A child’s resilience – their ability to bounce back from adversity or a traumatic experience – is something they develop over time. It’s a process, rather than an outcome, which ebbs and flows through a person’s life. For children, building resilience hinges on their ability to successfully navigate through stressful situations, within an environment of positive and caring relationships.
For practitioners supporting children and families who are experiencing hardship, a baseline understanding of how children’s brains develop and respond to adversity and trauma is crucial. The next step is to view the child as a ‘whole’ – to try and understand the broader context of a child’s experience, with the aim of identifying positive relationships, strengths and opportunities for promoting resilience.
One of the inherent challenges within this process is talking with parents about buffering children from harm and developmental disruption (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2015), without ‘wrapping them in cotton wool’; protecting them, whilst still exposing them to scenarios that may feel uncomfortable, but have a long-term developmental payoff – resilience.
Of course, some children experience more than their fair share of adversity. Traumatic events such as the death of a loved one, or a traumatic community event like a bushfire, can have life-long repercussions for a child. So too can the cumulative effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), like experiencing family and domestic violence (FDV), being bullied, poverty, or parental substance abuse or physical and mental illness (Raising Children Network, 2021). These stressors can also be intergenerational – cycles of family, social and community disadvantage that are passed down from parents to children, many times over. How a child responds, adapts to and recovers from these stressful experiences – how resilient they are – is an essential component of their ongoing mental health and wellbeing.
The characteristics a child is born with – their personality and physicality – play a part in determining how and when they develop resilience. But children who respond well to serious hardship typically have both an inherent biological resistance to adversity, and strong relationships with the important adults in their family and community (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2015). Building resilience doesn’t depend on either ‘nature or nurture’ – it depends on both.
On the nurture front, all it takes for a child to start to build resilience is one good relationship – a connection with at least one caring and committed adult who can show them love, patience and support (Mills et al., 2011). In this environment, when they feel safe, secure and valued (Raising Children Network, 2021), a child can feel confident to try new things, knowing they’ll be supported if they don’t immediately succeed. They can also begin to develop the skills and habits – qualities of optimism, problem-solving, goal-setting and impulse control – that will help them endure stressful life events and carry them through difficult times.
The following short recording (34 seconds) is taken from a longer Emerging Minds interview with the fictional character of ‘Resilience’, in which they describe the crucial role that caring adults play in helping children develop resilience.
Brain development begins in utero and continues into adulthood. During the first three to five years of life there are periods when children’s brains are especially vulnerable to environmental stressors. Traumatic events during early childhood can be particularly disruptive to developing brain structures and functions (Teicher & Samson, 2016; Zeanah & Zeanah, 2019; Schechter, Willheim, Suardi, & Rusconi Serpa, 2019; Berens & Nelson, 2019).
When children experience stress, their amygdala kicks in – the part of the brain which controls impulses and instincts – triggering the release of adrenaline and cortisol which enable ‘fight or flight’ responses. The system works, but it’s only supposed to be a short-term fix. When stress and adversity are ongoing, negative impacts on a child’s physiology and immune system can occur. The function of the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain which regulates emotions, controls impulses and directs problem-solving – can also be compromised. In these circumstances, children can find themselves in a state of constant high-alert, in which they never feel safe or calm, even when there is no danger or threat (Young, 2021; National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2010; Shonkoff, 2012). An opposite ‘freeze’ response can also occur: reactions to stress can be blunted and ineffectual.
Other common responses in children to these stress-system changes include social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (Kliethermes, Schacht, & Drewry, 2014); and developmental issues, such as problems with speech, language and cognition. Later in life, these brain changes can increase a person’s vulnerability to mental health difficulties like anxiety, or physical health problems like hypertension (Schechter, Willheim, Suardi, & Rusconi Serpa, 2019; Danese, 2020; Thompson, Kiff, & McLaughlin, 2019).
In these stressful times, one of the things that can help children is resilience. When faced with trauma or adversity, resilient children are able to reactivate their prefrontal cortex and deactivate their amygdala. When this happens, the physiological changes initiated by stress subside, and problem-solving, adaptation and recovery become possible (Young, 2021).
For practitioners, one of the keys to supporting a child’s resilience through difficult times is to look at the child’s whole ecology. The temptation can be to focus on the child’s immediate presenting behaviours – perhaps anxiety, aggression, disengagement or ‘fight or flight’ responses. But by zooming-out and applying a ‘whole child’ lens, it becomes possible for a practitioner to identify the risks and protective factors within the child’s experience – the things that might help or hinder that child and their ability to develop resilience.
By avoiding focussing on the categorisation of a child’s behaviours and looking at their family context – being curious about a child and family’s routines, strengths, values and social and emotional environment – a practitioner can more readily piece together what they’re seeing and hearing from the child. They can build an understanding of the ‘whole child’, then start to put strategies in place to foster that child’s resilience.
The following short Emerging Minds video (2 minutes, 20 seconds) offers further insights into seeing the ‘whole child’.
Adults provide the emotional scaffolding: children build resilience underneath. It’s a fairly straightforward concept. But how can parents actually achieve this – and how can practitioners support families in their endeavours?
On the domestic front, there are myriad experiences that can challenge a child’s feelings of security and stress them out: moving house, changing schools, studying for a test, catching the train by themselves for the first time (Raising Children Network, 2021) … The trick is to get them to realise that not all stress is harmful – that navigating through manageable risks and setbacks, with the help of supportive adults, can build resilience and a sense of control, and help them to learn to cope with life’s difficulties (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2015; National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2010).
For practitioners, engaging with parents through constructive, preventative conversations about building their children’s resilience is key. As an entry point to these conversations, consider talking through some of the following questions (Raising Children Network, 2021; National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2010; Beyond Blue, 2021):
- ‘Can you help children build independence?’ Encouraging children to take age-appropriate, manageable risks helps them to develop self-confidence.
- ‘Do you praise the effort, or the outcome?’ Measuring success in endeavour rather than accolades teaches children that’s it’s OK to fail – and that ‘having a go’ and completing a challenge is just as important as the result.
- ‘Do you try and solve every problem?’ The temptation may be to leap in and fix things, but this doesn’t model a self-starting approach to problem solving.
- ‘Do you try to prevent every problem?’ Allowing children to encounter uncomfortable situations, then find solutions, helps them to predict future problems.
- ‘Can you help your children identify and regulate strong emotions?’ Empathy and compassion are powerful tools: showing children that you understand their emotions and difficulties makes it possible for them to ‘go easy’ on themselves and realise that negative feelings don’t last forever.
- ‘Do you stop and acknowledge when things are going well?’ Celebrating the good times makes it easier for children to respond when things aren’t going so well, and gives them a set of benchmark emotions to aim for on the rebound.
Much of the advice around fostering children’s resilience may seem rather obvious – it can be easy to assume that most children will naturally develop the ability to cope with adversity. But resilience is not a given: without this fundamental life skill, a child can face negative outcomes like anxiety, depression and social difficulties, which can extend into adulthood. For practitioners, having an understanding of children’s brain development and paying attention to a child’s relationships and whole environment are critical steps towards supporting families, improving children’s resilience, and advancing a child’s short- and long-term physical and emotional wellbeing.
Emerging Minds has a suite of resources focussed on children’s resilience, specifically and more generally, including online training courses, podcasts, conversation guides, factsheets and toolkits.
Berens, A. E., & Nelson, C. A. (2019). Neurobiology of fetal and infant development: Implications for infant mental health. In C. H. Zeanah (Ed.), Handbook of infant mental health (4th ed.). New York: The Guilford Press.
Beyond Blue. (2021). Building resilience in children. Melbourne: Beyond Blue.
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2015). Supportive relationships and active skill-building strengthen the foundations of resilience (Working Paper 13). Cambridge: Harvard University Centre on the Developing Child.
Danese, A. (2020). Annual research review: Rethinking childhood trauma-new research directions for measurement, study design and analytical strategies. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 61(3), 236–250. doi:10.1111/jcpp.13160.
Kliethermes, M., Schacht, M., & Drewry, K. (2014). Complex trauma. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 23(2), 339–361.
Mills, K.L., McFarlane, A.C., Slade, T., Creamer, M., Silove, D., Teesson, M. & Bryant, R. (2011). Assessing the prevalence of trauma exposure in epidemiological surveys. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 45(5), 407–415.
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2010). Persistent fear and anxiety can affect young children’s learning and development (Working paper 9). Cambridge: Harvard University Centre on the Developing Child.
Raising Children Network. (2021). Building resilience in children 3–8 years. Canberra: Raising Children Network, Department of Social Services.
Schechter, D. S., Willheim, E., Suardi, F., & Rusconi Serpa, S. (2019). The effects of violent experiences on infants and young children. In C. H. Zeanah (Ed.), Handbook of infant mental health (4th ed.). New York: The Guilford Press.
Shonkoff, J. P. (2012). The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress. Pediatrics, 129(1). 232–246.
Teicher, M. H., & Samson, J. A. (2016). Annual research review: Enduring neurobiological effects of childhood abuse and neglect. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 57(3), 241–266. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12507.
Thompson, S. F., Kiff, C. J., & McLaughlin, K. A. (2019). The neurobiology of stress and adversity in infancy. In C. H. Zeanah (Ed.), Handbook of infant mental health (4th ed.). New York: The Guilford Press.
Young, K. (2021). Building resilience in children: 20 practical, powerful strategies. Brisbane: Hey Sigmund.
Zeanah, C. H., & Zeanah, P. D. (2019). Infant mental health: The clinical science of early experience. In C. H. Zeanah (Ed.), Handbook of infant mental health. New York: The Guilford Press.