Decades of research have documented serious consequences from chronic stress in childhood (McEwen, 2011). But psychologists have identified ways in which parents teach children how to cope with adversity—an idea commonly known as resilience.
The Effects of Childhood Stress
Children cannot be protected from everything. Parents get divorced. Children grow up in poverty. Friends or loved ones are injured, fall ill, or die. Kids can experience neglect, physical or emotional abuse, or bullying. Families immigrate, end up homeless or live through natural disasters.
There can be long-term consequences (Masten et al., 1990). Hardship in childhood can physically alter the brain architecture of a developing child. It can impair cognitive and social-emotional development, impacting learning, memory, decision-making, and more.
Some children develop emotional problems, act out with aggressive or disruptive behavior, form unhealthy relationships, or end up in trouble with the law. School performance often suffers, ultimately limiting job and income opportunities. The risk of suicide or drug and alcohol abuse can increase (Khoury et al., 2010). Kids who are exposed to chronic stress may also develop lifelong health issues, including heart attack, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and cancer.
So how do some kids thrive amidst serious challenges, while others are overwhelmed by them? Researchers in my field are working to identify what helps children overcome obstacles and flourish when the odds are stacked against them.
It seems to come down to both support and resilience. Resilience is defined as the ability to spring back, rebound, or readily recover from adversity. It’s a quality that allows people to be competent and accomplished despite tough circumstances. Some children from difficult backgrounds do well from a young age. Others bloom later, finding their paths once they reach adulthood.
Ann Masten, a pioneer in developmental psychology research, referred to resilience as “ordinary magic.” Resilient kids don’t have some kind of superpower that helps them persevere while others flounder. It isn’t a trait we’re born with; it’s something that can be fostered.
The Key Factors That Help Kids Build Resilience
The same executive function skills that create academic success seem to bestow critical coping strategies. With the capacity to focus, solve problems, and switch between tasks, children find ways to adapt and deal with obstacles in a healthy way.
Controlling behavior and emotions is also key. In a recent study, 8- to 17-year-olds who maintained emotional balance despite mistreatment were less likely to suffer from depression or other emotional problems.
However, relationships seem to be the foundation that keeps children grounded. “Attachment relationships” provide a lifelong sense of security and belonging. A parent’s or caregiver’s consistent support and protection are crucial for healthy development and the most important of these relationships. Other caring adults can help: friends, teachers, neighbors, coaches, mentors, or others. Having steadfast support lends stability and helps kids build self-esteem, self-reliance, and strength.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an icon of resilience. She grew up in a Brooklyn working-class neighborhood and lost her mother—her main support figure—to cancer before graduating from high school. She persevered, graduated first in her class at Cornell University, and ultimately became one of only four women to serve on the Supreme Court. Another example is John Lewis, who was the son of sharecroppers in segregated Alabama, yet become a pioneer in the civil rights movement and served 33 years in Congress.
How to Encourage Resilience at Home
There are many ways parents can help their children build resilience. Allowing children to talk and really listening—shows caring and acceptance, validates their feelings, and helps them contextualize issues.
Sometimes the answer is allowing kids some degree of autonomy. Trusting them to try things on their own—and even fail—can help them learn to solve problems or deal with anger, disappointment, or other uncomfortable emotions. “Calm breathing” techniques offer another tool that helps children control emotions.