You may be working with families who, for a number of reasons, have been identified as having high risk factors. Your goal is to help them increase their child’s resilience. We hear of children who ‘against all odds’ grow up healthy, bright and socially able, despite the risk factors due to the circumstances into which they were born.
Resilience is important
Resilient children have good outcomes in spite of experiencing stress, trauma, tragedy and/or adversity. They build resilience from the interactions among protective factors from their family and community, and their own characteristics such as temperament, self-esteem and competence, which help them adapt to stressful experiences.
Although a child may have a stack of risk factors in their life, there may be enough protective factors to tip the balance to create positive outcomes.
Responsive care increases resilience
One of the most important protective factors is consistent, loving, responsive care from at least one parent during the early years. This care builds a secure attachment relationship. If a parent can’t provide this care, a close relationship with another competent, responsive adult such as a grandparent who can nurture baby and help them recover from stress can also help build resilience.
Young babies’ brains grow and adapt to help them survive in the environment they’ve been born into. While they develop coping strategies that help them survive, having coping strategies is different to being resilient. Learning how to cope with low or moderate levels of stress is a healthy part of a baby/young child’s development, and caring adults play an important role in this. When a child’s stress response system is activated by stress or trauma, a supportive adult can reduce the potentially harmful effects of that system by providing comfort and reassurance to help the child tolerate the stress.
Too much stress is toxic
When the stress response system is activated over and over again, or for too long, and without adult support, this results in toxic stress that can weaken the brain structure and bodily systems. The role of the support person for a child is to increase protective factors and also to help reduce risk. Caring, supportive relationships are a strong protective factor into adulthood. Children and adolescents need people they can rely on for emotional support. This may come from whānau members or from a caring neighbour, teacher or sports coach.
Safe neighbourhoods and strong communities with good resources also provide protection.
How support helps young people manage better
Supportive parents and/or other adults can also help children and adolescents build skills that help them manage stress, such as being able to:
- focus attention
- control their impulses
- manage their behaviour
- adjust to new circumstances.
At school age, resilient children are likely to have a sense of pride, be willing to help others, and be better at reading and problem-solving. As adolescents, they have less serious illness, are socially responsible and have greater self-control.
Early years are important, but it’s never too late
The early years are an important time to put in place protective factors and reduce risks to build resilience. This is when babies’ brains are most adaptable to their experiences. However, it is never too late to build resilience. Children and adolescents are still able to improve their coping skills and adapt to new challenges if protective factors are put in place. Although there will be a limit as to how much adversity even a resilient child can cope with.
- Resilience is built from a combination of protective factors, including a child’s personal characteristics, an early close relationship, and supportive communities.
- A warm, loving relationship with a parent or parent-figure when baby is small is a powerful protective factor.
- It’s never too late to put protective factors in place that build resilience.
Brainwave Trust: Stress — The good, the bad and the ugly (PDF 2.38MB)
Brainwave Trust: The experience of poverty for infants and young children (PDF 812KB)
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child: Supportive relationships and active skill-building strengthen the foundations of resilience
- Resilience: A Common or Not-So-Common Phenomenon? Robert Brooks, Ph.D