Life is full of surprise, challenge, and, at times, distress, threat, and trauma. Children respond to these stressors in very different ways. One child may regress when facing even the minor, unavoidable events of a typical day at preschool, such as a transition from one activity to another. Another child might demonstrate remarkable resilience and continue to grow healthily in the face of even the most significant trauma — domestic violence, the death of a parent, or life-threatening illness.
Building Up to Resilience
We are all born with the physiological capacity to tolerate stress. However, like all key systems in our brain, the stress-response system becomes functional with use. Just as language development requires repetitive exposure to speech, we need exposure to mild stress for our brain's physiological capacity to develop.
Fortunately, normal development is full of healthy, moderate stressors. Infants and young children are continually exposed to new challenges, such as learning to sit, speak, read, or make a friend. The gradual acquisition of new skills gives children the experience of facing a challenge, mastery, and success. The thousands of tiny challenges and successes that a young child experiences will help build confidence and, over time, resilience.
There are several other important factors that play a role in the development of resilience:
- Temperament. Some children are born with a very high threshold for tolerating distress. These children are easy to comfort; they tolerate hunger, noise, transitions, and the loud, disorganized sights and sounds of chaotic situations. This child is more likely to become resilient later in life. On the other hand, some children are born with extreme sensitivity to any stimulation and are easily overwhelmed. This child will have a more difficult time becoming resilient.
- Attuned caregiving. No matter what a child's temperament, the capacity to deal with stressors is shaped by his caregivers. A calm, experienced caregiver can help a difficult-to-soothe infant quiet down and feel safe. Over time, this interaction will help shape the neurobiological systems responsible for dealing with stress in positive ways. Meanwhile, an anxious, inexperienced and socially or physically isolated caregiver can shape the neural systems of an easy-to-soothe child to be reactive and less capable of dealing with distress.
- Belief systems. Resilience cannot exist without hope. The child who is capable of making a mental image that things will be better — that the bad feelings and situation they now face will improve — is going to be more resilient. Even an infant can create the mental image that someone always shows up when she gets hungry and starts to cry. The expectation of a positive response in times of distress creates the roots of hope.
What You Can Do
There are many things you can do to help your child build the capacity to deal with future stressors:
You can gently push children out of their comfort zone into new activities to exercise their stress-response system. Any new experience will suffice, such as going to a friend's house to play for the first time.
You can also tell stories of heroism and survival to help children build an internal catalogue of what is possible.
- Be sure to encourage your child's unique sense of self and point out his special gifts. When you take a child aside and make him feel special with your attention and praise, you are shaping resilience. Your comments are powerful; even brief positive comments, such as "You made Grandpa feel really good when you gave him the card you made," or "You should feel good about how you kept your cool even though your team lost the game," can be used for a lifetime.
If your child has experienced a traumatic stressor, the clearest sign of resilience is that he is continuing to develop in a healthy way. And by incorporating these suggestions into everyday life, you will be equipping your child with one of the most important tools for living in an unpredictable world.