Resilience is the unsung hero of well-being and success
When you’re in the middle of trying and failing — challenges don’t feel good.
But bouncing back from difficult situations is absolutely critical to learning and growth. Think of your child learning to walk. They pull themselves up, fall down, take those first steps and fall again. But they don't stop trying. That's resilience. And it’s essential!
Resilience is the characteristic that helps children and adults cope with stress and adversity1. It’s the unseen ability to push through failure, not give up when things feel hard, and accomplish your goals.
And beyond just achieving an end result, the trait of resilience is important for overall wellbeing across the lifespan because it reduces the feelings of stress that come with setbacks²
What’s concerning is that resilience seems to be declining in children³ because of changes in how kids today spend their time.
As a parent, you already know you’ll never be able to remove every stressor for your child. It’s just not possible.
So the real question becomes — how to teach your child skills of resilience so they can bounce back when (because it will happen) when they face adversity.
What We Know About Building Resilience in Children
Resilience isn’t a binary where you either have it or you don’t. Yes, some children are born with a temperament that makes them naturally more resilient. But more importantly, resilience is a fluid trait that children can learn and grow by practicing.
And like most skills, the brain’s ability to learn during early childhood makes it an ideal time to strengthen characteristics of resilience.
The role of caring adults is to provide the environment, support, and opportunities so your child can feel safe to try new things, fail, and enjoy the journey of the experience.
Does this sound like a tall order? Let’s look at how you do it!
The Power of the Right Surroundings
Not surprisingly, your child is more likely to try something when their basic needs are met and extra distractions are removed.
There is more to consider beyond just a healthy, stable home environment. What many parents don’t think of is the outdoor environment – the wild of nature – as a classroom of resilience, full of opportunities!
In 2019, a fascinating research study specifically looked at how nature preschools fostered skills associated with resilience.
What they found was that outdoor preschool programs increased the underlying skills behind resilience. These skills were self-regulation, attachment, and initiative. All of which helped kids overcome the stress of trying new things (Ernst, 2019).
Here’s why nature is such an ideal place for building resilience skills:
Built-in stress reduction to balance out the emotions of trying something new
Opportunities galore to try new, challenging things
Focus on experience over outcomes
For example, let’s pretend your child struggles with balance. The emotional experience of crossing the balance beam on the playground is completely different then crossing a log out in the woods.
Instead of focusing on simply choosing a different way to get to the other side, being in nature changes the entire experience. Stress and distractions are reduced. Crossing the log is part of the fun. Maybe even the only way to get to the other side. It makes sense to try again and your kid is motivated too!
The Important Role of Caregivers in Building Resilient Kids
When it comes to building resilience, caregiver support is critical. That’s because emotional support makes a huge difference in your child’s willingness to try difficult things.
So when you head outdoors, you’re not just there as a chauffeur on the trail. You play a key role in facilitating resilience through how you provide emotional support that fosters a growth mindset. This boils down to celebrating the process of learning and modeling effective coping strategies for stressors.
Some phrases you might use to promote resilience:
That was very hard but you are doing a good job trying.
That doesn’t look like it’s working. Is there a different way you can do it?
I’m proud of how hard you worked on that even though it didn’t turn out how you wanted.
It’s okay to take a break before you try again. That usually helps me.
It’s okay to not know how to do something. Keep trying, and soon it will get easier.
Ultimately as a parent, you lead by example as you demonstrate how to label emotions, use coping strategies, and focus on lessons and the journey rather than end results.
Outdoors for Risky Play (Without Real Injury)
The cycle to building resilience is basically:
1. Try something hard
2. It doesn’t work
3. Celebrate the learning process (whether successful or not)
That means to build resilience, kids need to practice taking risks and maybe even failing (without actual injury). Then, they need to feel the inner motivation to try again.
So when it comes to your child: what’s motivating while pushing boundaries of their skills? Our answer - The risky, messy, wondrous adventure of the outdoors. It’s not neat and tidy. The path forward might be hard — there could literally be a fallen tree in the way. But somehow, the fun of a little risky-feeling outdoor play makes it easier to overcome challenges and obstacles.
Climbing a tree might take multiple attempts but it feels good once you make it to that branch.
It might not work to build a fort but it was fun to try.
It might seem scary to swing over to the hill but it feels good to overcome a fear.
Not sure how to begin with outdoor activities that build resilience?
Here are some ideas to make your next visit outdoors a classroom for resilience.
Wait and Watch — When exploring outdoors, don’t immediately jump in to stop unconventional play such as climbing, swinging, or exploring.
Be present — Pay attention so you can guide your child to problem solve potential hazards or provide emotional support for frustration.
Healthy risk-taking — Let your child attempt play activities where they might not be successful as long as they aren’t overly dangerous
Don’t just fix — Instead, encourage thinking and problem solving by asking questions.
Initially, you might have to fight the urge to jump in and immediately help your child. Or even avoid all risky play adventures.
That’s you being a normal, loving parent. But when resilience is the goal, wait, be supportive, and give them the chance to practice figuring it out.
Bearfoot OT — Where Kids Learn to Overcome Obstacles
You’ll never get a doctor’s prescription to work on resilience, but helping your child build skills to manage stress and overcome failure will pay off in the classroom and over their lifetime.
That’s why resilience is so deeply rooted in our therapy work with kids. In our occupational therapy sessions, even when kids are working on things that feel hard, that stress isn’t felt in the context. Kids are pushing themselves while having fun and receiving the right level of emotional support.
Learn more about occupational therapy services at Bearfoot.
1. Razani, N., Niknam, K., Wells, N.M., Thompson, D., Hills, N.K., Kennedy, G., Gilgoﬀ, R., Rutherford, G.W., (2019). Clinic and park partnerships for childhood resilience: A prospective study of park prescriptions. Health & Place, 57, 179-185.https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1353829218306609?via%3Dihub
2. Ernst, J.A., Johnson, M.B., & Burçak, F. (2019). The Nature and Nurture of Resilience: Exploring the Impact of Nature Preschools on Young Children's Protective Factors.
3. Twenge, J. M., Gentile, B., DeWall, C. N., Ma, D., Lacefield, K., & Schurtz, D. R. (2010). Birth cohort increases in psychopathology among young Americans, 1938-2007: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of the MMPI. Clinical psychology review, 30(2), 145–154. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19945203/
Chawla, L., Keena, K., Pevec, I., Stanley, E. 2014. “Green Schoolyards as Havens from Stress and Resources for Resilience in Childhood and Adolescence.” Health and Place 28:1–13. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1353829214000379