Is Your Child Resilient? How to Know

Typically, kids are resilient, but can your child bounce back? An expert from The Children’s Center shares the signs of resilience and its connection to mental health.

A kid who has faced challenges and loss and emerged from the experience intact is a testament to the power of childhood resilience. You might say that resilience is a child’s superpower. But what is resilience and why is it so important to strong mental health?

“Resilience is the ability to adapt and cope with difficult life circumstances. It’s both a process of learning and a positive outcome following a stressful event,” explains Sarah Witherell, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist and Director of Psychological Services with The Children’s Center in Detroit. When a child can use coping strategies to work through stressful events, they leverage strong mental health integral to a high quality of life.

Wondering if your child is resilient? We asked Witherell how to gauge a child’s resilience skills, how to help boost their ability to bounce back — and when to worry.

Misconceptions about resilience

Resilience is not the absence of sadness or hurt. “Crying after a loved one or a pet has passed away is a normal reaction. Resilience is learning to cope with those big feelings and dealing with them in a healthy way,” Witherell says.

On the surface, resilience can be confused with optimism, and well-meaning adults sometimes tell children to “not worry about it” or “everything happens for a reason” because it feels comforting and resilience-building — when it’s quite the opposite. “This could make a child feel like they are not supposed to feel sadness or fear,” says Witherell. “Unrealistic optimism is unhealthy coping and an unhealthy reaction that can come from others.”

Signs of resilience to look for

Your child is bound to have negative everyday experiences and, of course, bigger traumas like losing a family member, friend or pet. What does your child already show you about their ability to bounce back? Witherell shares these signs:

  • Following a stressful event, your child returns to their typical self.
  • Your child remains interested in school, activities, sports and friends.
  • Your child actively uses a coping strategy, like saying, “I was mad today but I told my friend I didn’t like what they were doing. I calmed myself and walked away.”
  • Your child seeks out coping strategies like visiting the cemetery or crafting a picture to remember grandma.

When to worry

There’s no standard timeline for coping with stress, trauma or grief, says Witherell, but the longer things linger, the more reason for concern. If, after some time has passed, make note and reach out to a mental health professional or your child’s doctor if your child is:

  • Withdrawn and quiet, if that’s uncharacteristic behavior for them.
  • Not interested or willing to do their normal activities, like dance class or baseball.
  • Showing activity levels or sleep patterns that are different from before.
  • Aggressive, impulsive, self-injurious, taking risks, staying up all night, showing dangerous coping behaviors.
  • Expressing hopelessness.

How to help your child after a traumatic event

When a family experiences trauma, comforting everyday routines easily get overlooked. “So often, returning to routines and making sure things are consistent and predictable can be really challenging,” Witherell says, suggesting that parents help children stick to regular mealtimes and bedtimes. “Limits and limit-setting are important as well. Kids do need a certain level of limits to keep safe and to keep their life predictable.”

Wherever possible, involve your child in a developmentally appropriate way in funerals and other rituals and remember to give your child time and plenty of support. “You don’t want to rush it,” she says. “Most kids, with the right support and time, will be resilient in most situations.”

Supporting resilience as your child grows

Everyday bumps are opportunities to build resilience, so what are some ways to foster these skills? Model and encourage, says Witherell. “Even if a child makes a mistake or knocks something over, model expressions such as ‘We’ll pick it up and fix it together.’ You’re not dismissing their feelings, but saying that together, you can fix it,’” she says. “In those everyday moments as well as anything more intense, validating feelings is really important.”

When you validate your child’s feelings, you’re recognizing — not judging or correcting. This is your opportunity to refrain from giving advice or solving their problem. You’ll be surprised how much your child may confide when they feel safe sharing their feelings.
“Sometimes parents will say their child never talks to them, but after five minutes with a therapist, they open up,” says Witherell. “A lot of times it’s because I think we, as therapists and psychologists, are validating those feelings. We’re listening more than we’re talking.”

Dr. Sarah Witherell’s Favorite Resources for Parents

Dr. Sarah Witherell also serves as Chair of the Child, Youth and Families Committee for the Michigan Psychological Association.

Content sponsored by the Ethel and James Flinn Foundation. Visit flinnfoundation.org.

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