Building resilience

Young people face new and profound pressures in relationships with their parents and peers. Building up their resilience will equip them to come back stronger from adverse childhood experiences.

Building resilience

Resilience isn’t a complicated concept. A psychologist might define it as a person’s ability to make sense of an adverse situation or event and recover from it. We all have resilience to a greater or lesser extent – and we might have more on some days than on others, depending on how we’re feeling.

What is complicated, however, is the world young people are growing up in today, which arguably tests their resilience more than previous generations. ‘Children now are going through a more radically different childhood than we’ve ever experienced, and we’re in a knowledge vacuum about how it’s going to affect them,’ says Mark Bellis, director of policy, research and international development for Public Health Wales. ‘It’s different in terms of 
how kids are speaking to each other, the range of information that’s available to them, the amount of time that parents have for them, and even the distractions that are in front of parents, who are themselves dealing with a complex world with multiple distractions.’

As well as pressures on parent-child relationships, there are also challenges for the public sector in terms of the support to be provided for parents, and at a regulatory level. Mark says: ‘Do we want regulation that controls what aspects of social media are acceptable at certain ages? Or how much kids should be going out and meeting people face to face, rather than just communicating with them over Snapchat? These are questions we’ve never had to answer before. I don’t think we understand the challenges that children are facing. And what’s more, we don’t understand the repercussions of those radical changes.’

Added to the complexities of the modern world are the domestic challenges that test young people’s resilience. Mark’s research, for example, suggests that almost half of all adults in England and Wales have grown up with one or more ‘adverse childhood experience’, including parental separation, physical abuse, drug use and incarceration (Ashton et al, 2016; Bellis et al, 2014). That trend doesn’t appear to be abating, with reports of abuse rising sharply in recent years: for example, reports of emotional abuse rose by 200% between 2009-10 and 2016-17 to just over 10,000 (NSPCC, 2017). This could be explained by more people being willing to report abuse but, even so, this still means tens of thousands of young people growing up with abuse.

While some media reports characterise young people as ‘generation snowflake’, with less backbone than their parents and grandparents, there is no evidence that they are any less resilient, only that their challenges may be unknown, or more complex. What can be done, then, to help children navigate the rough seas of childhood?


Skills for life

Resilience is a basic skill that develops throughout life, according to Karen Young, an Australian psychologist and founder of heysigmund.com, a psychology news and research website. ‘When children are little, it’s about physical mastery of things – being able to walk or crawl or reach,’ she says. ‘When they go to school, it’s about friendships and they’ll learn emotional resilience there. When they reach adolescence, it’s about independence and finding out who they are.’

On an individual level, then, parents and other adults close to the child can help develop resilience through regular interactions: nurturing optimism and teaching them to articulate feelings, for example. ‘As adults, we need to let them know that we believe in their ability to cope, building that sense of confidence in themselves when things don’t go to plan,’ Karen says. ‘An important part of this is how we frame things for them when things go wrong: teaching them the right “self-talk”. One of the worst things we can do is make a big deal of failure. If we do, or shame them, we’re saying they should never reach because they’ll be made to feel bad if they fail. So they’ll live well within their comfort zones. They’re less likely to stretch themselves and grow.’

According to Mark, probably the single most important contributory factor to a child’s resilience is to have one or more stable caring adults they can go to (Bellis et al, 2017). ‘That could be a parent, it could be someone in the health system, it could be someone in the teaching system or the criminal justice system, or someone else in the community or in the extended family,’ he says.

Having a network, or even just a single person, to turn to for support is the mark of a resilient community: one where people can turn to each other for help. ‘If children feel connected into their communities and cultures, they feel that they’re growing up – regardless of what might be happening to them as an individual – in a generally supportive environment,’ Mark says. ‘You can imagine how incredibly important it is when they’re going through adversity that they at least know there’s someone they can always turn to where their body can relax, they can take a breath and figure things out.’

Mark’s research shows that having just one trusted adult in a child’s life makes it less likely that they will develop problems such as smoking and heavy drinking later in life (Bellis et al, 2017). It can also improve their mental wellbeing and feeling of optimism as an adult.

Reinforcing resilience

Lucy Bailey, co-founder of resilience training charity How To Thrive, offers these tips for adults on building up a young person’s resilience:

  • You can’t fix the problem for them, but you can give them skills to help them come up with their own solutions. We have to allow them to practise those skills and come up with their own solutions, otherwise they’re not really building resilience.
  • You can’t tell young people what to think, but you can nudge them in the right direction. Help them to tune into their beliefs and expectations of a situation. And then encourage them to challenge their thinking.
  • Let them see you struggle. Model resilient behaviour. Show them how you don’t always get things right and how you work through a situation. Let them see the way you’ve interpreted a situation is wrong or unhelpful and what you do about that. It makes their struggles more bearable because it’s more normal.
  • Talk sideways, physically. Sit side by side, for example in the car. It’s just more comfortable.

Changing long-term outcomes

So, resilience can be derived from family, the community or a trusted adult. But it can also be taught formally. Some schools are providing resilience training for their staff and pupils following the UK Resilience Programme, piloted in 2007 in south Tyneside, Manchester and Hertfordshire. A total of 22 schools gave resilience training to their Year 7 pupils and measured the impact on children’s wellbeing, behaviour, attendance and attainment one, two and three years on.

The training led to significant short-term improvement in pupils’ depression symptom scores, school attendance rates and academic attainment in English. And those pupils on free school meals who weren’t academically achieving benefited the most. However, the impact increasingly wore off as the training finished. This suggests that regular resilience training is the most effective way to change long-term outcomes for students.

Lucy Bailey is co-founder of How To Thrive, a national charity that provides resilience training in schools. She is also a former youth worker at Hertfordshire County Council and saw first-hand the pilot programme. She says: ‘Schools at that time were interested because they felt they had done everything they could attainment-wise to improve their results and weren’t getting anywhere. They were interested in building emotional resilience as a way of improving attainment.’

That has completely changed over the past 10 years, she says: ‘Now schools are dealing daily with young people who are not coping with their lives either in or out of school. You’ve got high levels of stress and anxiety not only in the staff but also in students. You’ve got very pressurised environments. You’ve got young people who are constantly comparing themselves to other people through social media. It’s interesting that, early on, resilience training was about attainment, but now we’re doing it because we’re firefighting and specialist services are not always able to respond quickly enough to young people’s needs.’


Training for trusted adults

How To Thrive’s flagship training follows the Penn Resilience Programme, licensed by the University of Pennsylvania in the US. This is an intensive five-day course for school staff, at the end of which they will take away the skills, resources and lesson plans to teach 18 classes in resilience. It is based on the cognitive behavioural model, but is not therapy. It teaches skills to influence the thoughts we have in the moment of something happening to us, which lead to how we feel and behave subsequently. ‘It’s about the link between what we think and how we feel and behave,’ Lucy explains.

The charity has three core principles: first, that all its training is based on research; second, that it teaches practical skills and strategies; and third, that adults really matter. This final principle is crucial. All of How To Thrive’s training, whether aimed at staff or students, starts with the adults. Mark’s research into trusted adults also backs this up: adults are key to helping a young person develop resilience (Bellis et al, 2017). Equally, as Karen Young says, they have the power to destroy it.

If there is one lesson to take away from research into resilience, it is that children and young people will struggle to develop resilience themselves. But any adult that has contact with a young person can make a positive impact on that person’s resilience levels. 


Ashton K, Bellis M, Hughes K. (2016) Adverse childhood experiences and their association with health-harming behaviours and mental wellbeing in the Welsh adult population: a national cross-sectional survey. The Lancet 388: S21.

Bellis MA, Hardcastle K, Ford K, Hughes K, Ashton K, Quigg Z, Butler N. (2017) Does continuous trusted adult support in childhood impart life-course resilience against adverse childhood experiences: a retrospective study on adult health-harming behaviours and mental wellbeing. BMC Psychiatry 17(1): 110.

Bellis MA, Hughes K, Leckenby N, Perkins C, Lowey H. (2014) National household survey of adverse childhood experiences and their relationship with resilience to health-harming behaviours in England. BMC Medicine 12: 72.

NSPCC. (2017) How safe are our children? See: nspcc.org.uk/globalassets/documents/research-reports/how-safe-children-2017-report.pdf (accessed 17 July 2017).

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