What is resilience (and why do we want kids to have it)?

A child stands on a tree brand demonstrating resilience for Lunch Lady Magazine

Where we had self-esteem, the new generation is all about resilience. We explore the history, science and practical aspects of parenthood’s most in-vogue concept.

Who gets to be resilient?

There’s no truer truism than the phrase ‘life is hard’. Everyone who has ever lived has known sadness, challenge, adversity and hardship. Yet we also know suffering to be suffused with meaning, adversity to be the seat of triumph and challenge a sensation sought out by many. Pain, as much as joy, lies at the heart of who we are and the stories we tell about ourselves. And our ability to overcome obstacles is a source of pride, accomplishment and confidence. I believe it was Chumbawamba who said, “I get knocked down. But I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down.”

Yet not all people have the same capacity to rebound from trauma. Some will stay down. Some may never even stand up in the first place. For some, negative experiences can be the starting point for a lifetime of mental illness, addiction and abuse. For many years, this was simply assumed to be a natural consequence of one’s background. If a child grows up in grinding poverty, then it’s little surprise they’re unable to cope when further traumas enter their life. But back in the 1950s, a developmental psychologist called Norman Garmezy started noticing that this was not always true. Some children growing up in the most deplorable circumstances still managed to excel at school and in life. So what was it that made these kids stand out?

The answer, Garmezy found, was a trait that he called 'resilience'. (Although he didn’t invent the word, Garmezy was the first to use it in a clinical setting.)

Defining resilience

Garmezy spent the rest of his career trying to identify and distill this phenomenon, but the answer remained elusive. Environmental factors were important, as was a child’s general disposition and the intensity and duration of the adverse circumstances. Everyone, no matter how resilient, has their limit. But as to what might create the right conditions for resilience, Garmezy remained at a loss. Part of the problem came with the nature of resilience itself. By definition, you don’t know if someone has resilience until they’re in a difficult situation, so all his studies were necessarily retrospective.

Enter Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith. Child psychologists with an interest in the factors that determined whether a child would succeed or struggle in life. In 1955 they established a longitudinal study on the Hawaiian island of Kauai that tracked the development of all 698 babies born that year. When they finally reported their results in 1989, Werner and Smith established, for the first time, the scale of resilience and the factors involved in creating it. They found that of the at-risk children on the island, two-thirds exhibited signs of ongoing struggle. One-third, however, became in their words, “competent, confident and caring young adults”.

The factors at play were varied. A strong, supportive bond with a parent, teacher or authority figure helped immensely. But much of it came down to the child themselves. Resilient children were autonomous, independent, curious and optimistic. While not necessarily more intelligent than their peers, they were able to easily apply the skills they did have to novel situations. They also, and this seemed particularly significant, possessed an “internal locus of control.” Despite the pressures being applied to them, the resilient children still saw themselves as being in control of their lives.


How can we create resilient kids?

The past three decades have witnessed an explosion of research and thinking on the topic as people began to realise how wide-ranging the idea of resilience actually was, how its lessons applied to everyone from the most desperate to the most privileged. 

“Decision-making, a sense of identity, how to navigate difficult relationships, how to ask for help, how to monitor your body, express what you need and cope with frustration—these are all generic things that are tied up in the concept of resilience,” says Dr Michael Ungar, founder of the Resilience Research Centre and one of the world’s foremost authorities on the topic. “The real question is how, as parents, can we create these conditions in our kids?”

While working as a family therapist in Halifax, Canada, Ungar started noticing, like Garmezy had fifty years earlier, the vastly differing outcomes experienced by kids in otherwise similarly stressful situations. “I initially thought it was a question of empowerment,” says Ungar, “but I soon learnt that empowerment as a concept was subsumed by this broader question of resilience.” Ungar had his own stake in the topic. Growing up in a troubled home, he emancipated himself from his parents at the age of 16 and went to university, supporting himself the whole way. “I never got into delinquent behaviours, but some of the kids I worked with did. Even then, I could recognise that they were simply deploying their own coping strategies and surviving as best they could with the resources they had. That realisation has become the basis for almost twenty years of work.”

Resilience and communities

As Ungar spent more and more time delving into the now-vast banks of research on the topic, he realised there was something missing in the way people were framing resilience. “It was all very individual, very psychological. No one was asking questions about how resilience might function in different communities and different cultural contexts.” As a result, Ungar developed his own, broader concept of resilience. “I don’t define it as mindset or grit or an individual trait,” he tells me. “Rather, it’s a question of how people are able to interact with their environment to try and get what they need to do well in their particular context.”

To put it another way, resilience is going to mean different things to different people in different families and communities. So, we need to listen and respond to our children rather than prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach. “I always say to parents, ‘Help your kid find what they need, but also think about it from their point of view. What is it that they actually want?’ Sometimes the parents are so keen on a particular path that they forget to negotiate with the kid about what it is that the child is actually good at.”

Risk-taking helps build resilience

For Ungar, developing resilience is a matter of offering children the “risk-taker’s advantage”. “Intentional exposure to manageable amounts of risk allows you to develop the skills you’re going to need to cope later in life. If our children have never had a sleepover, never eaten unfamiliar foods, never been in a car without an iPad in front of them, then how can we expect them to develop the self-regulation that will give them the ability to talk to strangers and adapt to different situations?”

The children’s author Maurice Sendak—he wrote Where the Wild Things Are—often talked about how he wanted his work to evoke the perpetual terror of childhood. That feeling of being thrust from uncertain situation to uncertain situation, always trying to work out the correct response to a world you don’t fully understand. Yet it’s in that steady accretion of trial and error, of success and failure and absolute humiliation, that we find our way to maturity. 

Protecting children can make them less resilient

It’s hard, as a parent, to accept that. You want to protect your children, to make their lives smoother, easier. But Ungar believes we run the risk of leaving our children unprepared for the inevitable joys and tragedies and opportunities that mark our lives.

“You so often now see two-year-olds in push strollers amusing themselves with an iPad. And I understand it from the parent’s point of view, but I worry about it in the long-term. If they’re lost in a screen, then the child isn’t interacting with other people. They aren't  noticing their environment and they're not engaged. It’s so easy to focus on the immediate, making the child’s life easy, or making your life easy. But you have to think long-term. What is it that you actually want for your child when they’re grown up and moving out, moving away from you? What are the skills they need to have?”

It’s these skills that Susie Mogg had in mind when she founded her workshop and coaching program, Resilience in Kids. “Recent research,” she says, “has shown that when we focus on being happy, we’re focusing on the wrong thing. We should be focusing on responding resiliently to situations. If we do that, it’s more likely to make us happy.” 

Setbacks can make us stronger

Rather than the cliché of bouncing back from adversity, Mogg invokes Facebook COO’s Sheryl Sandberg’s concept of “bouncing forward”. “The idea is that when you experience some kind of difficulty, you have the potential to return to a stronger state than you were in before.” She goes on: “We’re in a very exciting time, when it comes to resilience, because it’s been codified. Which means it is a skill that can be taught. And like a muscle, the more we use it, the stronger it becomes.” Resilience, as she puts it, is ordinary, not extraordinary.

Mogg agrees that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to building resilience. But, there are some basic things we can do to help develope this muscle in our own children. The first is building emotional literacy. Mogg suggests having a list of emotions up on the fridge and using them to help young children identify and talk through their own feelings. This is linked to her second focus: empathy.

“All humans want to be heard. I think it’s really important that we show our kids empathy and help them learn this skill really early on. When you’re sitting with your child watching their favourite TV show, or you’re reading a story book, just pause. Ask how the child thinks the particular character they’re reading about might be feeling at this point. Or when something happens in school, say, ‘How do you think Jess felt when the teacher said that to her?’”

Let your children be more independent

Her third bit of advice: take a step back and give your kids some independence. “Parents need to be really aware of children’s developmental milestones and then give them the space they need. For instance, a nine-year-old should be capable of making their own lunch, packing their bag and getting themselves ready for school. Giving them independence gives them firsthand knowledge of how to do something. This helps them to develop a sense of self-worth. It gives them the opportunity to fail and make mistakes.”

While acknowledging the oft-voiced anxieties around our coddled children, Mogg is sanguine about the peculiarities of this current generation. “It’s easy to look at the past through rose-tinted glasses,” she says, “when things were quite challenging for us too. We may have had plenty of time for free play, but it wasn’t socially acceptable to talk about mental illness. And we knew very little about the concept of resilience, or how we might teach it. People were often just left to get on with it, with little support.”

Screen time and resilience

When it comes to the source of so much parental angst—screen time—Mogg advises a measured approach. “When a screen is used as a babysitter, or to the detriment of family time or playing in the garden after school, then I think it can affect a child’s ability to build resilience. If it happens on a regular, ongoing basis, they’re just not being exposed to those situations that lead to them needing to problem solve, negotiate, show empathy, make decisions and build relationships.”

But by the same token, you can’t just manage it with an ‘all screens are bad’ policy. “I think you need to break screen-based technology down into its component parts and have really clear parameters for each.” So, social media is treated differently to Netflix, which is treated differently to learning to code or online gaming. “There’s potentially value in all of them but they need guidelines. And that’s hard for parents to manage.” When technology moves so quickly, it becomes easy to accept its ever-growing presence in our lives without questioning its value and impact. “The challenge for all of us as parents is to find a way of proactively managing these technologies as they arrive in our children’s lives.”

Ungar concurs. “I do think that there’s some generation-specific things happening that are weakening our kids. We’re going to have to find the right protective mechanisms.” However, these aren’t necessarily big or difficult gestures. “A parent who says to their child, ‘No screens after a certain hour of the day so you can calm down and get some sleep’—that’s a protective mechanism.”

Resilience is created

“Resilience isn’t something inside your child,” Ungar continues. “It’s something that we as parents, as community, as extended families create in our children. It’s less about creating some change in the child’s mindset or changing the child and more about changing the environment around the child.” You can try to teach your child to put their iPad away of their own accord, “but frankly that’s a huge amount of work and rarely succeeds. Or you can set some reasonable expectations and offer alternatives, like a bedtime story and a cuddle. The second is so much easier and long-lasting, and it gives your child the building blocks they actually need for long-term, sustainable wellbeing.”



Written by Luke Ryan for Lunch Lady Magazine Issue 13Photograph by Lisa Sorgini.