Updated: Jun 14
As parents, we want nothing more than to protect our children from pain and unhappiness. We often go to great lengths to try and shield them from anything that might cause them suffering or emotional pain, whether that’s a scraped knee or the death of loved ones.
However, as much as we might want to, we can't always keep our kids from experiencing tough times. That’s why building resilience is so essential. When young people develop resilience, they can bounce back from setbacks, keep following a healthy developmental path even when life gets hard, and grow into stable adults.
In this article:
What is resilience?
Resilience is a fundamental aspect of mental health and refers to a person’s ability to adapt and bounce back from negative experiences, such as stress, adversity, or trauma.
Resilience does not mean ignoring problems or suppressing emotions—rather, it enables us to face challenges head-on and find ways to persevere.
Unlike many innate characteristics, such as introversion or extroversion, resilience is a learned skill that children can develop as they grow and mature.
By teaching resilience skills from an early age, parents can help their children build a foundation for happiness and well-being later in life. Resilient children are more likely to take healthy risks–the kinds that help them learn–because they can bounce back from setbacks and aren’t afraid of failure.
The challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic have only highlighted the necessity of resilience in young people. Children faced their own series of hardships and difficulties during this time, from the stress of virtual school to the sadness of separation from friends and regular activities.
Even children too young to understand the pandemic absorbed stress from the adults in their lives and had fewer opportunities to interact with the world and build social connections. Resilience can prepare children to deal with these emotions and thrive even during hard times.
How do stress and resilience impact young people?
The effects of stress in children
According to the American Psychological Association, children are experiencing more stress than ever before.
Chronic stress is long-lasting stress that can come from living in a difficult environment, such as poverty, abuse, or a family dealing with divorce, job loss, or chronic disease. This type of stress is different from acute stress, the type that occurs suddenly in response to a specific traumatic event.
Acute stress can be caused by a traumatic event, such as a natural disaster, or even a seemingly normal part of early childhood, such as starting preschool.
In the latter case, parents might not realize that their young child is feeling stressed because they view starting school as a positive event.
Children show the impact of stress in different ways, depending on the degree of trauma, family situation, and age of the child, among many other factors.
Very young children may not be able to understand or articulate their anxieties, but might react by demonstrating the following behaviors:
Excessive crying or screaming
Changes in eating habits
New fears (such as fear of the dark or strangers)
Older children might demonstrate the following in response to stress or adversity:
Fear or anxiety
Sleep issues such as nightmares
Regression to younger behaviors, such as bed-wetting
All of these reactions can have a significant negative impact on a child’s daily life. Sometimes young people can have difficulty functioning in some areas of their life, such as school, but function normally in other areas, such as maintaining friendships. However, if a child experiences chronic or severe stress, it can often lead to problems in many areas of their life.
The resilient child
On the other hand, when resilient children face a challenging or traumatic event they might show minimal stress or effect on their everyday life.
Alternatively, they might temporarily have trouble coping but soon return fully to their normal level of functioning.
However, resilience does not mean that young people won’t experience difficult times or negative emotions.
Sadness and anxiety are to be expected in response to adversity, trauma, or loss. Resilience helps children understand how to manage these feelings, use healthy coping strategies, and make wise choices so that they are better prepared to overcome life's challenges.
Building resilience in children
The 7 C's of resilience in children
Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, a pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, posited that there are seven components to resilience–the “7 C's of resilience.”
Parents can build resilience in their children by encouraging and creating opportunities for them to practice these concepts.
Dr. Ginsburg identified the 7C's of resilience as competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping, and control.
We will take a look at each of them in turn and then discuss how you can engage with your child to help them develop each component of resilience.
Competence refers to a child’s ability to handle challenging situations on their own. Children develop a sense of competence when parents and caregivers allow them to make their own decisions and do things independently.
On the other hand, parents who don’t allow their children to do things for themselves or rush to help after they make a mistake can undermine their sense of competence.
Confidence is similar to competence and refers to teaching a child to believe in themselves. Children need confidence to be able to navigate their world, think creatively, and recover from setbacks.
Parents and caregivers can help children gain confidence by encouraging them to try new things and praising their efforts, even when they don’t succeed.
Connection is the sense of security that comes from close and healthy relationships with family, friends, and the wider community. Children form connections when they spend quality time with other people, develop close ties, and are allowed to express their emotions freely.
This sense of security and connectedness gives children a strong foundation and supportive network so they will be better prepared to overcome obstacles and act independently in the world.
Good character refers to a child’s integrity, responsibility, and fundamental sense of right and wrong. These strong values form the basis for making wise choices when faced with difficult situations.
Parents and caregivers can help children build character by encouraging them to be caring and demonstrating for them that individuals' actions and behaviors affect those around them.
Contribution is the way that a child can help make the world a better place. Teaching children–even very young children–how they can contribute to the world around them can give them a strong sense of purpose and meaning.
Parents and caregivers can encourage children to make good contributions by helping them identify and consider other people’s needs and feelings and emphasizing the importance of treating others kindly.
Additionally, contributing feels good! When children understand this on a personal level, they may feel more willing to seek help from others when they need it.
Coping refers to the mechanisms that people utilize to deal with stressful situations in a healthy way. Children who are able to cope are more prepared to deal with difficult situations later in their lives and will be less likely to fall into negative behaviors such as depression, anger, and substance abuse.
Parents and caregivers can help children learn to handle stress by teaching them a wide repertoire of healthy coping strategies (including creative solutions) and modeling how they remain calm and cope with stress in a positive way.
A child experiences a sense of control when they recognize that they can affect situations in their lives. Children are more likely to bounce back from difficulties when they realize that they have some control over the outcome.
This feeling of control can help children learn to make good choices because they realize that it will have an impact.
Parents and caregivers can help children learn about control by demonstrating how people’s actions lead to the situations that they find themselves in and teaching them how they can make a difference themselves.
How can I help my child develop resilience?
When it comes to learning all developmental skills–including building resilience–children are like little sponges. They absorb everything around them and use it to build their own developmental “toolkit.”
As parents, there are many ways that we can help our children learn these skills and build resilience.
These activities are designed to take advantage of all of the ways that your child learns, which we present through a framework called PROE.
The PROE Framework for child development
At Pathfinder Health, we have distilled a wide variety of developmental theories into one unifying framework to help you understand how your baby and child learns and grows and why certain developmental skills are so important.
PROE stands for “Play, Relationships, Observation, Experience”--all of the ways that your child interacts with the world around them.
If you subscribe to the PROE framework and focus on engaging in all four categories with your child, you will naturally help them build resilience.
We briefly describe the PROE framework below.
Play is essential for children's healthy cognitive, social and emotional, and physical development. It allows children to explore their creativity, practice new skills, and develop a fundamental sense of self.
Through play, kids can experiment with different roles and try new ways of thinking and behaving. This helps children understand their world and themselves.
Relationships provide the foundation for children to develop a sense of themselves and others. As a caregiver, your nurturing relationship with your child plays an especially important role in their social and emotional development.
This relationship helps children feel safe and secure and provides them with a strong sense of trust and stability. Building relationships with others also helps kids develop intrapersonal skills, which involve the ability to understand and regulate one's own emotions.
These skills include recognizing one's own feelings and managing stress.
Observation through all of their senses helps your child learn how people interact with their environment and how their actions can impact their world.
This provides valuable lessons in cause and effect, communication, and emotional intelligence. In addition, observing their surroundings can help children develop important critical thinking skills.
As they take in new information, they will start to ask questions and form hypotheses about how things work.
Experiences with the world around them help children build knowledge and developmental abilities. They learn and adapt their thinking with each new experience and develop problem-solving skills that they can apply to other experiences.
They also learn how their actions and bodies impact the environment around them, teaching them self-awareness and cause and effect.
Trying new experiences and taking risks builds confidence, which encourages your child to try more new things.
How you can use PROE to build resilience
These PROE concepts are a great way to visualize how you can help your child build resilience. The tools and opportunities that you need are literally all around you!
Below, we discuss the ways that you can use the PROE concepts to help your child develop the 7 C's of resilience.
Competence: Play allows a child to experiment with their world and the impact that they can have on it while making safe mistakes. When their experiments succeed, it builds the child’s sense of competence and self-worth. They feel better prepared to overcome challenging real situations on their own.
Parents and caregivers can help children develop this sense of competence by allowing them to make their own decisions, giving them the opportunity to develop skills, and focusing on their strengths.
For example, when a parent allows their child to climb a tall playground ladder without help, the child will feel competent and proud when they reach the top, even if they felt scared at the start.
Confidence: Similarly, allowing a child to engage in play featuring healthy risks encourages them to feel confident and believe that they can continue achieving hard things.
For example, a child who has successfully climbed a tall ladder will likely feel more confident going down a tall slide.
Connection: Children can also form connections when they play, especially through pretend or interactive play.
These types of play encourage them to spend quality time with other people, particularly family members and peers, and provide opportunities for them to practice emotional regulation and learn methods of dealing with difficult situations.
They can even use pretend play to process difficult personal experiences and develop creative solutions for dealing with life's challenges.
A great example of this would be children playing “hospital” together during the pandemic.
Control: Children utilize control in a variety of ways while playing.
They control how high they stack blocks and when they knock down a tower.
They can also learn that they have some control over interactions with other people. Your child will learn that their behavior–such as cooperating versus playing roughly–can determine if a playdate with a friend is fun or frustrating.
This feeling of control over a situation helps them bounce back from difficult situations.
Connection: Spending quality time with family and other important people in their lives helps children feel connected and builds their sense of security.
Stable and healthy relationships with family form the foundation for your child's ability to solve problems and respond to setbacks. Knowing that you have their back helps your child feel strong and capable of dealing with life's challenges.
Some specific ways to reinforce your connection with your child are:
Cuddle every day while you sing or read a book
Eat dinner together as a family
Play silly games together
Talk to your child about their day and be interested and supportive
You can also build close ties and foster a feeling of connection beyond your immediate family by encouraging your child to play sports, attending school or local events, and getting together regularly with family and friends.
Coping: As a parent, you are your young child’s first role model. When you deal with stress in a calm and productive way, your child will learn from your example and can draw on these coping skills when they feel overwhelmed.
Talk to your child about the methods that you use to manage stress and practice some strategies together.
These might include:
Regular physical activity
Deep breathing exercises (even toddlers can learn how to do “balloon breathing,” which encourages them to take deep breaths)
Dancing to energetic music
Talking through problems with a loved one
Character: Likewise, your child learns about good character and the difference between right and wrong by watching you and the other main adults in their life and seeing how your behaviors affect others.
Make sure that you are modeling the character traits that you wish to see in your child. Be caring towards the people in your life and treat them fairly. Help other people who need it in both large and small ways.
Let your child see the effects of your good character on the people around you. They will take their cues from your behavior and how you model right versus wrong.
Coping: Because you are your child’s main role model, they look to you for guidance and are always watching how you move through the world. Even when you don’t realize it, you are modeling how to cope for your child and building resilience.
Seeing you deal with stress in a healthy way will encourage them to do the same.
Control: Allowing your child to observe how you exercise control to overcome life's challenges can help them recognize the impact that they can have on situations in their own lives.
If they observe you making responsible choices to deal with or improve difficult or disappointing circumstances–even minor ones–they will learn that they can do the same.
So show your child how you recover from a setback, such as traffic, a canceled event, or an illness, by calmly controlling the factors that you can control, such as by taking another route, making alternate plans, or taking medicine.
Competence: Competence is best learned through experience. You can encourage your child to feel competent when you allow them to do a task independently, even when they might make a mess or take more time.
On occasion, this might involve allowing your child to fail, within reasonable and safe boundaries. Try not to intervene--this can undermine their developing competence!
On the Pathfinder Health app, we feature many ways to safely build your child’s sense of competence through everyday activities.
Some ideas include:
Let your young child feed themselves with a spoon, even if they make a mess
Give your child tasks to help you cook dinner, such as stirring or pouring
Ask your child to put away toys or sort laundry
For all of these activities, express gratitude to your child for helping and praise them when they do a good job.
Confidence: When children successfully complete the above tasks, or others, on their own, they receive a huge confidence boost.
This experience of “I did it!” will help children gain confidence and encourage them to continue to try new things and take risks necessary to succeed.
Contribution: Experience enables children to feel the effects of their actions. Create opportunities for your child to contribute to their community, for example:
Help a neighbor rake leaves
Clean up trash at a park or playground
Make a card for a friend who is sick
A child who helps pick up trash at their playground will experience the satisfaction of playing on the clean playground and realize that their efforts made a difference, giving them a fundamental sense of purpose.
Knowing that one person can contribute to something larger will make them more likely to ask for help themselves when they need it.
Coping: The more experience your child has coping with stress, the more naturally they will turn to healthy coping mechanisms. So teach your preferred coping skills to your child and practice together.
Even a very young child can feel the calming effect of deep breathing or take a run around the yard when they feel frustrated.
Control: Children learn control by being given the opportunity to make decisions that affect outcomes in their own lives.
In fact, they naturally begin experimenting with their ability to control their world at an early age–as most parents who have had their two-year old refuse to put on their shoes will recognize!
Help your child learn that they can't control everything, but they can control their own reactions and choices. This can empower them to make wise choices even in difficult or disappointing situations.
For example, ask your child to pick an indoor activity when rain prevents you from going to the playground. You can begin teaching them to use their control productively by giving them a parent-approved set of options and letting them make their own choice–starting with small decisions!
Some specific ways your child can practice control:
Let them choose between an apple or a banana at lunchtime (for very young children, two options are enough)
Allow them to pick their clothes for the day
Play games like "Simon Says" where your child gets to take turns controlling the game
More activities and tips like these are available on the Pathfinder Health app!
Children also benefit from experiencing the consequences of a bad decision, within reason, so they realize that their choices have consequences, even when they control the decision.
Don’t let them change their mind and choose a banana if they have already started eating the apple.
The more experience they have in exercising the control that they have, even with very small decisions, the more secure and empowered they will feel in uncertain situations.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. What is the resilience theory?
Resilience refers to a person’s ability to persevere through, adapt to, and bounce back from difficult experiences, such as stress or trauma. Resilient people still feel negative emotions, but are able to continue functioning.
2. What are the 7 C's of resilience?
Pediatrician Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg identified 7 components–the “7 C's of resilience”--that together allow a child to show resilience in the face of life’s challenges: competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping, and control.
3. What are examples of resilience?
A resilient child is more likely to:
Show self-regulation and not lash out when upset or stressed
Take healthy risks, for example on the playground
Be willing to try again if they fail
Show empathy to other children and help a friend
Take responsibility for their own behavior and choices
Feel optimistic about how a project or task will turn out
4. Why is building resilience important?
Resilience is important because it can mitigate some of the negative effects of stress, such as anxiety, trouble concentrating, sleep issues, head or stomach pain, aggressive behavior, and (in children) regressions such as bed-wetting.
5. Can you reduce stress by building resilience?
Yes. More resilient individuals–including children–may feel less stress in difficult situations because they are better able to manage their negative emotions, choose healthy coping strategies, and avoid dangerous quick fixes that might increase stress.
6. What are the ways to build resilience?
Some ways to build resilience in your child (or yourself!) include:
Maintain close ties to family and friends
Practice and model positive coping strategies when you face difficult times
Practice making responsible choices and trying new things together
Let your child make safe mistakes so you don’t undermine competence
Teach your own values and right versus wrong
Create opportunities to help others and participate together
Model and encourage self-care, such as getting enough sleep and physical activity
7. What is a resilience questionnaire?
A resilience questionnaire is a series of questions that measure how well an individual can handle stressful situations. Two questionnaires intended for young people are the CYRM-R (age 5 and up) and the RS10 (7 and up).
As much as we might want to, it’s simply not possible to keep our kids from experiencing all forms of pain and difficulty. But while it might be hard to watch our children face pain or disappointment, it's important to remember that experiencing and overcoming challenges can make young people stronger and more resilient and help them grow into stable adults. This is where the 7 C's come in.
Resilience is like any other skill. The more a child exercises reliance and sees that they can make it through tough times, the easier it will be for them to overcome obstacles and persevere in the future.
Teaching and helping your child develop resilience in adverse situations through the 7 C's may be one of the greatest gifts that you can give them for their future mental health and life satisfaction.
And if you need inspiration for ways to help build your child’s resilience and overall well-being, visit the Pathfinder Health app!
We have hundreds of age-appropriate new activities to do with your child and ideas for maximizing the developmental benefit in the things that you already do in your daily life.
2. American Psychological Assoc. Stress in America 2020 Survey, available at https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/report-october
3. Bonanno, G. A., & Diminich, E. D. (2013). Annual research review: Positive adjustment to adversity—trajectories of minimal-impact resilience and emergent resilience. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 54(4), 378-401. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12021
4. Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, 3 Ways to Build Resilience in Your Child, available at https://www.chop.edu/news/health-tip/3-ways-build-resilience-your-child