Key Strategies to Build Resilience in Children
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Building resilience in children can act as an early preventative measure against such challenges even recognising that mental health and other factors can also be at play for children experiencing anxiety or depression.
It’s understandable that you want to protect your children in an often dangerous and turbulent world. However, you also want your children to thrive and build healthy self-esteem. Fortunately, nurturing and caring for your children and helping them develop resilience and independence are not mutually exclusive.
Resilience is a common word, but what exactly does it mean? Beyond Blue describe it as “a child’s ability to cope with ups and downs, and to bounce back from the challenges they experience during childhood – for example moving home, changing schools, studying for an exam or dealing with the death of a loved one.”
They add that building resilience is not only important for helping children deal with current difficulties, but also in developing “the basic skills and habits that will help them deal with challenges later in life, during adolescence and adulthood.”
Furthermore, they point out that children with greater resilience are better at managing stress, which, when severe or ongoing, is a risk factor for mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
Key characteristics needed to build resilience in children
Regardless of how much you might like to, no parent can completely shield their child from hardship. In fact, protecting your child from adversity is likely to be counterproductive. If a child has no obstacles to overcome, or if a parent always jumps in to help, how can they develop the confidence needed to solve problems themselves, even into adulthood?
It’s through making mistakes and learning to cope with feelings like disappointment that we become healthy, independent adults.
Beyond Blue note that resilience is shaped by both nature and nurture. It’s partly related to characteristics we’re born with, such as our genes and personality. It’s also moulded by our childhood environment, which includes our family, community and wider society. For children brought up in a church, this also includes the training and nurturing received there.
Clearly, we can’t change our biology. However, there are many things we can do to help children develop vital attributes like showing determination and having a “never give up” attitude.
Beyond Blue use the analogy of a plane in a storm to describe resilience. The child is the pilot, and their family, friends, teachers and health professionals are like co-pilots. While you might not be able to control the weather (life’s adversities), nor the type of plane (biological characteristics), the pilot can be well-trained and the co-pilots can help to navigate turbulence and safely land at their destination.
Learning to successfully steer through life’s stresses will help reduce your child’s risk for developing mental health issues.
Powerful strategies to build resilience in children
Recent research by Beyond Blue has highlighted five key strategies for building resilience in children.
The first is educating people about resilience. If you’re reading this, you’ve already taken the vital first step!
The other four resilience-boosting techniques for children aged 0 to 12 years are:
1. Helping them to build good relationships with others
This includes relationships with both other children and adults – including you. They recommend spending quality time with your child by doing things that you enjoy together.
You could go for a walk or cycle, play games or do some gardening. Any age-appropriate activities that support your child’s development and facilitate communication are excellent. It is important to use the time to talk to your child about their emotions or concerns, and to show them warmth and affection. If they are comfortable talking with you about their positive feelings and interests they are much more likely to be open in talking with you when things are hard.
Help your child to develop relationships with other adults by organising for them to spend time with family and friends – such as grandparents, aunts/uncles or trusted friends. A network of supportive relationships is the best social environment for a child to feel optimistic and hopeful.
Being actively involved in a local church is an excellent way for your child to meet older mentors and connect them with a nurturing community.
Developing friendships is also important. Help your child to learn social skills by modelling positive ways of relating to others. Encourage them to socialise, by attending group activities or organising playdates with school and church friends or getting them involved in sport, music or other extra-curricular activities they enjoy.
2. Building their independence
Encouraging your child to take on responsibilities can help them to develop a sense of autonomy and independence. One way to do this is allowing them to make decisions. Start with something simple like choosing between two outfits to wear. As they get older, allow them to make bigger choices, like which sport to play and when to do homework. Obviously, their choices will have consequences from which they can learn.
You can also talk to them about problem-solving. Encourage them to come up with their own solutions rather than jumping in to provide them. For example, allow them to work through difficulties when they’re playing with friends or siblings.
Being a positive role model is another way to encourage independence. Try to model positivity when facing your own challenges, by saying aloud things like “I can cope with this”, or your favourite encouraging Scripture verses. This helps your child see what problem-solving looks like, and highlights that you expect good outcomes.
Furthermore, graciously accepting help from others models the godly behaviours of humility and gratitude.
3. Learning to identify, express and manage their emotions
Resilience is not about always feeling happy or avoiding emotional reactions. In fact, emotions are an important part of our humanity. Jesus experienced the full gamut of emotions, including sorrow, disappointment and anger.
Rather, resilience involves learning to recognise and respond to emotions in a healthy way. Children will react in different ways to the same events, such as natural disasters or a family crisis. They may need different types of support to help them bounce back.
Some ways you can help your child with their emotions include:
- encouraging them to talk about how they’re feeling. Listen carefully to reassure them that you are genuinely interested.
- acknowledge their feelings, including the “negative” ones like frustration, disappointment and sadness. This teaches them to identify and label different emotions.
- asking open-ended questions. This encourages children to articulate their feelings, and provides opportunities to help them develop coping and problem-solving strategies. For example, rather than asking “Did you have a good day at school?”ask “What was the best (or hardest) thing that happened at school today?”
- helping them understand that ups and downs are a normal part of life. You could do this by describing how you got through tough times. Or share stories from the Bible (or other literature) about Christians who overcame adversity through faith, courage, and determination.
4. Building confidence by taking risks and accepting challenges
Kids Helpline emphasise that anyone can become more resilient. They suggest some strategies for building resilience in teens, including:
- having a positive attitude/feeling good about yourself
- finding good friends and having a supportive family
- feeling like you belong (to a church or youth group, for example)
- helping others or 'giving back'. There’s truth in: “It is more blessed to give than receive” (Acts 20:35).
- having good communication with people close to you.
They also offer practical suggestions for teens to build their own resilience, including:
- thinking positive thoughts
- learning from mistakes
- setting and working towards goals
- accepting that negative things happen
- finding things that help you to feel calm, and
- talking to someone or getting help when you need it.
Turning challenges into opportunities
While many of us might prefer it, God has not called us to a life of comfort and convenience. Rather, he encourages us to step out in faith according to his will.
This means taking risks and setting goals that lead us outside our comfort zones. Providing your child with opportunities to challenge their limits is a vital part of building resilience. Challenges become opportunities when children learn to face obstacles, and deal with both success and failure.
Of course, I’m not talking about encouraging your child to take up skydiving! Instead, encourage them to take healthy risks – which are age- and developmentally-appropriate challenges in which they could fail or make a mistake without high stakes, negative, long-term consequences.
When choosing healthy risks, you’ll need to consider things like your child’s age, maturity and the possible impact if things do go wrong. It might be helpful to talk to other parents at school about what they’re allowing their children to try.
Churches, youth groups and Christian organisations are a great place to look for healthy risk-taking opportunities. They often run activities – like camps, leadership training, volunteering and sports days – that challenge children in a safe and nurturing environment.
Allowing children to experience everyday adversity is another good idea. For example, if they forget their lunch, consider letting them learn from the experience (provided they are otherwise healthy, of course). Joining a team activity, such as sports or debating, is an excellent way of learning to lose.
Being unable to tolerate failure can put children at risk of anxiety and lead to avoidance of trying new things.
Teach your child a ‘have a go’ attitude from an early age. Not only do we learn by making mistakes, they often present ‘teachable moments’ when we can share our own experience or a timeless truth from Scripture.
The 7 C’s of resilience!
To further help guide parents/carers, Dr Kenneth Ginsburg – a paediatrician specialising in adolescent medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia – has described seven C's of resilience. They are:
Competence describes the feeling of doing something well or effectively dealing with a situation. Help your child develop competence by recognising their strengths and providing opportunities to develop them. If they have an aptitude for maths, sculpture or basketball, for example, tell them you’ve noticed and encourage them to practise. Helping them develop competence in making choices and in maintaining friendships is also important.
Avoid making comparisons with siblings or unintentionally sending the message you think your children are incompetent by over-protecting them.
Confidence grows out of competence and can be nurtured by recognising what your child has done well and praising them for specific achievements. For example, praise them for a great result on an exam, rather than for “being smart”. Encourage them with tasks and activities that are challenging but achievable. Keep the focus on positive qualities, such as fairness, integrity and determination.
Strong ties to family and community foster a sense of belonging and help reduce the risk of children seeking acceptance in unhealthy ways. Your home should be a haven of safety and security, where children feel comfortable expressing their emotions and ideas without fear of punishment. Family meal times are a great avenue for building connection, as are church and youth groups that reinforce positive messages.
Character involves helping your child understand right from wrong and to develop strong guiding morals. Encourage your child to see themselves as a caring person, grow their relationship with God, and consider how their behaviour affects others (Jesus’ “Golden Rule” is an excellent guide).
It’s vital for children to realise that the world is better for them being in it. Encourage them that God has a plan and purpose for their lives. Knowing the value of their personal contribution gives them a sense of value and motivation. Create opportunities for them to serve or get involved in existing ones (at church or in your community, for example).
This allows children to experience the feel-good factor of serving others and makes it easier for them to ask for help when they need it – an important part of being resilient.
Coping effectively with stress is crucial for overcoming challenges. We’ll talk about this more in the next section.
Having a sense of control over outcomes will help your child to bounce back from adversity. Help them to understand that their decisions have consequences, but that some things are the result of other people’s actions. Help them to understand that they can’t control circumstances or other people’s attitudes or actions, but that they can control their actions in response. Help them to experience discipline as teaching rather than punishment when they make poor choices.
Dr Ginsburg further points out that children need to know that an adult believes in and loves them unconditionally, and that children will live “up” or “down” to our expectations.
Learning to cope with stress and manage anxiety
Talking about resilience is well and good, you might be saying, but what about those times when stress mounts up or your child has crossed the threshold into anxiety or depression?
Being able to cope with stress is crucial, especially as your child gets older and experiences increasing pressure with schoolwork, navigating relationships and making long-term plans.
One well-proven method for managing stress is exercise. It has been shown to reduce levels of the body's stress hormone and stimulate the production of endorphins – the so-called “feel-good” chemicals that relieve pain and boost mood. A survey by the American Psychological Association found that 53 percent of teens said they feel good about themselves after exercising, 40 percent said it puts them in a good mood and 32 percent said they felt less stressed afterwards.
Getting outside is another evidence-based mood booster. People who spend more time in greenspaces have reduced risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stress, and high blood pressure. It seems that walking in nature may reduce levels of stress hormone cortisol and normalise activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, thereby reducing rumination (repetitive negative thoughts). As little as 20 minutes three days per week is enough. The key is making it part of your routine.
Consider joining others for your exercise and outdoor time. Positive relationships and social support are some of the most powerful tools for building resilience. Studies have shown that social support is vital for maintaining good physical and psychological health, and is associated with more positive emotions, self-esteem, motivation and optimism, as well as resilience.
Getting enough sleep is also essential. Studies have shown conclusively that not having sufficient sleep negatively impacts people of all ages’ ability to manage their thoughts and emotions. This can seem an impossible task for teenagers, but any hard work done in making it happen will reap great rewards.
Decades of research have shown that children who end up doing well have one thing in common – at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult. These relationships provide a buffer against disruptive developmental forces and build vital skills – such as the ability to adapt to different circumstances – that form the foundations of resilience.
These findings shouldn’t be surprising, given that God made us for relationships with himself and others and established the family structure for the nurturing of godly children (Mal 2:15).
How to thrive during adversity
God’s design for resilience is clear throughout the Bible. History has proven that God is true to His work - that He always cares for his people and plans to give them hope and a future (Jer. 29:11). His Word is filled with stories of people who trusted Him during times of adversity and overcame great obstacles by faith (Heb 11).
He designed families to raise children who are loved unconditionally and trained with healthy discipline (Ephesians 6:4). His Word teaches us to cast our cares on Him (1 Peter 5:7) and to pray rather than worry (Philippians 4:6). His assurance is that for anyone who does place their trust in Him, that He will work even the hard things in life for our good (Romans 8:28).
The most important thing you can do to raise a resilient child is help lead them to faith in Christ, whose perfect design includes trusting Him through life’s ups and downs, until we meet face-to-face in heaven, where our adversities will melt away in the face of eternal glory (2 Corinthians 4:17).
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