Resilience in Children: Building the Ability to Bounce Back - Kimberly Thompson

     “I’m rubber and you’re glue — whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” This singsong phrase is well-known in elementary school as a smart retort to unkind words. It seems appropriate to begin today’s discussion of how kids develop resilience — that marvelous ability to bounce back.  I’m concerned that in our zealousness to make sure that nobody’s feelings are ever hurt, and that nobody is ever disappointed, we are creating kids that have an inflated idea of their own importance and a very fragile ability to recover after minor setbacks. Instead of creating kids that bounce when they are thrown down, we are creating kids that crack when they are bumped even a teeny bit by life.

     I’m going to be a tad more academic than usual because resilience is of great interest to those of us who research mental health issues. Resilience has been mostly studied in children who have been through intense adversity — a neglectful or abusive parent, early severe illness like cancer, natural disaster, war, or famine. The lessons we have learned about childhood resilience, though, can be applied to every child.

     If you are still in the mindset of “I am going to make sure my child never faces great adversity, so she doesn’t really need to build resilience,” let me set you straight. You. can’t. do. that. It literally lies beyond your power. Hard times will come, sooner or later.

      Here is what has been discovered about resilient people, and resilient children in particular.*

            1) Resilient children are socially competent. This means that they are skilled at making and keeping friends, and in negotiating tough situations with others. They are able to do this on their own, without their mom arranging playdates or throwing elaborate birthday parties to help them along. By the time they are in elementary school, they should be having opportunities to meet other kids on their own — at school, church or other religious activities, and maybe sports or Scouts — with adult supervision but not adult interference. Socially competent kids will be making friends, asking for friends to come over, and receiving invitations from other kids as well. They won’t need you to make the arrangements for them.

     I distinctly remember when my youngest, and very socially competent, son came home from first grade telling a story about a new boy in school. “He kept hitting and kicking the other kids,” my son reported. “But when he tried to kick me, I blocked him and he fell down. He didn’t try to kick me again.” In this case, he had been studying martial arts since the age of 3. He had been well-taught how to defend himself without becoming the aggressor. I felt no need to intervene or inform the school. My son had handled the situation. Not only could he handle negative situations, he was highly social, being invariably surrounded by friends wherever he went.

     2) Resilient children are skilled at problem-solving. Resilient kids can figure out how to get things down both inside and outside the classroom. When my oldest son was in first grade, I dropped him off at his dad’s office before taking his brother to gymnastics. (If I haven’t mentioned it before, my husband is an ob-gyn physician). It was right before the end of the day, and the office staff had gone home. His dad was called over to labor & delivery, and he told my son to give me a few minutes and then call and tell me to pick him up. Unfortunately my husband forgot that he needed to show our son how to choose a phone line to make a call. So, my son couldn’t figure out the phone system. He went outside to look for his dad, and the door locked behind him. What’s a 7-year-old to do? Well, he walked across the parking lot to the hospital, went in, found someone at a desk, and asked to use the phone. He then called me. When I picked him up five minutes later, his feathers were quite ruffled with his dad, but he was fine. And, he had solved quite a tricky problem.

     My husband hadn’t intentionally put our son in a predicament, but all’s well that ends well. In the process, our child’s problem solving skills were tested and refined, and his self-confidence moved up a notch. I’m not recommending the trial-by-fire method as an intentional strategy, but when it happens, forgive yourself and move on. Be thankful for the resilience that adversity brings your kid.

     3) Resilient children possess critical consciousness. This attribute is intended to describe kids who have been neglected and abused, but can also apply to the rest of them as well. Critical consciousness means the child can step back and think critically about the environment she is being raised in, and about the way important adults behave, and understand when something is wrong. Critical consciousness is a crucial skill to free us all to make autonomous choices … that is, when we are free to choose. I have talked to many adults living drastically better-quality lives than their parents or their siblings, and when I ask, “Why are you not [using drugs/an alcoholic/experiencing so many broken relationships/in prison/etc.]?” they almost invariably answer, “Because when I was a very small child, I knew that the way my family was living was not right, and I vowed to live my life differently.”

      Now, I sincerely hope that you are living your life in such a way that your child will want to emulate you, and in doing so will be healthy and happy and authentically virtuous. I hope your child will never have to say to herself, “The way mom is living is not right, and I’m not going to live that way.” In the case of families who more-or-less have it together (whatever “it” is), remember that complete naivete about the harsher realities of life does not foster critical consciousness. I have seen families who, out of the motivation to spare their child’s innocence, object to friendships with disadvantaged peers. Out of an overzealous effort to shield their own child, these families miss opportunities to show their child’s peers compassion. Compassion becomes a theoretical concept rather than a realistic virtue. If you are one of those families, don’t be surprised if your child’s growth in compassion and social consciousness becomes stunted and anemic.

     4) Resilient children possess autonomy. Last year during parent orientation at my son’s university, parents were cautioned not to ask for our child’s Moodle (an online learning platform) password. We were told that the year before, a student had to undergo a cheating investigation because someone was logged into her Moodle account and browsing while she was taking an exam. Turns out her mother was snooping around online, checking to see if her daughter was completing her assignments on time. I have also heard crazy stories of parents going to interviews with their post-collegiate offspring or trying to intervene with their twenty-something’s boss.

     People, this stuff is just wrong. And this kind of nonsense starts way before college — certainly before they are young adults. At its root, this is a boundary failure. Parents that keep sticking their nose into their child’s business are failing to see a difference between themselves and their child. And hear this: There is a difference.

     Your child may not be college material. If she is, have her prove it by making good grades throughout high school without your supervision. In fact, in about grade 4 or 5 you should be backing off of your involvement, stretching the intervals between grade check-ins. By high school, she should be managing her own calendar and schedule. (I’m not saying there would be no consequences for poor grades — just that by high school you should no longer be preventing poor grades by micromanaging her).

      Are you still bringing forgotten lunches, homework, or sports equipment to your middle schooler? Poor boundaries. The proper response to a call for mom to bring stuff to a school-age child is: “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” Learn to distinguish what is you and what is not — and for most parents in contemporary western culture, you constitutes a lot less than you think.

     Autonomy. It’s got to be on the menu if you want to give your child the lifelong gift of resilience.

     5) Resilient children have a sense of purpose. Do you allow your child to contribute in a meaningful way to your family life? I’m not sure I can touch on all the possibilities here, but caring for others is big on my list. Your child can meaningfully lighten your load as a parent by her cooperation, her attitude, and her work. She gives back to you every day she gives 100% at school and stays out of trouble. She gives back to you when she is a good steward of her own stuff and shares generously with her siblings. She builds relationships with her siblings that will last a lifetime when she is generous and nurturing, protective and compassionate, helpful and long on self-control. She creates a better world by being her best self.

     Don’t cheat your child out of a sense of purpose. Require some things from her that are not for her own benefit. Ask her to do things that you genuinely need help with. Trust her with some responsibility. Allow her to do for others, teach her not to expect anything in return, and genuinely admire the beauty of her self-sacrifice. Creating a childhood and adolescence that mostly revolves around her and her needs — that’s creating an illusion that is unsustainable in the adult world.

*Zolkowski, S., & Bullock, L. (2012). Resilience in children and youth: A review. Children and Youth Services Review, 34(12), 2295-2303.


     I am Dr. Kimberly Thompson, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Lubbock, Texas. I work with mothers and their children to help them heal, grow, and live their most vibrant lives. My particular expertise is pregnant and postpartum women, and moms of “littles.” My book, Perfect Mothers Get Depressed, is available on Amazon and from Praeclarus Press. If you live within driving distance of Lubbock, you can work with me face-to-face; if you live anywhere else in the state of Texas, you can work with me via online therapy. Send me a message if you need more information, or call my office at (806) 224-0200 if you’re ready to book an appointment.