Resilience is the ability to recover or adjust well during or after an adverse event, or period of adversity. The single most important factor for developing resilience in children is the presence of at least one committed and supportive relationship with a parent, caregiver or other adult.
Resilience is an important concept in many areas of health and welfare service provision. Like a strengths-based approach, it is important because it directs attention towards people’s capacities to successfully navigate difficult circumstances. Resilience and mental health are related concepts, with many practices that promote mental health also promoting resilience1. Universal interventions, aimed at building resilience in all children, typically operate at the school or broader community level (e.g. the Families OverComing Under Stress program).
While adversity is a part of life and everyone experiences stressful events from time to time, some children shoulder a much greater burden of adversity than others through circumstances such as poverty, war, domestic violence, and parental mental illness. Despite significant early life adversity however, some children will still progress successfully through life and have positive outcomes. Understanding what factors lead to one child doing well and another child having his/her life trajectory severely disrupted as a result of exposure to multiple adversities is important for developing programs and services that can help children reach their full potential.
One of the key findings to emerge from decades of research on resilience is that having at least one stable and supportive relationship (e.g. where routines are maintained during the stressful period) with a parent, caregiver, or other adult is essential to positive adaptation following adversity2. The presence of a responsive relationship provides the safe and nurturing container within which children can practice different adaptive strategies and develop executive function capacities such as goal setting and problem solving, and self-regulatory capacities such as impulse control. When attuned adults provide opportunities and support for children to adapt to stressful events, it generates positive experiences of coping with adversity. Family and social environments that affirm children’s faith or cultural traditions have also been shown to lead to more positive outcomes following adversity.
The accumulation of successful adaptive experiences, within the context of positive relationships, is what builds resilience. Resilience is best understood as a process rather than an outcome, which continues to develop throughout a person’s life. This means that a child may show resilience in response to one event and not another. The importance of child-adult relationships in the development of resilience means that the resilience of the adult in the relationship also matters.
The science clearly demonstrates that resilience in children is the result of both inherent characteristics and features of the family and social environment, in particular caring relationships. It is not solely a set of individual competencies that can be taught without consideration of the quality of relationships in a child’s life.
1. Hunter, C., Is resilience still a useful concept when working with children and young people? (CFCA Paper No. 2). 2012, Melbourne: Child Family Community Australia, Australian Institute of Family Studies.
2. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, Supportive Relationships and Active Skill-Building Strengthen the Foundations of Resilience: Working Paper No. 13. 2015.