One of the better trends in the last decade of caring for children is the recognition that children need to develop resilience. In spite of our best efforts, all children will face setbacks and conflicts. We need to help our children learn how to bounce back.
Several mental health articles offer some interesting data about how we can help children exposed to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). An older study of sexually abused girls had a small sample size, but gathered information from in-depth interviews and testing. The study found that 56% of the girls exhibited measurable mental health issues, while 44% were within normal parameters. The latter group, classified as resilient, reported quite a few different positive factors. The study found that the best predictor of resilience was parental support.
Two recent reviews of current mental health literature offer some additional thoughts. The earlier study of the two found several individual factors, such as a child’s ability to self-regulate their emotions. In the area of family and community factors, family support again ranked as the factor most closely correlated to resilience. In one study of children in the full-time care of their grandparents, feeling loved and supported had an extremely high correlation with high emotional health. Outside the family, a positive relationship with a caring adult was a significant factor in resilience.
School factors significantly correlated with resilience included high engagement in school academics and other activities, and a supportive school community. The latter seems to be a variant on the supportive non-family adult found in other studies.
The more recent systematic review found different factors associated with resilience at different ages. Some factors were associated with high resilience throughout a person’s life, such as family support, a positive family environment, and feelings of belonging to a community. Others seem to depend on the developmental stage of the child.
Only a few studies looked at resilience in children younger than 5, but the studies that exist indicate that caregiver warmth, emotional support, and cognitive stimulation were important predictors of resilience. For school-age children, the primary factors were parental engagement and prosocial behavior. Adolescents reported higher resilience when they also reported caregiver support, paternal acceptance, high engagement in school, and participation in sports and other extra-curricular activities. Of course, none of these studies measured causation, so it is difficult to know what factors actually can help children and which merely co-exist. Nevertheless, it cannot hurt to promote attributes that are positively associated with resilience.
The most important thing we can do is to support our children unconditionally and express warm and caring concern. We also can encourage them to participate in extra-curricular and school activities. Even if they are not our biological children, and even if they do not have emotional support from their biological parents, it is encouraging to know that we can help fill in some of those spaces.