Building resilience: Helping children and young people to bounce back from challenges

Children and young people will no doubt face a variety of challenges as they move through the education system and as they make the transition into adulthood. Dr Jemma Harris, Chartered psychologist and founder of Happy Little Bundles explains what you can do as a parent, grandparent, carer or education professional in order to help children to build resilience so that they might cope better with the challenges and stresses that life may bring their way.

What is resilience?

Resilience refers to your ability to bounce back when faced with stressors, challenges and adversities. In essence, it is about developing the ability to cope with, to positively adapt to and recover from the ups and downs of life.

Importantly, resilience is not something that is unchanging and eternally stable. There are, of course, both changeable and unchangeable contributing factors but there is wide agreement that resilience is something that we can all build, learn, develop and nurture.

Resilience during childhood

Children and young people will often face a range of challenges as they navigate the education system, different social groups and as they transition into adulthood. Unfortunately, some of those children and young people may well face challenges, stressors or periods of adversity that are much more extreme than their peers.

Resilience is therefore of crucial importance during childhood- a view supported by a growing number of high ranking organisations including The Children’s Society and their Good Childhood Report 2017, UK Government, Action for Children and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Through helping children to build resilience you could be helping them to positively adapt when they face stressors in the future. Importantly, it means that you are increasing their chances of experiencing positive growth (whether that be psychological, cognitive or social) even when they find themselves in sub-optimal environments or adverse circumstances.

Factors linked to resilience

Before thinking about the practical things that you can do in order to build resilience it is worth first considering the types of factors that have been associated with greater resilience.

Supportive social relationships have been identified as one of the most important and fundamental factors contributing to resilience. The American Psychological Association (APA) highlight that when your relationships are built on love, trust, encouragement and reassurance this plays a key role in being able to cope with life’s challenges.

One of the best ways that you can help to build resilience in others (both adults and children) is to be there for them- to support them, value them and nurture them.

A range of other factors have also been found to contribute to resilience, these include: 

  • Self-efficacy (a sense of competence)

  • being able to make realistic plans

  • being able to identify the steps required to carry out those plans

  • having a positive view of one’s self

  • having good communication and problem solving skills

  • being able to cope with strong emotions (i.e. emotional regulation)

  • being reflective rather than impulsive

  • having hobbies

  • having a sense of humour and fun 

Many of these factors reflect skills that we can nurture and develop, both within ourselves and in others.

Practical tips for building resilience in children

Helping children and young people to develop and build resilience isn’t necessarily all about focusing on stress, challenge and perseverance.

Whilst these are important topics to explore, research in the area of resilience suggests that there are a range of practical and everyday things that you can do in order to prepare and bolster children and young people ahead of any stressful or challenging times.

Here are five key things that you can start doing today in order to help children and young people to build resilience in order to face and bounce back from the stresses and challenges of tomorrow: 

1. Foster a ‘growth mindset’

Encourage children to view challenges as vital opportunities for them to develop new skills and to grow. Ensure that you present characteristics (such as intelligence, creativity, sporting ability, etc.) as things that can be nurtured and developed through hard work and dedication. Try to praise children for their effort and hard work rather than characteristics that are inferred to be natural abilities. Psychologist Dr Carol Dweck asserts that if children are encouraged to develop a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset, they are much more likely to embrace challenges, to develop a love of learning and to have a greater level of resilience in the face of stressors, failures or setbacks. 

2. Build skills, build self-esteem

When you help children to explore their impact on their environments and to build new skills you are building their self-esteem. Self-esteem is a key component of wellbeing and flourishing. Help children to develop a positive view of themselves and their abilities. Take care to impact positively on children’s self-esteem and help them to embrace new challenges, build their skills repertoire and to, ultimately, feel competent and able. 

3. Develop a sense of meaning and purpose

People often feel a sense of vitality and enthusiasm when they are following a path that is in line with their true values and their sense of purpose. By helping children to explore and identify the things that they are passionate about and to work towards valued goals you can help children to develop energy and, ultimately, resilience in the face of any setbacks. The importance of having authentic passions, a sense of meaning and purpose and resultant effects on resilience has recently been highlighted by psychologists such as Angela Duckworth (in her research on perseverance and grit) and Steven Joseph (in his research on the important of authenticity). 

4. Get creative

Creativity has been linked to a range of psychological benefits including self-confidence, self-discipline, love of learning, and increased positive emotions and general flourishing. Engaging in creative activities can also help you to develop the ability to ‘think outside of the box’- an ability that can be highly useful when faced with problems and challenges. Helping children and young people to be creative doesn’t have to be restricted to the realms of arts and crafts. Try to find ways to squeeze extra creativity time into your interactions with children by making room for innovative ideas when it comes to your family routine, learning phonics, your science lessons or even the way that you do your family chores. 

5. And most importantly… relax and have fun!

Help children to find time to relax and to engage in activities that they find inherently enjoyable. Our busy, modern lifestyles can often be jam-packed full of activities based on learning, earning and assessments. However, experiencing positive emotions can be a key part of developing skills and resources that will be invaluable in facing life’s more challenging times. It is through cultivating happiness and other positive emotions that we can help children to build skills, build resilience and buffer against stressors. 

Dr Jemma Harris is a Chartered psychologist, researcher and social entrepreneur. She works with social enterprises, and other organisations with links to health and wellbeing, to provide advice on how to align training, content and activities with psychological theories and practice. Jemma also provides assistance with issues related to outcome measurement, data analysis and developing research informed reports on social impact. You can read more about her work HERE.


By Jemma Harris on 24th November 2017

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