Wood's Homes Blog

Protecting our children by building resilience

October 31, 2017
By Dr. Angelique Jenney, Wood’s Homes Research Chair in Children’s Mental Health
Protecting our children by building resilience

Resilience is the capacity to recover from adversity. It is not something that children are born with; it unfortunately only arises out of difficult experiences.

October is Child Abuse Awareness month, a time when we consider how we, as individuals and communities, can do more to protect vulnerable children in our society.   When thinking about child abuse and other harms to children, it’s important to think about what we can do to respond.  We are making great improvements in this area and one way of doing this is by trying to foster resilience within children. This increases their chances of not ‘just surviving’ adversity, but also thriving after such an experience.

To learn more about our local resources, how to recognize the signs of abuse and respond to a child in need, click here.

We know that exposure to adversity can set children down a difficult path, affecting their development (cognitive, social, emotional and even physical), and possible life trajectory by increasing their chances of struggles with emotional expression and regulation.

Experiences of traumatic events may result in a number of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, which may disrupt important developmental milestones.

Even more concerning is the knowledge that some factors can predict more risk if not addressed early and can result in what is known as ‘cumulative, or cascades of risk’, where issues accumulate over time and can snowball into larger concerns.  However, research indicates that many children who experience negative events in their lives also demonstrate healthy adaptation. We can’t protect every child from some of the negative life experiences they will have (although we would like to!), but we can consider the ways in which we might be able to foster resilience.

Resilience has been referred to by Ann Masten (2017) as ‘Ordinary Magic’, not because it gets bestowed upon children by a magical wand, but rather as it resides in some very common attributes and experiences.  Children (and adults) use whatever internal (personal qualities) and external (relationships, community) resources they have available to them as navigational tools.  Even more inspirational is the knowledge that it is never too late for repair, that individuals may experience positive adaption and recovery even after experiencing a long period of difficulties during their lives.

Masten, a resilience scholar who recently spoke at the University of Calgary, identifies three areas to focus on when considering how to promote resilience and recovery:

  1. Risk-focused: Where we aim to prevent adversity in the first place (such as prevention of child abuse).
  2. Asset-focused: Where we aim to promote access to resources and protective factors (build internal resources, teach children how to ask for help).
  3. Process-focused: Where we aim to adapt the system to respond (ensure our communities can identify, respond and protect in a timely manner).

On an individual level, protective factors are seen in children who have easy temperaments (are considered more naturally sociable or agreeable for example), and demonstrate confidence and the ability to manage their emotions: skills that we can help them build.

Children who can appropriately contextualize experience (“this was not my fault”) and are considered resourceful (“I can find ways to get help, to feel better, to understand what is happening”) will also have an increased ability to cope with adversity.  Again, we can help children learn to ask for help, or more effectively solve everyday problems.

Within the child’s environment, protective factors include the availability of at least one dependable adult, positive peer relationships and other forms of social support. What if we could be that adult?  What if we could help children learn how to make and keep friends?  We absolutely can.

The existence of a ‘safe haven’ within the community, be it a classroom, a community centre, a neighbour’s house or a friend’s place, provides an avenue of escape and healing, which adds an additional layer of protection.  What if the spaces we inhabit – our homes, schools and communities – could be those kinds of spaces?  Of course they can be.  Individual resilience is directly related to the resilience of the systems in which those children reside.  We can strive to provide environments that moderate stress, keep children safe, and nurture the growth of self-esteem and confidence.   Schools play an important role in providing safe learning environments, with structure and opportunities for skill development.  But they can also be places where children experience chaos, confusion and bullying if they don’t offer such structure and support.

It’s not enough to simply strive for an absence of problems, but rather the existence of positives that make our lives feel successful. How might we contribute to those feelings in others? We can help foster resilience in children, both as parents or as service providers by:

  • Facilitating esteem building activities (i.e., talent and skill development)
  • Making connections to supportive adults (the more the merrier)
  • Labelling and validating feelings about experiences (“That must have been scary!”)
  • Challenging and changing traditional gender roles (letting all children know that it’s OK to express feelings and to ask for help)
  • Encouraging the development of healthy relationships (how to be a good friend)
  • Connecting with cultural strengths and resources (spiritual and cultural practices and supports)
  • Promoting healthier communities with access to child and youth activities (Community Centres, parks and recreational programming)

We can use what we know about resilience, to try to build opportunities for its growth for children and within our communities.   We can all make a difference.

Want to learn more? Here are some useful resources.

For parents:
Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings by Kenneth R. Ginsburg (book)

For professionals:
Ordinary Magic: Resilience in Development by Ann S. Masten (book)
Make Resilience Matter (website)