There is no single gene responsible for happiness, success, or exceptionalism; rather, every child has the potential to excel in different ways. While challenges and obstacles are inevitable, it is possible to equip children with the skills to overcome them. By building resilience, we can help them thrive in the face of adversity.
Resilience allows people to recover from difficult situations or changes – to function as well as before and then move forward. Many people refer to this as “bouncing back” from difficulties or challenges.
A resilient person is someone who can adapt to stress and challenging life situations. They learn from their experiences and are better able to cope with future stresses and challenges. Rather than just bouncing back, they are better prepared to face future challenges.
The text is discussing the traits of resilient children, who are able to bounce back from difficult situations. These children tend to be understanding and sympathetic towards others, and are good at communication and problem-solving. They are also focused on learning, achieving goals and being involved in meaningful activities. Finally, they have a positive outlook on the future and a support system of adults.
When children are resilient, they are able to handle stress, challenge, and adversity better than most. They are also braver, more curious, and more adaptable than most, which allows them to get more out of life.
The good news is that resilience can be nurtured in all children.
An Important Aspect of Mental Well-Being
Resilience develops in individuals, families, and communities.
CAMH’s publication, Growing Up Resilient, discusses how children and youth can bounce back from today’s stresses. The publication has been awarded Curriculum Services Canada’s Seal of Quality, recommending it as a reference for educators and others who work or volunteer in schools.
Resilience and the Brain
When we experience stress or adversity, our body goes through changes that are designed to make us more capable versions of ourselves. Our heart rate increases, blood pressure goes up, and adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone) surge through the body. In the short term, this is beneficial, but the changes were only meant to be for the short term.
The amygdala is responsible for initiating the stress response in the brain, which then releases chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol to help the body deal with the stress. If the stress is ongoing, however, these physiological changes can stay switched on and eventually lead to weaken the immune system, the body, and the brain.
The prefrontal cortex is the control center of the brain, and when it shuts down due to stress, it can cause problems with attention, problem-solving, impulse control, and regulating emotions – which are all known as ‘executive functions’. While there are some benefits to having the prefrontal cortex not be too involved – such as being able to cry out in pain to bring help fast or powering through an all-nighter – there are other times when this can be detrimental.
Resilience is the ability to rebound from stress, adversity, or challenge. This is made possible by the activation of the prefrontal cortex, which in turn calms the amygdala. Activating the prefrontal cortex reverses the physiological changes that come with stress, allowing the individual to recover and adapt.
How Does Resilience Affect Behaviour?
Children differ in how resilient they are and how they respond to and recover from stressful times. They also differ in how they show when the demands being placed on them exceed their ability to cope. Some children become emotional, some withdraw, and some become defiant, angry, or resentful. Even the most resilient children have days when they can’t cope, but those with low resilience are more likely to display certain patterns of behavior.
Can Resilience Be Changed?
Yes, it is possible to change resilience. It is not only for those who are born with it, but it can be strengthened at any age. In the last decade or so, it has been found that experiences can change the way the brain is wired. The right experiences can shape a child’s intrinsic characteristics in a way that builds resilience.
Building Resilience in Children
Although it would be great if we could lift our children up and protect them from all of the stressors in life, it is more important that we teach them how to deal with these stressors. A little bit of stress is actually beneficial as it helps them to develop the skills they need to succeed. We should focus on nurturing strategies within our children that will help them to deal with adversity.
Resilience Needs Relationships
It is not a child’s inner strength or self-reliance that gets them through tough times, research tells us, but rather the presence of at least one supportive relationship. With a caring adult in their life, children have the chance to develop the skills they need to cope. This responsive adult can also help to undo the negative physiological changes that are brought on by stress. This protects the developing brain, body, and immune system from damage. Any adult in a child’s life can make a difference – parents, teachers, coaches – anyone.
Expose Them to People Who Care About Them
Social support makes people feel good by giving them a sense of control, making them feel more optimistic and motivated, and helping them to feel more resilient. If you can let your kids know about the people who are in their corner and support them, it will help them to feel stronger.
Let Them Know That It’s Okay to Ask For Help
Children often think that being brave is about dealing with things by themselves. Let them know that being brave and strong means knowing when to ask for help. If there is anything they can do themselves, guide them towards that but resist carrying them there.
Build Their Executive Functioning
Strengthening their executive functioning will strengthen the prefrontal cortex. Some powerful ways to build their executive functioning are:
- establishing routines
- modeling healthy social behavior
- creating and maintaining supportive reliable relationships around them;
- providing opportunities for their social connections
- creative play
- board games (good for impulse control (taking turns), planning, working memory, and mental flexibility (the ability to shift thoughts to an alternative, better pattern of thought if the situation requires)
- games that involve memory (e.g. the shopping game – ‘I went shopping and I bought a [puppy]’ the next person says, ‘I went shopping and I bought a [puppy and a bike for my t-rex]’; next person … ‘I went shopping and I bought [a puppy, a bike for my t-rex and a hot air balloon] – the winner is the last one standing who doesn’t forget something on the shopping list
- giving them opportunities to think and act independently (if they disagree with you and tell you why you’re wrong, there’s a plus side – their executive functioning is flourishing!)
- providing opportunities for them to make their own decisions.
Why is it that some young people are able to do well in school, form meaningful relationships, and feel hopeful about the future despite adversity while others become depressed and self-destructive? This was a question that was raised by Dr. Tatyana Barankin through her clinical practice.
In 1989, Dr. Barankin founded a clinic in Toronto which was the first of its kind in Canada that assessed and treated children who were at risk of developing mental health problems. The clinic had a team of specialists that would assess and treat families that had at least one parent with a mental health problem. In her 15 years working in the clinic, she saw many people who were struggling to cope with the challenges in their lives but also saw other family members who coped extremely well almost to the point of being superhuman. The adversity that they experienced varied greatly; some had experienced abuse, others had a parent with a severe mental health problem, some had gone through teen pregnancy, still, others had been injured in car accidents or had come to Canada seeking refuge from war in their home country.Cognitive therapy helps children and families deal with family stress in various ways, including individually, with siblings, and in groups.
Dr. Nazilla Khanlou’s experience working as a psychiatric nurse in an acute inpatient psychiatric unit gives her a unique perspective on clinical issues that complements Dr. Barankin’s understanding. For the past decade, she has been shifting her focus to mental health promotion among youth in community settings, such as schools.
Dr. Khanlou did a study on girls who’s parents had immigrated to Canada and saw how they handled tough transitions in their lives. These girls were able to stick to their cultural roots while also embracing Canadian culture. They were also very involved in their school and community. They had a positive outlook on their future.
Dr. Khanlou’s first study found that youth are much more resilient than they are often given credit for. Since then, she has found that youth are much more than just a problem to be solved – they have a lot of strengths and contributions to make. Dr. Khanlou wrote this book to try to change the way society views youth, and to help adults be more understanding of the difficulties youth face. She also believes that we need to work on making our society more inclusive and just, because that will allow everyone to reach their potential.
Dr. Khanlou’s experience with both clinical and community work has shown her that multiple approaches are necessary to promote mental health and resilience in children and youth. Not only do health and social services need to be improved, but society as a whole needs to challenge the social determinants of mental health (such as income, education, and inclusion) and their influence on young people. In the last chapter, on environmental factors, she wants to make the reader more aware of how social factors affect young people’s sense of well-being—and how resilience in children and youth is a result of the interplay between their traits and abilities and the social context in which they live.
The doctors suggest that children are more resilient than previously thought and that this trait can be encouraged.