I hope our two-year-old son grows up to be a lot of things: happy, kind, curious, empathetic, driven. Above all, I hope he is resilient. I hope he grows into an adult with the ability to adapt; to keep his footing in a world full of all kinds of challenges, both big and small.
So how can I encourage this? Is resilience inherited? A product of our cumulative experiences?
We went to to Ann Masten, a professor of Child Development in the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, for some answers.
Masten has spent 40 years researching children and families’ resilience. We spoke with her before a recent lecture at the University of Calgary.
Laurel Gregory: Why are some children more resilient than others?
Ann Masten: The question of why are some children manifesting resilience and others don’t – sometimes even in the same family – that was the question that got the research started. People could see that if you really observed children and families in crisis, that some people were managing really well and others weren’t. The question of what makes the difference became critical in the science of resilience. Trying to figure out what matters because if we knew the answer to that, we could do a better job promoting resilience in families where it might not naturally occur.
LG: So what is it?
AM: If you’re a very young child it’s clear that the most important protective factor is the quality of parenting and care and the resilience of your family. How they are functioning will have an impact on a child.
Good parenting can buffer a child from a great deal of adversity… For a very young child, it’s really important how the parents are doing. If the parents are handling things pretty well or they’re able to keep up with their job as the caregiver, then their children often do very well.
As children get older, there’s more protective factors in their life. Children have teachers and friends and schools to go to and they use a lot of resources in their environment to help them overcome adversity.
LG: How can parents build more resilient children?
AM: Well, for one thing, they probably need to give their children opportunities to manage difficulties. You don’t want to eliminate stress from the lives of your children because then they don’t learn how to handle things. You don’t want to overwhelm them either.
I like to think of building the capacity for resilience to adversity in a way like we build our immune system. If your immune system is never exposed to any challenges, it won’t optimize.
You’ll get kids with asthma and all kinds of problems. But if we expose our children to biological challenges and also social ones, they will gain some skills and also parents can show their children by doing. Your children are watching you and they watch how you handle adversity so parents can just be aware of that; that there are lots of teaching moments, both when they experience their own challenges and frustrations to talk about it with their children and they can show how they’re handing it to their children.
Also, there’s lots of teaching moments when we are having catastrophes unfolding around the world. You don’t want to overexpose your children to stressful media, however children are very interested in things they hear are going on and they often want to talk about: “What’s happening here and what can I do to help?” Parents can, in an age-appropriate way, help their children do something. They might contribute a little bit of their allowance. They might send pictures or letters. They might do a project. They might help their family get prepared for disasters, create a go-bag or something. What children can do varies by age. But parents can provide opportunities and experiences for children to gain some knowledge and gain some practice with handling challenges.
You don’t want to keep your children away from all kinds of adversity or stress because life inevitably will contain challenges and we all need to have some basic skills of how to get along and the confidence that you can overcome adversity.
LG: Do genetics or personality play a role in a how resilient a child is?
AM: That’s a hot area of research right now, as you might imagine.
There’s a whole new field – the neurobiology of resilience – and I think we are going to see the same story when they get all those projects done. That we inherit certain DNA but experience really matters. So there’s a combination of whatever we start with and then the experiences going along.
We know, for example from biological research now, that even the stress you experience via your mother’s body – before you are even born when you are in her uterus – can alter your own stress regulations systems in ways that we are only starting to understand.
LG: Have you looked at the first 2,000 days – that zero to five mark – and how that plays a role?
AM: We know from global research that the early part of life is critical and it’s partly because so much of brain development and the developmental processes that depend on nutrition and stimulation early in life…We know that those early days are important not only because you’re constructing your body and mind but because you’re learning so rapidly about the way the world works and you do carry that forward.
Good parenting matters particularly in early development because you’re developing the skills and tools that kids can carry forward to school, enrich, enhance and so forth.
Those tools are what give you the capacity for overcoming challenges in the rest of your life. You’re always learning. Resilience isn’t some fixed thing. Your capacity for doing well and handling adversity is always changing because people are always changing and you’re learning and developing but there’s something really important about that foundation. You may become more stress reactive if you have certain experiences as a child.