How can we build resilient children?

We can’t protect our children from all life's difficulties, but we can try to give them the tools to cope with its ups and downs.

Why do children need to develop resilience?

Children need resilience – grit – to bounce back from challenges, setbacks, or trauma. Building resilience means giving them the life skills to adapt to change or the unexpected; or the ability to take on challenges. If we nurture resilience in our children, they’ll grow into less fearful, more curious, and more adaptable citizens of our ever-changing world.

How can a parent or caregiver nurture resilience?

Resilience will develop over time, just like our brains and our bodies. Exactly how it develops depends a lot on how a person interacts with their environment and all the people in it. It’s helped along if we’re loved, supported, encouraged – and even challenged from time to time. This can come from family, friends, or community. Depending on a child’s age, there are many things we can do as parents and caregivers to model resilience and help develop it. We can work on any or all of its seven key elements: Coping, Control, Competence, Confidence, Connection, Character, and Contribution.

Show children different ways of coping with stress and change. A great place to start is by empowering them to talk freely about stress and recognise its signs and causes. Help them to reframe challenges in ways that make them seem less threatening; show them how to face their fears and break down problems into manageable bitesize chunks. Encourage older children to think about why some ways of alleviating anxiety and stress (like drink and drugs) probably aren’t dealing with their root cause … and may even make things worse.

Develop their competence to cope with situations by encouraging and empowering children to try new things and make their own decisions, rather than racing in to help them out when things get tough. In younger children, creative play, board games, and even helping out at home can all develop problem solving competency. Focus on individual strengths and praise specific achievements and efforts. Everyone can try, and everyone can do something!

Help them understand that they are often more in control of what happens in their life than they might think. Let them see or face the consequences of their decisions – both good and bad. Encourage them to reflect on just how many of the things that happen to them are the result of their actions. But also reassure them that even if something unexpected, random and bad happens (perhaps a family death), they are still in control of how they react to it: it’s their hidden superpower.

Develop their confidence in their own abilities by celebrating the best in each child and always recognising when he/she has done well. Praise specific achievements. Let them aim high if they want to, but try not to push them to take on more than they can realistically handle. Set them up to win, but also to know that winning can take many different forms – sometimes finding the courage to try or participate is a win.

Try to develop positive social connections with other community and family members. Ensure children feel safe at home and encourage them to respect and talk about their emotions. They need to express them all – even the difficult ones. Show them ways to resolve conflicts, say “sorry”, or accept someone else’s apology and move on. Encourage empathy and thinking about how their behaviour affects others.

Model positive attitudes and values that will develop their character. Encourage them to contribute to their community, to stand up for what’s right, challenge themselves in good ways, and always look out for others. Let them know that trying hard or persevering can be as good as winning, and that learning from mistakes is a key part of our development.

Value their contributions – and encourage them. Make them feel the world is a better place because of who they are and what they do, especially when they are generous. And remind them that what goes around, comes around: the person or whānau they support when they’re feeling down, will likely be there to help them out if they are ever knocked back. Resilience can come from the individual or the community.

“I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” Theodore Roosevelt

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