Pediatric Associates of the NW Blogs

Bouncing Back: Resilience and Your Child

Shannon Odell, PsyD
October 04, 2017 10:00AM

If you’ve been to the doctor lately, you may have had a conversation with your pediatrician about resilience. This concept has become very important to us here at Pediatric Associates of the Northwest, because we see its power and understand the difference it can make in a child’s life. But what is resilience exactly? And how do we instill it in our children? In order to explain resilience, and how it develops, I’m going to start by telling a story about a girl.

She was just an ordinary girl, born to ordinary parents, who had a rather ordinary childhood. She moved to a new town when she was nine, but without much incident. As she grew into a teenager, these years became quite unhappy for her. Her mother was frequently ill with symptoms of multiple sclerosis, and she became increasingly distant from her father, leading to eventual estrangement. Her teachers described her as unexceptional, though she had a flare for English. She wasn’t accepted into her first choice for college and didn’t try very hard at the school she did end up attending.  She graduated and started her first job, though shortly thereafter her mother died. She moved to a foreign country to teach English and met her husband. More misfortunes followed, including a miscarriage, domestic violence, and eventual divorce. She moved back home with her newborn child to be near family, but ultimately saw herself as a failure, with no career, a broken marriage, and a child who she could not afford to take care of. She was diagnosed with clinical depression and contemplated suicide. Eventually though, this woman completed the project that had kept her going through these trials and tribulations, a project she was able to work on because there was nothing else left for her, and children around the world rejoiced when Harry Potter was finally born. J.K. Rowling didn’t have a childhood that would lead anyone to believe that she would become one of the most successful authors in history. It turns out, it may be the ordinariness of her childhood that gave her the resilience to overcome the hardships she endured.

We’ve all heard similar stories, the successful adult who overcame less than ideal circumstances in childhood and against all odds became someone to be admired. We look up to these people because they help us realize that our own hardships can shape us into grittier, wiser, more successful people. Resilience is a word that has become quite popular lately to describe the qualities that help someone cross the bridge from hardship to success. We’ve learned a great deal about resilience over the years, including how to make kids more resilient in the face of tough times. We’ve also learned that resilience is a fairly ordinary process. I think the good news for every parent out there is that resilience is common and comes from many of the typical processes that are part of human development. When something gets in the way of these protective processes, like abuse, food insecurity, or lack of stable adult connection, the process of developing resilience falters. 

We’ve also learned that resilience is incredibly important for helping kids become healthy adults. Children who experience hardship and trauma are more likely to develop health problems when they get older, but resilience can help protect children from these health risks. So how can you make sure your child develops the qualities that can help them become more resilient? Keep these things in mind:

Relationships boost resilience. Connection with others is fundamental to building a strong foundation in a child’s life and the ability to cope with whatever life throws his or her way. Studies have shown again and again that a supportive, consistent, and protective adult figure is the primary factor that makes the biggest difference in a child’s healthy development, especially when stress systems are activated. Outcomes are even better for kids who have a warm, positive, and responsive parent or adult figure (like a teacher or grandparent) than for those whose caregivers are angry, harsh, or detached.

Take care of yourself. On a daily basis I find myself using the analogy of the instructions flight attendants give on airplanes for the oxygen masks: put the mask on yourself first before you help those around you. If you’re not taking care of yourself, you’re going to have a hard time being the parent you want to be. Make sure your own mental health is being addressed. Parents who are depressed are more likely to be disengaged, harsh, or critical with their kids, which can lead to maladjustment in young children. Parents who are anxious can sometimes be pessimistic and avoid situations that might allow a child to learn positive coping skills or do everything for the child so they never learn what they’re capable of and so they in turn become anxious themselves. If you struggle on a day-to-day basis with symptoms of depression or anxiety, get help. Your children with be better off for it.

Teach your kids about emotions. Self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness, and relationship skills are all fundamental abilities in being a resilient person. The earlier children learn those skills, the better. Teach your children emotions by talking about them, both in yourself, what you observe in them, and what you observe in others. Many schools have started incorporating a “growth mindset” into their curriculum, rather than seeing challenges as problems they learn to see them as opportunities. And many schools have programs for children who struggle with social skills and empathy. If you’re concerned about your child’s growth in these areas, talk to your pediatrician or your child’s teacher to see if there are programs available to help.

Problem behaviors do not mean lack of resilience. Neither does experiencing uncomfortable emotions. Life is full of ups and downs, and your child being sad or anxious or stressed does not mean they lack resilience skills. Children who develop mental health or behavioral problems in childhood can still develop into competent, well-adjusted adults. Take J.K. Rowling, for example. She was depressed and suicidal for a period in her adult life, and yet she proved to be remarkably resilient. I’ve heard her say that experiencing failure was the best thing that could have happened to her because the lessons it taught her were more valuable than anything she learned in school.  I’ll let her speak for herself:

"Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies. The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”

Now that is resilience.