths, so you can help by guiding them to suitable challenges while letting go of some control.
- Emotional self-regulation skills and executive functioning skills are still a work in progress, especially for adolescents who have had adverse childhood experiences. Autism and ADHD can also affect when these skills develop, so if your child needs extra support, you may want to seek help from an occupational therapist.
- Peer acceptance contributes to resilience at this age. If your adolescent has few friends at school, they may find more suitable peers in an area of special interest, like sports, hobbies, or an organized community group
Building resilience in adulthood: adapting to new challenges
To adapt to difficult situations, adults rely less on their immediate families but a strong social network is certainly a protective factor for adults experiencing trauma or hardship. Adults also lean more on their own proven abilities (self-efficacy) as well as executive functioning skills such as perspective-taking and self control. Training programs and new experiences can help adults to stretch their self-efficacy even further, as they see themselves overcoming obstacles they didn’t know they could master. Additionally, adults can also use more meta-cognitive coping strategies to reduce the stressful impact of unavoidable and painful life events.
Isn’t it good to know that it’s never too late to become more resilient?
- Keep up friendships and community relationships. We are stronger together.
- Take on new challenges and try out new skills. Remind yourself that you can adapt and overcome.
- Learn about cognitive strategies that focus your attention in a healthy way, instead of getting stuck in anxious ruts.
Maintaining resilience in older age
Aging comes with many challenges, including the risk of chronic pain, reduced mobility, the loss of loved ones, and diseases that impair cognition (my grandmother once summed it up for me by saying: “getting old is not for wusses.”) Coping with these struggles requires many of the same tools that helped in adulthood, including social support and acceptance. At this stage, physical and cognitive health can be precarious and will require extra care, but seniors who maintain intact cognition and keep up some level of physical exercise seem to be better able to recover from setbacks.
As we get older, we can take practical steps to maintain our resilience. We can:
- Include physical exercise like walks, swimming and strength training as a regular practice
- Keep building relationships with others. We can find important connections via our hobbies, mentorship networks, religious or charitable organizations and recreation.
- Check in with our doctor regularly and act quickly to address signs of cognitive disease
Resilience: understanding the big picture
By the time we are adults, our ability to bounce back after a crash depends on three crucial factors:
- Our physiology, including our inherited genes, our gene expression (epigenetics) and the way our nervous systems regulate our stress responses
- Our experiences and skills, including past traumatic events and the challenges we have overcome, the habits we cultivate and ways of looking at the world
- Our communities and resources, such as role models, circles of care, financial wherewithal, and social support
We all have our own vulnerabilities and strengths, and our resilience will ebb and flow throughout our lives. If we can accept that resilience is not simply an individual exertion of will, but a product of our life experiences and resources too, we can be compassionate to ourselves when recovery is hard. We can be the social support, the safe place, or the role model for others when they need us. We can give our children the challenges they need to grow, at the right time.
- Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). WW Norton & Company.
- Boyce, W. T. (2019). The orchid and the dandelion: Why sensitive people struggle and how all can thrive. Pan MacMillan. Belsky, J., Caspi, A., Moffitt, T. E., & Poulton, R. (2020).
- The origins of you: How childhood shapes later life. Harvard University Press. Gottman, J. (2011). Raising an emotionally intelligent child. Simon and Schuster.
About the Author
Amelia Bowler is an writer, artist, and advocate for neurodivergent families. Her book, The Parents' Guide to Oppositional Defiant Disorder: Your Questions Answered, published by Jessica Kingsley Books in 2020, has helped countless parents and clinicians to look at challenging behavior with compassion and deeper insight. She lives in Toronto, spending her spare time geocaching and offering people unsolicited information about nearby birds.
Visit Amelia's website to learn more about her books or to request a consultation: https://www.ameliabowler.com