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).
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).