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).
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.
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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.
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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.
Building resilience in children is a huge but crucial responsibility for a parent. Granted, it might be not as easy as it may seem, but children always look for their parents when guidance and support is concerned. And these two things are sometimes enough to build resilience in children, and making sure that they are mentally and emotionally strong.