Resilience is being able to bounce back from stress, challenge, tragedy, trauma, or adversity. When children are resilient, they are braver, more curious, more adaptable, and more able to extend their reach into the world. The great news is that resilience is something that can be nurtured in all children.
Adversity in life makes the body function quickly in order to become more alert and faster; many changes occur in the body, and brain and body work faster in coordination. Our heart rate increases, pulse goes up, and blood pressure increases; adrenaline and cortisol run through the body.
The biological basis of resilience
Generally, the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for our impulsive responses, initiates the stress. The brain releases chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol in order to help the body deal with stress. During stress, many other physiological changes take place and over an extended period of time, they can even weaken the immune system, the body, and the brain.
The prefrontal cortex, which is in front of the brain, gets temporarily shut down during stress. It is the emotional regulator of the brain. Attention, problem-solving, impulse control, and regulating emotion are the main functions of the prefrontal cortex.
Resilience is the capacity to activate the prefrontal cortex and calm down the amygdala. It leads to relieving the stress and helps the body to relax and the brain to work with rational thinking. Resilience is not something genetically given and it can be built up at any time of life. The experiences of life and day-to-day activities we are exposed to help to change the wiring of the brain and to shape an individual to become more resilient to face life situations.
Building resilience in children
Little children cannot become bigger and resilient individuals by removing adversity from their way. If we serve them with all the comforts and provide them with every little thing they ever ask for, it will never help them to become resilient. We need to stop giving in to their demands and desires, but not the basic needs. A little stress and struggle in life is wonderful and helps them to develop those skills in life that will flourish their future.
Strengthening them towards healthy living is about nurturing within them the strategies to deal with that adversity. Here’s how:
- Resilience needs relationships. Research suggests that a strong and caring relationship with the caring adult and supportive parents helps children to develop coping skills. The presence of a responsive adult can also help to reverse the physiological changes that are activated by stress, while an angry and strict parent can reverse the action. The presence of support from parents to deal with adversity also protects them from bodily damage.
- Increase their exposure to people who care about them. Peer and social support help to develop positive emotions, self-confidence, self-esteem, motivation, and hence resilience. Remind your child that you are always there to help them, to solve their every little problem, cheering them up even when they do not succeed – even a small gesture when your child gets up after falling while cycling, that ‘I told your grandma how brave you were. She’s so proud of you.’
- Make them believe that it is okay to ask for help. Children are generally in disbelief that asking for help from others does not make them any stronger and braver. It is very important to tell them being brave means knowing when to ask for help. Also, helping them means just facilitating them, not doing the activity for them.
- Improving their decision-making. It will also help to strengthen the prefrontal cortex as it helps them to manage their feelings, emotions, and behaviour. This can be achieved through establishing a routine, modelling healthy social behaviour, creating and maintaining relationships, helping them to make their own social connections, creative play, playing games in which they have to wait for their turn, memory games, and encouraging meditation and mindfulness.
- Build feelings of competence. Nurture in them the feeling that keeps on reminding them they can do hard things. To develop competence, it is very important for parents to acknowledge the child’s strengths and encourage them to make their own decisions. This will enable them to resolve the problems rather than reacting on them. Once they have a sense of mastery of this, they will able to handle future challenges in a better way.
- Model resiliency. For children, imitation is a powerful tool to learn something new, to bring change in their behaviour. Imitation can help to mould their behaviour because every little child always watches and observes the behaviour of their parents. So if you want your children to be resilient, model resiliency for them. Let them see how to cope up with failures, disappointments, and unsuccessful events of life. Share with them your emotional world in order to help them to see that sadness, disappointment, feeling bad, or not having a good day are normal experiences of human life. Believe me, to cope with your emotions, sharing with your children is the best thing ever, provided that sharing is age-appropriate. It will help you a lot apart from teaching your child to be resilient in life.
- Encourage them to take a considerable amount of risk. It is important for children to have the courage to do something brave and difficult rather than focus on the outcome. Give them age-appropriate freedom to take risks, encourage them to take decisions, and assure them that they can cope when things can go wrong. As parents, assure them that you love them no matter what; it’s okay to try to do harder and harder things, and even if they do not succeed they will be stronger with every move. All they need is the courage to take a risk to open up to the world around them.
- Do not rescue them every time. It is a valuable space between falling and standing back up again; help children to find their feet. Parents need to scoop them up and giving them a stable environment enables them with the required strength to move forward. But do not do it every time, because exposure to stressors and challenges during childhood will help to ensure their ability to deal with stress during adulthood. Early experiences are the foundation for positive changes in the prefrontal cortex that can protect against negative effects.
- Nurture a growth mindset. Make them believe that if we can change, so can other people. Researchers have suggested that people who have the potential to change are more resilient to adverse and tough situations. Children who believe that people can change with time are more resilient as compared to those children who believe that a victim will always be victim and a bully will always be a bully. Such children are less prone to anxiety, stress, and depression. They feel better about themselves and have positive responses to adversities and social exploitation.
- Make time for creativity and play. Problem-solving is a creative process. Anything that strengthens their problem-solving skills will nurture their resilience. Children are naturally curious, inquisitive, and creative. Give them space and the time to play and get creative, and they’ll do the rest.
- Let them talk. Try to resist solving their problems for them; rather be the sound support whenever and wherever they need to be. When they talk, their mind is processing and strengthening. Guide them, but, wherever you can, let them talk and try to come up with their own solutions. Parents are the safest place in the world for children to experience new things. Most importantly, tell your children every day that you love them unconditionally and are their support even when they fail and do not come up to your expectations. Make them resilient with your love and support.
Every child is different and has different abilities to do things. Some children are always cheerful while some whine at every small thing. Every child has potential for happiness and greatness but it means different things to different kids. As parents, teachers, or educators, we can never change the challenges they have to face but we can definitely make them skilful so that the challenges of life can never break them. We can help them to become resilient.
Dr Parvinder Kaur is a research fellow at the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Punjab Agricultural University.