According to the Oxford dictionary, resilience refers to the ability of a person or an animal able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult situations. Why do some people have resilience and others do not? Is it a chemical reason, or is it learned? This is the classic “nature versus nurture” debate.
As rehabilitation professionals, we work with clients that have been through horrid experiences, whether they be physical, psychological or both. Why do some of our clients bounce back to their pre-injury job after therapy, while others cannot? Experts believe we are not born with a fixed amount of resilience; rather resilience is a muscle we can build. But how do we do this? Resilience is not innate, and can be changed and strengthened at any age. We can alter the wiring of the brain through the different experiences we encounter. The right experiences can shape a child right through to adulthood.
Although no parent would want to witness his or her child experience any adversity, this unfortunately is not possible. Further, we would not be helping our children by shielding them from all negative experiences. While instinctively parents naturally want to rush to their children’s rescue, doing this can create a situation whereby children cannot develop the strategies to manage on their own. The more exposure children have to stress, the more it will help to shape their character and ensure they are able to deal with future stress in adulthood.
This does not apply to every situation, but when possible it is better to let the child figure out a challenging situation on their own. For example, as parents we can help children with their homework but doing it for them will not prepare them for employment – we cannot be there do their job for them. It is more important to let your children know that you trust them and help them believe they can cope on their own. If we as parents believe in them, then they will begin to believe in themselves.
The presence of a supportive adult in a child’s life will help build resilience and strength, and this person does not necessarily need to be the biological parent. It could be a teacher, a coach, or anyone that can make a difference. As long as someone is there to cheer them on and reassure them that they have a ‘fan club’, building a connection will only strengthen them.
Children also need to develop their executive functioning, which refers to an individual’s ability to maintain mental control and self-regulation. Below are some strategies that we can use in aiding children to develop these capabilities:
Researchers have found that making time for creativity and play strengthens children’s problem solving skills and will assist in building resilience. Children are curious creatures; give them space to play and be creative and they will figure out the rest. Encourage your children to talk, but resist trying to solve their problems for them. Instead, act as a sounding board, guiding them but allowing them to uncover the solutions themselves. If they do this with a parent in a safe and secure environment, they will be able to hone this skill, which will prove invaluable when facing more complex problems in the future.
People often marvel at how truly resilient kids can be, but there are neurological factors at play that help to explain why. Kids have more neural plasticity than adults, allowing their brains to adapt more easily in the face of adverse events. Children easily understand that they are not alone and can gain some control by reaching out for support. Children also realize that pain is not permanent – things can always get better. Resilience is a direct result of drawing upon both the external support around us and the fortitude deep within us. Even after enduring a catastrophic event, it is possible to grow a deeper meaning and appreciation of life. This is not an instant reaction and will often take considerable pain, recovery, and learning before one has the ability to move forward. Learning from past experiences is also an integral component of continued growth.
When children grow up with a strong understanding of their family’s history, including the past experiences of their parents, grandparents and other relatives, they have better coping skills and a stronger sense of belonging. Building resiliency also begins with supportive relationships with parents. These relationships become a source of strength as children work through stressful situations. We can build children’s confidence by reminding them they can do hard things by doing their best. When kids feel they can conquer a situation that is scary, it creates a sense of mastery and they are less likely to be reactive to future stressors.
We all have heard the expression ‘the glass is half full’. When children are optimistic, they tend to see opportunities rather than focusing on not being able to accomplish all they want. The brain can be trained by exposing children to more optimistic views then pessimistic views. Teaching children to learn through disappointment will assist them in their future. If something does not go as planned, pointing out alternatives to the situation will allow children to focus on what they have instead of what they have lost. By teaching children to reframe the situation, you are helping them see a different view of the problem and thereby create an opportunity. For example, when a baseball game is rained out, the children are usually angry and disappointed. By finding another activity that won’t be affected by inclement weather you focus on another alternative that is not marred by disappointment.
Imitation is powerful and children model what adults do. Allowing your children to see your own disappointments will help them to deal with sadness. When adults normalize and discuss their own disappointments, such as not getting the job they wanted, children will feel safe and secure if the behaviour exposed to them is appropriate. If the adults handle the situation well, the children will remember that for their own future experiences.
We have to teach our children to face their fear but support them at the same time. We need to encourage age-appropriate risk taking as this allows the children to make their own decisions, empowering them in world where they can realize their own capacity. As adults we are able to determine our children’s true capabilities. We can gauge what is safe by using our own knowledge of our children and encouraging them to move past their comfort zones. It is about recognizing their limits and encouraging them to push just beyond those limits. It is always important to encourage brave behaviour, otherwise kids may believe that the only way to feel safe is when everything is as it has always been, or the way they need it to be. Risks don’t need to be unsafe – it can be as simple as getting your child to try something other than eating chicken fingers every night for dinner.
In school, children can be taught resilience in the classroom by promoting self–reflection through literary essays or small group discussions. Middle school and high school students can be encouraged to reflect through personal essays that focus on strength. All children can learn from their failures, which is why not everybody should get a ribbon just for showing up. When children fail, they can learn valuable lessons. Failure can be an honoured part of learning. Holding students accountable for their efforts helps them learn from mistakes or failures in a positive, sheltered environment. It is also important to bring challenging discussion topics into the classroom, especially big political events like 9/11. When talking about the event, it is important to reflect on the hardships endured and identify how people have overcome them, as well as the people who have helped those in need.
All parents want to raise resilient kids so they can overcome obstacles both big and small. Resilience leads to greater happiness, more success, and better health. Resilience is not a fixed personality trait but a lifelong project. Remember, it is a muscle that we can all build. The process begins early in childhood, and much depends on how young people are raised and the opportunities they are given. Children need to know they at least have some control over their lives; they also need to understand they can learn from failure. It is important to reinforce that we all matter as human beings and we all have real strengths to rely on and share. As previously mentioned, resilience is not a genetic trait but is derived from the ways children learn to adapt when they are faced with obstacles both large and small. The most important part of building resilient children is to love them unconditionally. This will allow for a solid beginning, one which will assist children in creating their own foundations. A big part of helping to create resilience in children is building belief in themselves – it is the best thing they will ever believe in. You probably already knew that.
Roselle is a principal at arc Health Management, providing health management solutions to the private and insurance sectors. She brings years of experience and dedication as a VRA Ontario Board Director continuously from 1996-2010 and served as Ontario President from 2005 to 2006 and VRA National President from 2006 to 2008. Roselle continues to serve on the CVRP as a Director and VR historian. Presently, Roselle is also a member of the Executive Board for VRA Canada, where she holds the position of Secretary, CVRP Liaison and historian. She holds a Bachelor of Science from the University of Toronto and her CCRC and CVRP designations.
Most vocational rehabilitation companies either focus on return-to-work programs or wellness programs. But that's only part of the equation. At arcHealth Management, we take a 360o approach to better health management - resulting in fewer employee sick days, enhanced individual productivity in the workplace and improved outcomes. That means a better experience for workers, and reduced healthcare costs for employers and insurance companies.EMAIL US