Teaching Kids Resilience

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
January 24, 2020

People who embrace tough challenges are better able to bounce back from traumatic experiences. You can prepare your kids by challenging them while young.

Some people are resilient — they can weather horrors and recover and thrive. Other people who suffer trauma are weakened, developing addictions, anxiety, or depression. As parents, we want to do our best to nudge our children towards emotional strength, to teach them they are worthy and capable of overcoming challenges.

Psychiatrist and researcher Dennis Charney, MD, looked for clues in the lives of hundreds of people who had suffered trauma and showed resilience. Over 25 years of research, he and his colleague, Yale’s Steven Southwick,MD, found 10 factors that create resilience, which they explained in their 2012 book, "Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges," along with other science. (To get a taste, here’s a podcast based on the book.)


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Four years later, Charney got a test of his own resilience. He was outside a deli in his hometown, Chappaqua ,a wealthy suburb of New York City. “I was walking out with a bagel and ice coffee, which was my regular routine, turned toward my car, and all of a sudden a heard a loud boom, looked at my shoulder, and saw blood gushing out,” he told Big Think. He had been shot.

His immediate response was to try to assess whether he would survive. Some of the bystanders ran toward the shooter to catch him — risking their lives. Someone else called for the police and an ambulance. The police arrested the shooter. At the hospital, he would soon see a police officer who had been off-duty when he heard about the shooting but came to the trauma center to see if he could help.

“Once you’re a trauma victim you are a trauma victim for life,” he said. In the intensive care unit, he thought, “Now I have to walk the walk. Now I have to show whether I’m a resilient person.”

What are the 10 factors?

  1. Be upbeat. If it comes naturally, great. If not, cognitive behavioral therapy will teach you optimism.
  2. See stress and trauma in different ways, practicing the skill of mental flexibility.
  3. Embrace a moral purpose, perhaps through religion or helping others.
  4. Find a resilient role model.
  5. Face your fears and keep moving.
  6. Be active. Seek support and solutions.
  7. Develop and nurture close relationships and community ties.
  8. Exercise and otherwise take care of your body.
  9. Set yourself tough challenges and train yourself to grow in more than one way: emotionally, physically, and morally. You’re your own coach.
  10. Learn your key strengths, and use them when in a tough situation.

To help kids become resilient, Charney recommends pushing them into uncomfortable situations with steadily increasing challenges. They might be angry — but you’re showing them how to train themselves, factor nine. He used to take his own five kids on long hikes and get them slightly lost. Then he’d let them find their way home. One of his daughters hated this, telling him it was despicable, but as an adult, she’s a happy hiker.

Being your own coach requires that you set specific task-related goals, monitor and evaluate your performance, manage your emotions, and learn from missteps or unexpected problems. A separate study of 15-to-21-year-olds with academic problems found, for example, that participants who were most able to learn from mistakes also had more tolerance for discomfort, suggesting that they would be more resilient. In Iceland, a program to cut teen drug use built up community, putting parents together to walk around the neighborhood on Friday and Saturday nights to see what their teens were up to. This demonstration of the importance of community ties helped the kids learn what they’d need to be most resilient.

As Charney recovered, he saw that the factors he had identified in resilient people helped him. For example, he understood the importance of the immediate social support he received during the incident, and afterwards. Some people think the most resilient person is completely self-reliant and doesn’t need or ask for help. The opposite is true. Resilient people seek and make good use of the support that will help them thrive. They get medical and financial advice and cultivate mentors.


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January 24, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell