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The common factor in kids’ resilience

September 17, 2019

Robert Brooks, PhD, clinical psychologist and faculty member at Harvard Medical School, will lead our two-day mental health symposium Oct. 4-5, 2019, helping professionals and parents nurture resilience in the school-aged child. He offers some insight in the following abbreviated version of a longer article he authored. Read the full article, Resilience: The common underlying factor, posted on his website.

In all of my workshops and writings about resilience I have posed the question, “What has research identified as an essential factor in helping children to cope more effectively with adversity, to bounce back from hardships, and to become resilient?” The answer I always offer is a relationship with a supportive adult, an adult who offers encouragement and reinforces skills necessary for effective adaptation.

To capture the lifelong impact of this adult, I often refer to the late Dr. Julius Segal’s notion of a “charismatic adult,” defined as an “adult from whom a child gathers strength.” Actually, I assert that we benefit from having this kind of supportive person in our lives at all ages.

Charismatic adults convey unconditional acceptance or love, focus on identifying and applying the strengths (or what I call the “islands of competence”) of youngsters and not just on “fixing” their deficits, help children learn to deal with both successes and setbacks, teach them problem-solving and decision-making skills, discipline in ways that promote self-discipline, and create opportunities for children to enrich the lives of others.     

Supportive relationships and personal factors

While relationships with adults are critical in nurturing resilience in children, it’s important to note that each child possesses inborn or temperamental qualities that play a significant role in determining the nature of these relationships. It is the interaction between biology and environment that serves to build a child’s capacity to cope with adversity and overcome threats to healthy development.

This viewpoint should not be interpreted to imply that if children are born with so-called “difficult” temperaments that lessen their resistance to adversity they will not be able to form satisfying relationships and become resilient. What it does mean is that when we are raising or working with children whose inborn qualities serve as obstacles to developing positive relationships with adults, we must communicate to these children through our words and actions that we believe in and care about them and we will remain by their sides.

Even in the midst of challenging situations and behaviors, we must not abandon our efforts to gain children’s trust in order to help them become more hopeful and resilient. Adults must be willing to stay with and nurture children even when they push us away.

Attitudes and skills associated with resilience

A caring and supportive relationship is an essential foundation for resilience but that relationship must be used to reinforce certain attitudes and skills. One such attitude is related directly to a concept I have emphasized quite a bit in my work - personal control. Resilient people focus on events over which they have some influence or control rather than adopting what researchers have referred to as a “victim’s mentality” and constantly asking, “Why me?”

It is for this reason that adults must communicate in an empathic way to children that while they have had little, if any, control over certain adverse events in their lives, they can gain increasing control over their attitude toward and the constructive ways in which they respond to such events.

Cultural traditions that offer a foundation for stability and community can also help children develop positive responses to life stresses, as can physical exercise and activities that involve contributing to a greater community. When children are provided opportunities to boost the well-being of others, it reinforces a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives, reinforcing their compassion, empathy and resilience.

Is it ever too late?

I have frequently been asked if it’s ever too late during our lives to become resilient. If we think of resilience as a mindset associated with particular skills and coping behaviors, then there is no reason to believe that resilience cannot be nurtured throughout our lives – even as we are nurturing the same in a younger generation.

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