Raising resilient kids

Being able to bounce back when life throws a curve ball has obvious appeal, but the benefits of resilience are broader than you might think. Discover why building resilience in children is so worthwhile and what you can do to foster it.

Written by Editor Medibank

If there was one thing 2020 taught us it was to expect the unexpected – that and the importance of a little thing called resilience. 

Resilience – in a nutshell, the process of adapting well in the face of adversity – goes a long way towards describing why some people bounce back better than others when they encounter tough situations.

“Resilience isn’t about minimising difficulty or trying to be happy by shutting off from humanness or emotion,” says clinical psychologist Emily Toner. “Resilience is the ability to grow and thrive in the face of challenges and adversity.” 

Martin Heppell from The Resilience Project, which delivers resilience-building programs to schools, workplaces and communities, agrees. “In the past, resilience was more about ‘head down, bum up’, get through it, block out your emotions and you’ll be right,” he says.

“Now, when we talk about resilience, it’s about a two-step process. The first is being okay about recognising, identifying and feeling all the negative emotions that go hand-in-hand with adversity, because we have to experience those in order to function well as a human being. The next step is knowing how to deal with those emotions and being able to use strategies so that you can bounce back.” 

Why is resilience important in children? 

The more resilient a child is, the better they’ll be able to manage stress. As a result, not only is resilience important for a child’s mental health, it can help them deal with everyday challenges both now and in later life.

And while resilience can be strengthened at any age, experts agree that building personal resilience should ideally begin in childhood.

Dr Grant Blashki, GP and Lead Clinical Advisor at Beyond Blue, says there are a couple of reasons for that. “We know that about 50 per cent of adult mental health problems begin before the age of 14,” he explains. “So developing those resilience skills early in life is key. They can help your kids head off trouble, so that when they have those inevitable setbacks in life, they don’t fall into a rut of negative thinking.”


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Tips to build resilience in children

The good news is that while some of the factors that influence resilience are beyond our control, like genetics,research has uncovered a set of characteristics that predispose kids to be able to bounce back, some of which can be built with practice.2 The following strategies are a good place to start.

Encourage your kids to feel their emotions. “It’s really important that children are given permission to feel and experience all of their emotions,” says Emily Toner. “And especially the challenging ones like anger, fear and sadness. It can be a natural instinct to want to shelter your children from all hardship and disappointment but the danger of doing this is that they can then become overwhelmed or unable to cope when faced with everyday challenges, like having a fight with a friend, not getting a good score on a test or not being picked for a sporting team. In short, sheltering your kids in this way means they haven’t been given the opportunity to practise resilience.”

And let them make mistakes. Grant Blashki says allowing children to take some risks is another “resilience training” strategy. “Allowing and encouraging some sensible risk-taking means that they get a chance to test themselves, try things out, fail and have another go,” he explains.

Promote problem solving. “I think the other thing that’s really helpful here is teaching kids good problem-solving skills,” says Blashki. “Let’s say something has gone wrong and they’re feeling upset. It’s a matter of helping them say, ‘Okay, what are the options here, how could we manage it and what might you do differently next time?’” 

Toner agrees. “After allowing children to experience their own challenges, be there for them when they need help to understand and process their emotions. Then engage in problem solving and talk about what they might want to do next,” she says. “Invite them to think about the best, worst and most likely outcomes while they’re problem solving.”

Talk about your own experiences. And in particular, those times when you’ve experienced setbacks or failure, says Heppell. “When we don’t talk about failure with our kids, they don’t deem failure to be normal, and that’s not healthy,” he says. “On the other hand, talking about failures openly helps kids understand it and realise that it’s going to happen, without it impacting their self-esteem, their self-worth or their status because it’s something that happens to everyone.” 

Toner says it’s also important to be open about your challenges in the moment, too, in an age-appropriate way. “Model the ways in which you bounce back or deal with difficult things in your life,” she advises. “And don’t be afraid to let them see you sad or hurt sometimes and particularly how you reframe a difficulty into an opportunity for growth and learning.”

Help them practise gratitude. Intentionally acknowledging the things we’re grateful for is a scientifically proven way to help to improve resilience,3 and Heppell is a strong advocate. “Actively practising gratitude doesn’t make your kids forget about or push away those negative emotions, but what it does do is give them hope that tomorrow will be different,” says Heppell, who explains it can be as simple as encouraging them to identify three things that went well during the day, every day. “It doesn’t have to be big-picture stuff. It could be the fact that they got BBQ Shapes in their lunchbox. It’s about teaching our kids to focus on what they do have, not what they don’t have, which rewires their brain to scan the world for positives rather than negatives.”

Be there for them. A common denominator among kids who have strong resiliency skills is having at least one committed and supportive relationship with a parent, caregiver or other adult.4,5 “So when your kid shows you that they want to talk about something, make that your priority and build trust by practising unconditional and uninterrupted listening,” says Heppell. “Nothing is more important than your child being willing to open up to you.”

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1. Maul S et al, Genetics of resilience: implications from genome-wide association studies and candidate genes of the stress response system in posttraumatic stress disorder and depression, American Journal of Medical Genetics Part B Neuropsychiatric Genetics 2020 Mar; 183(2):77-94

2. Beyond Blue, Building resilience in children aged 0-12: A practice guide, 2017

3. Kilbert J et al, The impact of an integrated gratitude intervention on positive affect and coping resources, International Journal of Applied Positive Psychology 3,12-41(2019)

4. Emerging Minds, Resilience

5. Masten AS and Barnes AJ; Resilience in Children: Developmental Perspectives; Children (Basel). 2018 Jul; 5a(7):98

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Written by Editor Medibank

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