Resilience means getting the brain’s neurochemistry right, says Andrew Fuller, Clinical Psychologist and Director of Resilient Youth Australia. He shares his thinking about resilience, and how to activate a child’s brain to help them manage trauma in a healthy, timely way.

What does the term ‘resilience’ mean to you? What does it look like?

I look at resilience as the flexibility to respond to what life throws at you; as the internal and external resources we call upon in times of adversity. If resilience is compromised, or if you don’t ever develop it, you can’t fully capitalise on your ability to be flexible. Resilience is a protective factor for many things, including trauma, which, as I like to say, helps you ‘bungee jump through the pitfalls of life.’ 

How can resilience protect against the impact of trauma in children?

In my book, Tricky Teens, I describe the way I talk to kids about their brains. I tell them we have two parts that control our actions and thinking. We have a primitive, dinosaur brain, which I call ‘Rex’. Rex keeps us alive and comfortable, but he’s also stupid and doesn’t always make smart decisions. The other one is the more sophisticated, higher-thinking Einstein part, which I call ‘Albert’. Most people assume that Albert runs the show, but it’s not the case at all. Rex actually runs Albert and is responsible for about 80 per cent of our functioning.

What this means is that if you don’t get Rex’s neurochemistry right, kids who experience a trauma will kick off and not get the chance to engage their thinking brain. Rex will detect the threat in trauma and, quickly, relationships fracture, behaviour becomes erratic, and concentration falters. However, if children generally have low stress levels and are helped to function and develop through the ups and downs of life, Rex is better behaved and they can bounce back more easily from significant turmoil.    

How can we strengthen the brain to process and manage trauma?

Rex is the amygdala; the part of the brain responsible for emotions, memory and decision-making. It’s made up of two areas: the central nucleus and the basal stria terminalis. The central nucleus detects threat and can become overly-sensitised from trauma, leading to overwhelming emotions and phobias, for instance.

However, activating the basal stria terminalis helps to calm things down. And the best way to activate it is by taking action after a trauma, such as coming together for a funeral after the death of a loved-one. By getting kids to do something soon after a trauma, we not only enable reflection and discussion, but we stimulate their sense of empowerment, all of which helps the healing process. For example, after the Eyre Peninsula fires back in 2005, we had local kids moving rocks and fence posts and working on repairs to their school. Getting them doing something gave them purpose and meaning in a rough situation that could not be changed. 

How can we build resilience before a traumatic event?

We often talk about the 40 development assets of youth and the risk and protective factors for children’s mental health. All of these have a bearing on a child’s resilience and their mental health outcomes. But, a child’s sense of empowerment is one competency that seems to protect against or mitigate the effects of trauma. There is a pervasive sense of powerlessness after a traumatic event, and building kids’ self-efficacy and belief that they can change things in their world goes hand-in-hand with overcoming trauma. 

Confident, empowered kids need more than good relationships and the freedom to express themselves. They also need occupation and activity to prove the cause and effect. This may involve physical exercise, mindfulness meditation, and even getting involved in community service programs. When it comes to building resilience, I find it’s better to get kids doing things rather than doing things to them. Through doing, they start to embody the traits or outcomes we want for them and change from the outside in. All the chat in the world only gets you so far, but action creates change.

What coping behaviours would you see in both resilient and less-resilient children after trauma?

We need to recognise that even the most resilient person can take a hit from a traumatic event. But the key difference lies in is how pervasive the effects of trauma become and how long it takes a child to accept what has happened and move on. A typically resilient child overcomes trauma more quickly. They also tend to look for ways to help others and provide empathy (in a healthy way where they are also dealing with their own feelings). I find kids will naturally look for things to do and, through activity, they gain meaning that helps them to overcome the trauma.

A less-resilient child will be paralysed by the trauma and find it all-consuming. I think of it as being like when you have a bad tooth – you just can’t leave it alone with your tongue. Obviously, it will take longer for this child to process the event and move on. What’s interesting, though, is that children who have endured long-term trauma, and who are often treated like helpless victims, are almost shocked when someone just sits with them and listens empathetically. They respond really well to just being allowed to talk. 

What strategies can parents use to build children’s resilience after a trauma?

  • Talk about it 
    Parents need to start by talking to their child and recognising that the traumatic event has happened. Gone are the days when parents would shield their kids from adversity. Instead, parents should address the issue honestly so kids can express their feelings and don’t worry unduly. 

  • Involve kids in taking action 
    There are many ‘doing’ processes following a family trauma (eg a funeral), which kids can take part in. If you’re recovering from a local event (eg a natural disaster), offer support to another affected family or the community as a family unit. Taking action helps processing and boosts empowerment.

  • Seek help if you need it
    Often, when we’re in fight/flight mode (aka when Rex is in the driver’s seat), we repeat and even increase unhelpful behaviours, like arguing. Somebody outside of the fray (eg a therapist or even a good friend) can provide much-needed clarity and strength to support kids. 

See Andrew’s website for a variety of children’s mental health resources written for parents, schools and professionals. Andrew is also the author of books, Tricky Teens and Tricky Kids, which you can also access through his site.