Resilience is something even grownups struggle with at times, so can you imagine how children feel when they face difficulties and trauma? Children do not possess the experience and mental strength that grownups do, which is why they will naturally need more help and support when it comes to being resilient.
It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to recognize that life can be hard. Many of us have dealt with some kind of life event that has made us feel like we couldn’t get up in the morning, or that some goal we wanted to achieve was utterly impossible. Some of these difficult times pass by and we move on. But others leave us with obstacles that seem insurmountable, or with tragedies that are impossible to recover from.
Those especially hard times are even harder when they happen to children. Because our brains are still developing well into our 20s, if children meet with adversity when they are young, it can leave a mark, affecting the way their brains and their subsequent cognitive and emotional abilities develop.
Not surprisingly, researchers and clinicians have taken a vested interest in how adversity affects infants, children, and adolescents, looking for ways in which we can help them cope with those difficult times. There are lots of things that can make life harder for children, including divorce, a death in the family, poverty, severe prematurity, trauma, or physical abuse. Risk factors like these have been associated with a variety of negative outcomes for children, including lower academic achievement, emotional problems, limited career advancement, and even trouble with the law (Masten, Best, & Garmezy, 1990).
One of the main ways researchers has tackled this issue is not just by studying the kids who are hit the hardest by adversity, but by also studying the kids who fare quite well, regardless of hard times—or the kids who are resilient.
Resilience is someone’s ability to become successful or competent despite having to overcome some life stressor (Masten, Best, & Garmezy 1990). Researchers have studied resilience in hopes of finding out what factors can help kids succeed even when the odds are stacked against them, and have found that there are some consistent predictors of what it takes to help children overcome adversity.
First of all, like with many things, smarts help. Intelligence is related to better problem-solving skills and the development of better coping strategies, which helps children flexibly deal with obstacles (Masten, Best, & Garmezy 1990). There are similar relations for what psychologists call executive function, which includes skills like paying attention, being able to switch between one task to another, and controlling your impulses, especially those impulses to do things with less benefit in the short term (e.g., eating that last chocolate chip cookie) in favor of things that will have bigger benefits in the long-term (e.g., being healthy or losing weight) (Masten, 2015). Executive function skills like these are related to doing better in school, and also happen to be great predictors of resilience.
But (lucky for many of us) having smarts isn’t the only thing that matters. The motivation to solve problems and the self-confidence to try new things are also important predictors of resilience. Likewise, having a growth mindset—or the drive to learn for the sake of acquiring a new skill—is also related to resilience (Masten, Best, and Garmezy 1990). Being able to control your emotional responses to stressors also helps.
In fact, a recent study of children between the ages of 8 to 17 with a history of maltreatment showed that children who were better able to regulate or control their emotional responses to negative events were less likely to suffer from emotional problems, like depression (Rodman et al., 2019).
Most importantly, the single best predictor of resilience is not being smart, or motivated, or confident, it’s having a loving parent or caregiver to help you along the way (Masten, Best, and Garmezy 1990). And it doesn’t just apply to parents—having close friends, romantic partners, supportive teachers, good neighborhoods, and even being part of a church community are all related to resilience (Masten, 2015).
Research suggests that physical comfort from a loved one alone reduces children’s distress. A loving embrace can reduce stress hormones like cortisol in the body (Feldman, Singer, and Zagoory, 2010) and even lower heart rate (Ludington and Hosseini, 2005). Further, children who receive touch therapy after experiencing stress from trauma are happier, less anxious, and have lower stress hormone levels than children who do not get touch therapy (Field, Seligman, Scafidi, and Schanberg, 1996).
Physical touch itself isn’t even necessary for the support of a caregiver to effectively reduce children’s stress responses—the mere presence of a child’s mother can be enough to do the trick. The part of the brain that is most active when we are afraid or stressed—the amygdala—isn’t as active in children when their mothers are present as when they are absent (Gee et al., 2014).