By HAYLEY SIMS, Contributing Columnist
Childhood should be a stress-free time, enjoyed through carefree days of play and positive development. Unfortunately not every – if any – child spends their modern childhood this way.
Children face many challenges, hardships and traumas; from adapting to a new school, to academic stress, to bullying, and even abuse. Any normal childhood is also full of natural uncertainties and issues to overcome. No child is carefree – but, surprisingly, some thrive better than others even in challenging circumstances.
This is called "resilience" – the ability to adapt and thrive despite challenge and stress. Some children are more resilient than others.
What makes a child resilient? It’s not all about personality – science has some surprising answers. And the great thing is, skills in resilience can be learned.
What is Resilience?
Resilience in people is “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change", according to Merriam-Webster dictionary. It is not an absence of hurt, trauma or adversity but instead the ability to do well despite it. If a child is resilient it doesn’t mean they will never have problems, but they will be able to cope with challenges more effectively and – science says – become happier and more positive adults.
Science Studying Resilience
The study of resilience represents a challenge for scientists – there is no test you can give someone to assertively say how resilient they are. And as resilience depends on overcoming challenges, how can you tell if someone is resilient if they haven’t experienced much in the way of hardship?
Norman Garmezy, a developmental psychologist at the University of Minnesota, is credited with being the first clinician and researcher to look at the concept of resilience in an experimental setting.
He carried out research into the lives of thousands of children suffering stress and economic, social problems. Others have followed suit, most often carrying out long-lasting studies into groups of children who are studied over time to see how they react to life circumstances.
Science reveals some surprising facts about resilient children, including psychological and social factors that affect why some children thrive and some children suffer in the face of difficult circumstances.
1. Resilient Children Benefit from One Strong Adult Relationship
Most scientific reports into resilience in children touch on the power of supportive relationships, and one study specifically shows how important it is for a child to have at least one strong, positive adult relationship in order to do well despite hardship.
The 2015 study from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University says “these relationships buffer children from developmental disruption and help them develop “resilience,” or the set of skills needed to respond to adversity and thrive.”
When the relationship is long-lasting and consistent, it provides the scaffolding to help build “key capacities — such as the ability to plan, monitor, and regulate behavior, and adapt to changing circumstances.”
2. A Single Supportive, Close Friendship Can Help Overcome Adversity
If not a strong adult relationship, then a supportive close friendship can help a child become resilient, according to research.
A 2015 study by the University of Sussex in the UK says such a friendship can help children from low-income backgrounds adapt and thrive in challenging circumstances.
The research looked at 409 students aged between 11 and 19 in areas of poor socioeconomic status. having a best friend “facilitated effective ways of coping (such as planning, reframing an issue in a positive way and using emotional support) that helped them develop resilience to complex challenges.”
3. Resilient Children Meet the World on Their Own Terms
Emmy Werner, a developmental psychologist, published the results of her study into 698 children over 32 years.
The children lived in Kauai, Hawaii, and Werner monitored them for any exposure to stress right from the beginning – maternal stress in utero – to their third decade of life.
A third of the children were described as “at risk” in terms of their family or life background.
But not all the “at risk” children reacted in the same way to their stressors. One third of the children developed into what Werner described as “competent, confident, and caring young adults” enjoying domestic, social, and academic success.
As well as showing that the thriving children usually had a strong bond with a supportive caregiver, Werner demonstrated that these children “met the world on their own terms”.
They would actively seek out new experiences. They would use the skills they had, whatever they were, powerfully. They believed that they actively controlled their own environments and therefore their own achievements.
To be resilient, therefore, a child should see themselves as the orchestrator of their own fate.
4. Resilient Children Experience Traumatic Events as an Opportunity to Learn and Grow
Research into adult resilience by George Bonanno at Columbia University’s Teachers College rests around the concept of perception.
An event is not necessarily traumatic until you label it as such.
Bonanno coined the term "PTE, potentially traumatic event", to illustrate how any frightening occurrence has the potential to be traumatic – or not – to the person experiencing it.
For example, if a close friend dies it can be seen as disablingly traumatic, or as an opportunity for growth because you raise funds for a disease, or connect powerfully with a community.
Children can also experience negative events as opportunities to learn and grow – resilient children do not necessarily label a traumatic event as such.
5. Children Become Resilient By Building Their Personal Strengths
A 2015 study from the University of Melbourne in Australia says children are more likely to be resilient and to be able to cope with minor stress when their parents use a strength-based approach to parenting.
This parenting style is characterized by parents deliberately identifying, labeling and cultivating positive states and personal strengths in their children.
Parents build up their child’s resources so that they are able to react more positively to stress.
6. For a Child to Become Resilient, They Need to Cultivate Positive Emotions
Children and adults who live their lives looking for positive moments and cultivating happiness are likely to be highly resilient against challenge, says 2009 research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Focusing on small moments of happiness allows positive emotions to blossom, which helps children to become more open, which then helps to build strengths that allow children to respond better to moments of stress and challenge.
The study looked at 86 people over a month and their responses to a series of questions on their emotions.
Researchers say that children and adults who look for the positive do not skip out the negative side of life – they simply focus more on the positive.
7. Outward Bound Adventures Encourage Teens’ Resilience
A 2014 study from the University of Otago in New Zealand looked at two groups of teenagers – a control group undergoing a college psychology course, and a group on a 10-day outward bound ocean voyage, experiencing often tough emotional and physical challenges.
Their study showed that the experience increased resilience during the journey, and that this resilience was sustained for five months after coming back.
Students were deemed to have developed more resilience when they took part in the challenge than those that were “safe” in the classroom.
The researchers concluded that outward-bound experiences like this can lift quality of life long-term.