May 28, 2015

The Science of Resilience: Helping us Raise a Healthier Generation

Dr. Jill Rinehart, MD FAAP, is a community pediatrician with Hagan, Rinehart & Connolly Pediatricians in Burlington, Vermont. She is a Clinical Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and is the current American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Vermont Chapter President-elect.

We live in an exciting time when the science of genetics, neuroscience and biology are coming together to create an understanding of “resilience”: how likely an individual is to create positive outcomes in the face of challenges. Often visualized as the central support of a teeter-totter, resilience sets the genetic stage for this balance of negative life events against positive experiences that impact an individual’s entire life course. Those of us who act as caregivers for children can play a pivotal role in helping children achieve that balance.

The world is a scary place—whether it’s exposure to divorce, violence, death, natural disasters, or illness, challenges are pervasive. Why do some children do well despite this exposure to difficulty? 

In the first few years of life the brain develops incredibly rapidly and is most adaptable. Although it is never too late to build resilience, we know that age and developmentally-appropriate health-promoting activities can improve a child’s chance of recovering from life’s stressful experiences. Regular physical exercise, stress-reducing techniques (such as mindfulness meditation) and activities that help build skills of self-control and executive function help children (as well as adults) to adapt to and possibly prevent adversity in their own lives.

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has outlined four major areas upon which we, as teachers, families, care providers and communities, can focus to help build resilient children and a future of healthy, engaged citizens:

1. Helping to create supportive adult-child relationships

  • Children need to know that there is at least one adult (it need not be a parent) in their life who believes in them and loves them unconditionally
  • Fostering healthy relationships that will reinforce positive messages
  • Creating opportunities for adult-child relationships to grow in a physically safe and emotionally secure place within your school, sports team, home or community

2. Helping children develop a sense of how their actions can affect situations, and the control they can have over the outcomes

  • Showing how one’s behaviors affect others
  • Helping children to understand that life’s events are not purely random and that most things that happen are the result of another individual’s choices and actions 

3. Providing opportunities for children to strengthen the skills they need for everyday life, as well as their ability to control their own emotions

  • Addressing conflict openly to resolve problems
  • Modeling positive ways to deal with stress on a consistent basis
  • Realizing that telling a child to “stop” the negative behavior will not be effective
  • Understanding that many risky behaviors are attempts to relieve the stress and pain in kids’ daily lives
  • Not punishing a child for negative behaviors and, potentially, increasing his or her sense of shame 

4. Using sources of faith, hope and cultural traditions

  • Stressing the importance of serving others by modeling generosity
  • Creating opportunities for each child to contribute in some specific way

We can’t shelter a child from the everyday “bumps” in the road, and indeed, there is good evidence that some levels of stress strengthen a child’s capacity.  A challenging homework assignment, additional responsibility around the house, a competitive swim race—are all examples of age-appropriate stresses that help a child to build self-confidence, take initiative, and learn to regulate their emotions. In home- and center-based child care programs, community-based organizations and our own homes, we have the ability to provide our children with “scaffolding,” or support that meets the child where they are developmentally, that helps them practice necessary skills before they have to try them out on their own. Adults can both facilitate this development but also model the activities themselves.

By simultaneously strengthening families and children we can offer a brighter future for our entire community.


  • Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg,  A Parent’s Guide to Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Your Child Roots and Wings
  • Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University
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