The Science of Childhood Resilience
5 science-based aspects of childhood resilience.
Posted Sep 09, 2020
We all want to bounce back from challenges easily. Some of us do – and some of us have a much harder time, including our children. What makes the difference? Since scholars and scientists have been studying this very question for decades, I wanted to share the science-based aspects of resilient children and how we can help nurture this capability in them (of course, it helps us too!).
5 science-based tools of resilience
- Relationships. “Resilience rests, fundamentally, on relationships,” stated Dr. Luthar, who is a vulnerability and resilience researcher (APA, 2017). The number one predictor of resilience is having a strong support system, which for children and teens includes at least one good friend and/or adult they trust. It isn’t about having a high volume of relationships, but simply someone you can call to “pick you up” and rely upon to help you when challenges arise. Last week, I was facilitating a Zoom discussion with teens on resilience and asked: "What does this mean to you?" Nate, age 14, said, “I want to make a close friend, and find a teacher I trust” and that is the power of sharing the science of resilience. We can add or subtract from our personal-care system to become stronger from the inside out.
- Focus on what you can control. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child identified that resilient children are developing a “sense of self-efficacy and perceived control” (2020). Said simply, resilient boys and girls are learning to focus on what they can change and accept what they cannot change (for example, the timeline of the pandemic). This sounds an awful lot like the serenity prayer but a scientific version of it – the concept is the same. For example, Emma, age six, is disappointed that she cannot go back to school in-person this fall but is learning how to focus on things in her control: creating her own school space at home, taking cooking classes on Zoom, and making “Thank you, Firefighters” posters to show appreciation for those fighting the current wildfires.
- Constructive outlets (play). Research funded by The Lego Foundation found that play, along with stimulating the whole brain, was “effective in maintaining and developing social and emotional skills needed to deal with challenging and changing circumstances, as well as the resilience and creativity to adapt” (Scientific American, 2020). Children that can get immersed in a hobby or creative endeavor can learn to make progress by failing up – making mistakes, building their skills, and continuing to persevere when it gets tough. This is building resilience. Over the past month, I have spoken with a middle schooler who got his green belt in karate, a boy that built his own computer with his dad, and a teen who built her own she-shed, all during lock-down. That’s not to say it was easy, I gave plenty of “pep talks” but also celebrated each of their wins, because with time, effort, and focus, anything is possible.
- Optimism (reality-based). “Research shows that when resilient people face adversity, they look for the good amid the stress,” said Keith Bellizzi, professor of Human Development (2020). Being able to see the facts and challenges but consciously choosing to look for the good is optimism – and it’s not surprising it's correlated to resilience. Earlier today, a mom was telling me how grateful she is that she implemented the “Three Good Things” activity to help her daughter and whole family focus on the good, especially now. They’re all home together and, literally, she said, “it’s like a magic trick for my family” to go around the table nightly and focus on the good things happening, from the ice cream at Dairy Queen to seeing turkeys in the backyard. As I listened, it became clear that everyone benefited – especially the parents.
- Help others. “Another way for parents to help children be resilient and develop a resilient mindset is by providing children with opportunities to help others,” explained Dr. Brooks from Harvard Medical School. Like Dominic Mercado, age 12, who in lieu of a birthday party asked for cans of spaghetti sauce and spaghetti to donate to a food bank, which they said took five SUV’s to take all of his donations – the largest in years for them. Or Zoe and Marley Macris, Seattle teenagers, who made more than 300 masks for frontline workers in the first few days of their new endeavor. When you shift from “me, me, me” to “we, we, we” and start focusing on how you can make a positive difference from helping strangers to setting the table for dinner at home, life becomes better.
Resilience is a complex subject, which has been studied for decades and, in truth, for thousands of years in the wisdom traditions. The good news is that it’s not a box we check but something we keep adding to in our understanding of what helps us come back to center, stay calm, and make smart choices, which serve us today and in the long term. Children are also no different in their need to have a robust resiliency toolkit filled with a strong social support system (at least one good friend), an ability to use their strengths and problem-solve challenges, and a mindset that learns to look for the good even in the toughest of times.
Bellizzi, Keith (2020). Developing resilience is an important tool to help you deal with coronavirus and the surge in cases. The conversation. Found online at: https://theconversation.com/developing-resilience-is-an-important-tool-to-help-you-deal-with-coronavirus-and-the-surge-in-cases-140412
Brooks, David (2019). Developing Resilience by Helping Others (Video). Found online at: https://www.kidsinthehouse.com/all-parents/parenting/resilience/developing-resilience-helping-others
Healy, Maureen. The Resilient Child (2014). Psychology Today blog. Found online at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/creative-development/201407/the-resilient-child
Healy, Maureen. The Emotionally Healthy Child (2018). Novato, CA: New World Library.
Healy, Maureen. Growing Happy Kids (2012). Deerpark, FL: HCI Books.
Seligman, Martin. Three Good Things (2009) Video found online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOGAp9dw8Ac
Staerk, Esben. Building Kids Resilience through Play Is More Crucial Than Ever (June 3, 2020). Scientific American blog found at: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/building-kids-resilience-through-play-is-more-crucial-than-ever/#:~:text=Play%20can%20help%20students%20reduce,needed%20in%202020%20and%20beyond
Totey, Jeff (June 7, 2020). 12 Incredible Kids Doing Good Deeds During the Pandemic. Red Tricycle. Found online at: https://redtri.com/kids-doing-good-deeds-and-helping-others/slide/1
Weir, Kirsten. Maximizing children’s resilience (2017). American Psychological Association (APA), Sept 2017, Vol 48, No 9 page 40. Found online at: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2017/09/cover-resilience#:~:text=%22Teachers%20and%20principals%20see%20these,social%20awareness%20and%20relationship%20skills.
Zimmerman, Eilene. What Makes Some People More Resilient Than Others. New York Times (06/18/2020). Link found at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/18/health/resilience-relationships-trauma.html
Unknown Author. Resilience. Harvard University, Center on the Developing Child (2020). Link found at: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/resilience/