Everyone experiences several challenges during their life. Stress doesn’t discriminate – it affects people of all ages and backgrounds. And we all cope with life’s challenges in different ways.
And however protective we may be of our kids, we can’t keep them from experiencing stress and challenges. That’s where resilience comes in.
Let’s take a look at what resilience is and how it differs between kids and adults. Then we’ll look at activities that help to build kids’ resilience.
What is resilience for kids?
Consultant Psychologist Dr Bec Jackson describes ‘resilience’ generally as “our capacity to cope with and recover from life’s stressful challenges.” It’s what helps us cope when we hit a speed bump in life.
Beyond Blue refers to children’s resilience specifically as “a child’s ability to cope with ups and downs, and bounce back from the challenges they experience during childhood.”
Challenges for kids can come in different forms, such as:
- death of a loved one
- moving house, city or country, which often involves changing schools and losing friends
- divorcing parents
- illness and medical emergencies, either in themselves, a sibling or a parent/caregiver
- natural disasters
Resilient people have the same emotional reactions to these situations as anyone else would. But they also have the skills and strength to manage whatever life throws at them, which enables them to overcome adversity and move on.
It’s like they have access to a superpower!
How resilience differs between kids and adults
In their early lives, children depend on adults for much of the time. Then, as they get older, they start becoming more independent.
This independence develops as they learn new skills, including walking, talking and reading. And alongside these skills, they can learn resilience – just like any other life skill. Then, they can take that resilience with them into adulthood, reducing their chances of developing stress-related issues.
But unlike adults, who can teach themselves resilience, kids need guidance and support from the adults in their lives. The right guidance will help them to develop the skills to create happy, healthy lives.
(That said, as an adult, your resilience at any given time can depend on how you’ve slept, how well you manage your stress and how supportive your routines are.)
How to build resilience in kids
Dr Bec highlights four key activity areas we can focus on to raise more resilient kids.
1. Building supportive relationships
It’s important for everyone to have positive relationships. So why not teach kids how to build, strengthen and promote these kinds of supportive relationships?
Kids can form relationships with a variety of people, such as:
- parents or carers
- other key adults
Dr Bec believes that, “the more that children have a village wrapped around them, the more emotional and social support they’ll receive.”
She adds that this wide relationship network also helps kids to practise and develop their emotional and social skills.
Some great activities to encourage relationship-building include:
- Spending quality time with your kids. Be warm and affectionate, talk to them and participate in activities they enjoy.
- Helping them to be good friends. Encourage them to meet new friends, play with existing ones and show them how to support others.
- Encourage empathy. Openly talk about emotions (see point 3 below for more on this) and do your best to be a positive role model.
2. Developing autonomy and responsibility
It’s natural for parents and carers to want to protect kids and smooth over their challenges. But Dr Bec warns that shielding kids completely can actually keep them from developing important life skills.
That’s because, “kids need to learn to build self- and social-awareness and a sense of self-reliance,” she explains. “Allowing kids to problem solve lets them work through challenges and independently practise their skills. However, parents do need to provide adult support while kids learn these skills.
Simple activities you can use to build the independence that contributes to resilience, depending on your child’s age, include:
- discussing how to take turns at something with a friend or sibling
- encouraging them to dress themselves
- giving them age-appropriate chores around the house
- talking through how they’ll confront a bully at school
- giving them money to hand to a cashier when you’re doing the grocery shopping
- letting them make meaningful decisions about things that affect them
- encouraging them to find their own creative solutions to problems
With the right level of guidance and support, kids can often navigate these kinds of tasks far better than we think they can. And every problem they solve helps them to move from dependence to independence.
3. Managing difficult emotions
One of the hardest things for kids (and, let’s face it, some adults too!) is identifying, expressing and resolving big emotions. But Dr Bec says that encouraging and supporting kids in this area can help them to develop language and literacy around emotion, which is another great way to build resilience.
For example, the first step for an anxious kid to turn their anxiety into resilience is being able to name what it is that they’re feeling. You can help your child to do this by:
- asking open-ended questions about what’s happening in their lives
- talking to them about upcoming events they might be nervous about
- encouraging them to talk about their feelings, and listening when they do
- calmly acknowledging whatever feelings they may be experiencing
- introducing them to age-appropriate meditation or mindfulness activities
These kinds of conversations and activities can help kids to identify what different emotions look like, and to understand that emotions come and go. Over time, this will help them learn to self-regulate.
Navigating personal challenges
We all – adults and kids alike – need some encouragement to push beyond what feels safe and comfortable. It’s part of what makes us human. So it makes sense to support and encourage kids in conquering any big personal challenges they’re interested in.
“Kids are active learners,” Dr Bec explains. “That means they’re often willing to take on new challenges. Help them by encouraging them to identify something they’d love to try.” She says that might be cross-country running, a new swimming distance, or the school debating team. Regardless, guide them step by step through trying the challenge out. Kids all have a wishlist, and achieving something that’s on it can do wonders for their resilience.
She adds that in her family, they ask the kids to name two things they feel confident about. They then ask about one wish that each kid has for a new skill, talent or goal, and start thinking about how they can support that goal.
These activities aren’t working - what should I do?
The resilience activities above are designed to help all kids – not just those who are outwardly anxious. Remember: none of us are born with resilience. We all need to learn it.
But if the resilience activities for kids above aren’t helping, don’t despair. Help is available in various forms, and there’s no shame in reaching out for it when it’s needed. Consider contacting:
The most important thing is to keep your kid’s best interests at heart and demonstrate resilience yourself. That will help you to find and provide the best help for your child.
Support your littles ones to Master Mindfulness
Check out our free Master Mindfulness program to discover simple ways to improve wellbeing recommended by our experts.
- Why is sleep important and what are the benefits?
- Dietitian-approved foods and healthy snacks for kids
- 8 ways to get your picky eater to try new foods
- Master Mindfulness program
Dr Bec Jackson is a Consultant Psychologist with 20 years’ experience across clinical psychology, academia, therapy and education in clinical, forensic and organisational psychology.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board June 2021