‘Resilience’ is somewhat of a buzz word these days. Dr Lyn O’Grady, community psychologist and KidsMatter's National Project Manager, demystifies resilience and highlights all the ways it can help children to reduce stress. 

What does resilience look like?

There’s probably not one way to describe what resilience looks like and, of course, no-one is resilient all of the time. There are some characteristics that we might expect to see in a child who is coping well or is resilient. For instance, they might:

  • use positive self-talk for encouragement

  • capably express their feelings and thoughts

  • not hide away from strong feelings

  • have helpful, age-appropriate strategies to manage their emotions if they are upset

  • rearrange their plans to work around an unexpected situation

  • use a trial-and-error approach in their daily life

  • remain hopeful and keep on trying if something doesn’t work out

  • know when to stop trying if they decide the effort is not worthwhile

  • actively ask for help if they need it.  

It’s important to note that children can appear resilient on the outside but not actually be resilient. They may have learned to behave in ways that are acceptable to the adults around them. Sometimes, these children can go under the radar in a school or community setting. A child like this might:

  • not openly express their feelings

  • put on a front (even though it’s obvious they are struggling)

  • not fully engage in what’s happening around them

  • not fully connect with other children and adults in their lives

  • tend to give up if things don’t go well in the first instance

  • not appear confident in dealing with situations themselves (but might not make a fuss about it).

Would you say resilience is protective of childhood stress? Would you say stressed children are less resilient?

Resilience and stress are closely connected. We all experience a range of stressors in our day-to-day lives and children are no exception to this. There is also quite a bit of variability in what individuals find stressful - what is stressful to one may not be stressful for others. The ability to cope with stress will depend on the degree of stress, the supports or buffers that are protective, and the type and helpfulness of coping skills children have developed.

But, it doesn’t mean a child is less resilient just because they are experiencing stress. Learning to manage stressful times can be part of the ongoing education process of becoming more resilient. Sometimes, we are able to predict stress, such as a transition to and from primary school. We know that it helps to reduce children’s stress and build their resilience when we work to prepare them for change.

Can you build resilience to specifically help kids deal with stress? How might schools and parents achieve this?

Building resilience really comes through the development of social and emotional skills, which include coping skills. These are the same skills that will help children deal with stress, so it follows that building resilience will really help kids deal with stress. When teaching social and emotional skills (such as understanding and managing emotions, getting along with friends, and making good decisions), it can be useful to draw on some of the actual stressors that children are facing in their real worlds. Schools have a range of social and emotional learning initiatives they use to explicitly teach these skills and practise them throughout the school day. This way, they can learn practical skills to use in the real world. It’s also important not to ignore basics like helping children sleep and eat well, as we know these are associated with stress.

School staff and parents can play a really important part in their modelling and approach during stressful times. Children learn (and take cues) from the adults around them, so it’s important for adults to be mindful of how they approach stressful situations and the skills they use to resolve challenges. They can also play an active role in supporting children during stressful times. They can do this by facilitating problem-solving steps to work through situations positively. Over time, these skills can then be developed by the child so they are able to more independently resolve difficulties. Chatting about what happened afterwards can also help to reinforce the learning and remind the child that things can turn out okay even when it’s been a bit stressful.

What are the factors that impact on a child’s ability to build resilience?

Resilience partly comes from factors internal to the child. A resilient child has social and emotional competencies for their age that help them to name their feelings, manage their emotions, be aware of other people, solve problems, and make good decisions. A child’s unique temperament or personality will have some bearing on this. Some children learn social and emotional skills quite easily, whereas other children require more support. Certain children are more easily upset or distressed than others when confronted by a difficulty.

Resilience is affected by external factors too. We know that children are more likely to be resilient when there are supports around them from family, school or community; when they are able to seek help, showing that they understand that they don’t have to do everything themselves or have all the answers. If children are surrounded by adults who model resilience – through their own behaviours as well as by explicitly teaching and practising the social and emotional skills - they will be more likely to develop resilience themselves. It can also help for parents to learn to manage their own stress and build their own resilience so they can best support their child. Health professionals can play an active role in this regard.

Schools, as social and learning environments, provide many opportunities for children to confront and learn to deal effectively with the many day-to-day stressors that arise. A planned and strategic approach to this work can help children develop skills and gain a sense of connectedness, and really acts as a protective factor.

Do you think resilience is something that can change over time?

Absolutely. In fact, we could see resilience as something we all keep working on over the course of our lifespan. We can learn the skills and gain the confidence to deal with challenges throughout our lives. This, of course, begins in childhood and the patterns we develop then will play a role in how we continue to deal with problems in the future. We certainly see children in schools who build their self-confidence and their resilience over time, often assisted by the support of families and school staff.

What does resilience mean for people who have experienced significant, ongoing adversity (eg abuse or neglect) as opposed to people who have experienced adversity less frequently (eg a bushfire)?

‘Resilience’ has become a buzz word in recent years. When we talk about resilience these days we are often talking about the day-to-day challenges that arise for all of us. We also know that there are children who experience more significant challenges and, in those cases, resilience takes on quite a different meaning. For some children, particularly when living with abuse or neglect, life can be uncertain and threatening and their basic human needs may not easily be met. Resilience can be more like survival, and signs of resilience can include getting to school each day and being able to sit still and concentrate for short periods of time. 

When children have gone through a crisis, such as a bushfire, resilience really does mean being able to bounce back from a situation that was, or could have been, life threatening. Significant losses may have been experienced and their lives may have been changed in many different ways. We know that most children do very well even after these events although some may require additional support if they are still having difficulties several months after the event. This highlights the human capacity to be resilient and even grow through big challenges. Again, the role of adults in the lives of children is important here as they provide support and security.

How can we help children to be resilient but also send the message that asking for help or having a bad day is okay?

The focus on social and emotional skills is really important for children’s resilience. These are the skills that help children to understand themselves, to manage a wide range of emotions, and to seek help when necessary. Teaching children to accept that all feelings are okay is an important aspect of this, and enables them to express things such as frustration or worry.

It is also key to help children feel in charge of their own responses to feelings, and to have confidence in their ability to solve problems that arise, with support if necessary. If we understand resilience as partly about being able to seek and accept help when required, we will be able to normalise the range of experiences we all have, including on bad days.

Access our KidsMatter resource for primary schools on resilience.