The first lesson: resilience

20 March 2020

Leading expert in trauma-informed training Sue Penna explains how resilence is the best skill children can learn.

So many important life skills, lessons and behaviours can help children through their childhood and into adult life, and everyone is likely to have a different opinion when asked to choose just one. I believe that developing resilience from a young age is the best skill we can teach children to help them as they grow.

With experience of supporting children affected by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and developmental trauma, the importance of resilience is even more poignant. The number of youths facing ACEs and the number of ACEs they face appears to be increasing, which has led to an expansion in the study of resilience (Goldstein and Brooks, 2013).

What is it exactly?

Resilience is the ability to return to being healthy and hopeful after bad things happen. Inevitably, no matter what age we are, we will face challenging times and difficult situations, and it is how we handle them and recover from them that demonstrates our level of resilience.

There is an opportunity to help children develop resilience as they grow – giving them the life skill they need to deal with difficult times through their childhood. Sometimes, however, resilience is about survival; if we face too much adversity and have inadequate protection, we can grow up turning to coping strategies that, while helpful in the short term, are less so over time. However, if we face no adversity due to overprotection, we can struggle to cope with the smallest thing that goes wrong. This makes managing resilience very important.

There is an opportunity to help children develop resilience as they grow - giving them the life skill they need to deal with difficult times

Can resilience be taught?

We can all develop our resilience, and we can help the children and families we support develop it too. Helping children and young adults to build their resilience can result
in longer-term benefits as they find their way through life. There are many ways to achieve this – some more simple than others – by working directly with children and by advising other health professionals on what they can do to help.

Ways to strengthen resilience

As a practitioner working in the community, there is already a direct and trusted link with families and children, and an awareness of where building resilience could really benefit and impact both in the short and long term.

Several tactics for developing resilience start with the parents or significant adults in the family unit. You can reinforce the importance of resilience and recommend ways in which they can support themselves and their children, and strengthen resilience across the family.

  • Lead by example
    Children learn from and mimic those around them. If parents, guardians and significant adults demonstrate resilience, children will see how they themselves can cope with adversity. To achieve this, community practitioners can support families by explaining the importance of resilience and its impact to parents and significant adults.
  • Make connections
    Encourage children to be a friend and to have friends. Help parents model this by suggesting they consistently reinforce to their children the importance of positive discussions among all their friendship groups.
  • Maintain a daily routine
    Sticking to a routine can be comforting to children, especially younger children who crave structure in their lives. Encourage parents to help children develop their own routines. Regular bed, bath and meal times are a great way to start.
  • Take a break and be mindful of age-appropriate conversations
    Parents should be aware that children overhear conversations and will react in an age-appropriate way. Sentences and conversation that to you seem normal to adults can terrify children – for example, ‘I don’t know how we can pay the rent – what will happen to our home?’ Overhearing something like this will ignite worry in a child, children can only cope with and understand so much.
  • Teach children self-care
    Ensure children have time for fun and also ‘down time’ to relax. Encourage parents to care for themselves and have fun too –this will help their child stay balanced and better able to deal with stressful times.
  • Move toward goals
    Teach children to set reasonable goals and then to move towards them. Even if it’s a tiny step, receiving praise from adults for doing it will focus a child on what he or she has accomplished rather than on what they haven’t. Children who are criticised can internalise it and develop low self-esteem.
  • Nurture a positive self-view and an ability to manage emotions
    Help children remember ways that they have successfully handled hardships in the past, then help them understand that these past challenges can build the strength to handle future challenges.
  • Keep things in perspective and maintain a hopeful outlook
    Even when a child is facing very painful events, help them look at the situation in a broader context and keep a long- term perspective if they are old enough to do so. Help them see that there is a future beyond the current situation and that the future can be good. An optimistic and positive outlook enables a child to see the good things in life and keep going even in the hardest times.
  • Look for opportunities for self-discovery and problem solving
    Tough times are often the times when children learn the most about themselves. Help children take a look at how whatever they are facing can teach resilience skills such as patience, sharing, tolerance and managing those difficult emotions. This also means not always providing the answers. For instance, if a child raises a difficult subject with their parents, for example, starting a new school and saying ‘I won’t make any friends’ rather than just saying ‘you will’, suggest parents acknowledge how difficult school might be and to ask how they might instigate making new friends.
  • Allow them to make mistakes and take some risks
    The pressure on all of us, and children especially, to be perfect and not make mistakes is huge today and in part fuelled by social media and television. Acknowledging that everyone makes mistakes and people do get things wrong, is a great way for a child to see that this is not catastrophic. Taking risks is difficult as we all want to protect children but this might just be something simple like joining a new sports club when they don’t think they are very sporty – with the result that they enjoy their new pastime and see that the risk was worth taking.

Sue Penna is co-Founder of Rock Pool which develops and delivers training programmes with a trauma-informed approach.

Reflective question

What could you do to help children and families you see in practice to be more resilient?

Time to reflect

What tips do you have to improve resilence among children you work with? Join in the conversation on Twitter @CommPrac using #YoungResilience



Goldstein S, Brooks RB. (2013) Handbook of resilience in children (second edition). See: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319101037_Handbook_of_resilience_in_children_Second_edition/ (accessed 26 February 2020)

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