How Parents Can Help Their Children Build Resilience In Tough Times


children build resilience in tough times

Resilience is something even grown-ups 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 grown-ups 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).

Related: How Reading Science Fiction Can Build Resilience In Kids

One of the main ways researchers have 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).

Related: 8 Ways To Cultivate Resilience In Yourself During Tough Times

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).

Further, there is evidence that the amygdala is activated more quickly and more easily in children who are in foster care—children who don’t have a mother in close proximity (Gee et al., 2013). In fact, children who don’t have parents at all—children who were raised in orphanages—who form secure attachments to their foster care families are less likely to develop anxiety, depression, and other psychological problems when compared to children who don’t develop these relationships (McGoron et al., 2012; McLaughlin, Zeanah, Fox, and Nelson, 2012).

Altogether, this research suggests that a mother’s presence can actually protect a child’s brain from the negative impact of stress. Strong relationships like these can provide children with support when things get hard, and good teachers and community groups can provide children with a means to build problem-solving skills and motivation to persevere even when times are tough.

Of course, sometimes we can’t protect children from every risk factor they may face: Parents get divorced, children grow up in poverty, and many of them experience trauma. But doing what we can to eliminate as many risk factors as possible can also help protect children from negative outcomes and boost resilience.

For example, when parents get divorced, their children do better when their parents move through the process amicably with less conflict, so there are things we can do when risks are inevitable (Masten, Best, and Garmezy 1990). The trouble is, many children who face risk don’t just face one. Poverty, for example, is associated with many different kinds of risks, including less social support, more stress, less money, more crowding, poorer education, greater likelihood of abuse, less parental competence, and possibly even lower nutrition, less access to health care, parks, and even clean water (e.g., Sameroff, Seifer, Zax, and Barocas, 1987).

Related: 5 Ways To Build Emotional Intelligence and Resilience In Kids Right Now

Ann Masten—one of the pioneers of resilience research in developmental psychology—has referred to resilience as “ordinary magic” (Masten, 2015). By that, she means that resilient kids don’t have some kind of superpower that helps them persevere while others flounder. Resilience is not a trait—it’s not something you’re born with, it’s something you can foster. Making sure children have supportive relationships is a great first step.

Having a competent parent and a good support system that includes family members, community members, and a good school can all help build the other things that are important for resilience, including self-esteem, self-efficacy, and emotion-regulation (Masten, Best, and Garmezy 1990).

Interventions can also help build these things, but since many children who face adversity often face multiple risk factors, reducing those risks is perhaps even more important. By doing whatever we can as individuals, community members, and citizens to reduce risk, we can help children be more successful, regardless of the ordinary magic of resilience.


Feldman, R., Singer, M., & Zagoory, O. (2010). Touch attenuates infants’ physiological reactivity to stress. Developmental science, 13(2), 271-278.

Field, T., Seligman, S., Scafidi, F., & Schanberg, S. (1996). Alleviating posttraumatic stress in children following Hurricane Andrew. Journal of applied developmental psychology, 17(1), 37-50.

Gee, D. G., Gabard-Durnam, L. J., Flannery, J., Goff, B., Humphreys, K. L., Telzer, E. H., ... & Tottenham, N. (2013). The early developmental emergence of the human amygdala–prefrontal connectivity after maternal deprivation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201307893.

Gee, D. G., Gabard-Durnam, L., Telzer, E. H., Humphreys, K. L., Goff, B., Shapiro, M., ... & Tottenham, N. (2014). Maternal buffering of human amygdala-prefrontal circuitry during childhood but not during adolescence. Psychological science, 25(11), 2067-2078.

Ludington-Hoe, S. M., Hosseini, R., & Torowicz, D. L. (2005). Skin-to-skin contact (Kangaroo Care) analgesia for preterm infant heel stick. AACN Advanced Critical Care, 16(3), 373-387.

Masten, A. S. (2015). Ordinary magic: Resilience in development. Guilford Publications.

Masten, A. S., Best, K. M., & Garmezy, N. (1990). Resilience and development: Contributions from the study of children who overcome adversity. Development and Psychopathology, 2(4), 425-444.

McGoron, L., Gleason, M. M., Smyke, A. T., Drury, S. S., Nelson III, C. A., Gregas, M. C., ... & Zeanah, C. H. (2012). Recovering from early deprivation: attachment mediates effects of caregiving on psychopathology. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 51(7), 683-693.

McLaughlin, K. A., Zeanah, C. H., Fox, N. A., & Nelson, C. A. (2012). Attachment security as a mechanism linking foster care placement to improved mental health outcomes in previously institutionalized children. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, 53(1), 46-55.

Rodman, A. M., Jenness, J. L., Weissman, D. G., Pine, D. S., & McLaughlin, K. A. (2019). Neurobiological markers of resilience to depression following childhood maltreatment: The role of neural circuits supporting the cognitive control of emotion. Biological psychiatry, 86(6), 464-473.

Sameroff, A. J., Seifer, R., Zax, M., & Barocas, R. (1987). Early indicators of developmental risk: Rochester Longitudinal Study. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 13(3), 383-394.

Written By Vanessa LoBue
Originally Appeared In Psychology Today
Children Build Resilience During Tough Times Pin
children build resilience in tough times pin

— Share —

— About the Author —

Leave a Reply

Up Next

3 Questions To Empower Your Children

Questions To Empower Your Children

If you are thinking how to empower your children, then you’ve come to the right place. When it comes to their experiences at school or life in general, these 3 questions to empower your children can be really helpful. Let’s find out how to empower your children, and which questions to ask.


It takes away children’s power to tell them what to do or to belittle their challenges.

Asking them questions activates their inner power.

Ask, “What have you tried? How did it work? What else can you try?”

What’s the first thing you do when your child tells you about a

Up Next

5 Best Toys For Your Kids That Are Absolutely Free

Best Toys For Your Kids That Are Absolutely Free

Do you want to know about some of the best free toys for your kids, even best toys for your newborn? Playing with your kids are some of the best times you will ever spend with each other. Even though getting them toys from the market can make them happy, there are some “toys” that can make them even happier. Explore some of the best toys for your kids that are absolutely free.


Everyday objects—including your own self—make the best toys.

No matter what age your child may be, your attention and enthusiasm are more valuable than any toy.

Great toys trigger imagination, but many toys inhibit the imagination by prescribing one way to play.

Up Next

5 Things To Say To Yourself During Tough Parenting Times

Tough Parenting Times: Powerful Things To Say To Yourself

Staying calm when handling your children, especially when they’re throwing tantrums and are emotionally charged up, can be a tough task to deal with. Tough parenting times can sometimes take a toll on you, and in order to manage that effectively, these are the five things to say to yourself during tough parenting times. Let’s explore that, shall we?


When children cry, have a tantrum, or act up and it can’t be “fixed” right away, it’s easy for a parent to feel helpless.

People who feel helpless often act impulsively.

It’s powerful to assume that a child’s troubling behavior is an attempt at communication.

Up Next

How To Become A Better Father And Create Lasting Memories With Your Kids

How To Become A Better Father: Tips and Tricks

Wondering how to become a better father? It’s a question that has echoed through the ages, as fathers play a vital role in shaping the lives of their children. 

The journey of fatherhood is a unique and rewarding experience that requires patience, love, and a deep commitment to personal growth. Let us explore the essence of a good father and provide actionable tips on being a good father. 

Whether you are a new dad or have been on this journey for a while, this guide will serve as a compass to help you navigate the challenges and joys of fatherhood.

Who is a Good Father?

Up Next

When Your Grown Child Hurts Your Feelings: 9 Healing Strategies Every Parent Needs To Know

What To Do When Your Grown Child Hurts Your Feelings: Tips

As parents, we invest our hearts and souls into raising our children, nurturing them with love, support, and guidance. However, as they grow into mature adults and carve their own paths, the dynamics of our relationship inevitably change. When your grown child hurts your feelings, whether intentionally or unintentionally, it can often be difficult to cope with.

This can leave us feeling confused, saddened, and unsure about how to navigate these emotional challenges. So today let us take a look at what to do when your grown child hurts your feelings so that you can heal yourself and your relationships.

How It Feels When Your Grown Child Hurts Your Feelings

Imagine this: You’ve poured your he

Up Next

7 Ways To Heal From An Emotionally Unstable Mom

Emotionally Unstable Mom: Things That Can Help You Heal

Is you mother emotionally unstable? If you have an emotionally unstable mom, dealing with the effects of it can be challenging to say the least; it often leaves you with traumatic memories and complex emotions. However, you need to find ways to heal for your own emotional and mental well-being.

Explore 7 strategies that can greatly help you cope with an emotionally unstable mom.

Related: Raised By A Borderline Mother: Signs, Types, Effects, And How To Deal

Up Next

Bad Husband But Good Father? 8 Tips On How To Be A Better Dad And Husband 

Practical Tips on How to Be a Better Dad and Husband

Being married to a man who is a bad husband but a good father is a complex and challenging experience. It’s a situation where the joys and struggles of parenting coexist with the frustrations and disappointments of a strained marital relationship. So how to be a better dad and husband?

Today, we will try to gain a better understanding of the psyche of a bad husband but a good father and shed light on how you can encourage them to be both a better husband and father. Let’s dive in.

Who Exactly is a Bad Husband and Good Father?

A bad husband can be someone who falls short in their role as a partner. T