by Kat Davidson
“It is tempting to think about children as either having this resilient quality or not. But resilience is built over time.”
Philip A Fisher, Ph. D
When my daughter was in grade two her best friend moved away. The girls met on the first day of kindergarten and based on their immediate attraction you would have thought that they had always known each other. For the next two years it was common to see their tiny ginger heads, and brightly coloured bodies huddled together, weaving worlds and plotting adventure. Sadly as frequently occurs with childhood moves, the move ended the friendship. The consequences for my daughter were immediate, feeling as though she had lost part of herself she withdrew from other students and subsequently activities at school. As a parent it was heart wrenching to watch the shift in my effervescent and over the top child to a more wary and subdued version of herself. Her proverbial spark had been, at least temporarily, dampened.
As adults we easily become emotionally attached to and invested in the lives of children who enter our worlds. Whether we are speaking of our own children, the children of close friends, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, or simply children that have come into our lives the desire to see them thrive, flourish and overcome the stressful nature of youth and beyond can be profound. In part because we know that no matter how well insulated we think our children are they will encounter stressful situations throughout their lives. We also know that part of our job is to help them navigate these situations, whether they are disagreements with friends, test anxiety, the pressure of applying for university and jobs or the untenable loss of a loved one. The researchers at the Harvard Centre on the Developing Child contend that we can see these stressors in a positive light, arguing that with exposure to positive stress, “Over time, we become better able to cope with life’s obstacles and hardships, both physically and mentally.” Essentially, through exposure to stress and learning how to manage and overcome it we can become resilient.
There are many different theories on resilience and how or why certain children seem to be more capable of adapting to and working through challenging and stressful situations or environments than others. While, as with most aspects of life there is a potential genetic or biological component that we as adults have little control over, there are also factors that we can control such as: helping our children to find and build connection and community; teaching them how to understand their emotions and how to gain more control over them during hard times; finally, we can show up for them and then show up so more. As consistently research has shown that having a connection to a single, stable adult increases a child’s resilience.
Across the research on children and resilience the role of a stable, engaged, caring and supportive adult is seen as crucial. According to the Harvard Centre on the Developing Child, these relationships are the key to a solid foundation as they provide, “ personalized responsiveness, scaffolding, and protection,” that help to mitigate the effects of and protect them from outside stressors and events. The benefits of a stable and secure adult do not stop there however, the connection to a stable adult who is able to both provide support and model positive behaviour helps to teach children how to persevere and regulate their emotions in the face of adversity. Essentially, it is imperative to consistently show up for the children in your life, listen to them and their stories. But also be aware that part of being a ‘safe’ adult is letting them know you care enough to set boundaries.
According to The American Academy of Pediatrics when children have the opportunity to build connections to the people around them and develop, “a solid sense of security” it can lead to better decision making in the long run and help to keep them focused in the short term. These community connections can be fostered at school, through faith based organizations, sports, or an activity that provides your child with a way to maintain and develop positive relationships.
The ability to control emotions, focus and behaviour are learned skills that resilient children and adults have. Ontario’s Best Start resource centre, writes, “We need to “regulate” ourselves to make sure we have enough energy, alertness or calmness to deal with everyday life or extra stress.” By teaching our children to be aware of their feelings in stressful situations, and to think about their reaction to the situation we can foster an awareness that can lead to better decision making in the future. It is also worth remembering that children will also look for these skills to be modeled by the adults that they love and trust.
It is never too late to reach out to our children and help them to learn these skills. For while our brains are most adaptable when we are younger, these skills can be acquired at any age. Many of the recommendations for fostering resilience in children may seem like they are common sense, for as Megan Gunnar, Ph. D discusses there is crossover between healthy development in children and resilience.
Eventually my daughter got over the loss of her friend and her spark gradually began to flicker again. While she has not forgotten about the experience, the initial friendship or the hurt of the subsequent loss, she now knows that she can overcome sadness. While that early boundless and innocent love that her kindergarten bestie got may never be extended to another friend she (whether she knows it or not) by making it through the stressful event and continuing to make new friends is showing that she can be resilient. In the end, isn’t that what we all want for our children?