• July 7, 2023

Building Resilience in Children going through Family Separation

World-renown child trauma expert, Dr Bruce Perry emphasises that resilience in children is learned rather than being something kids are naturally equipped with. This important perspective challenges assumptions that all kids are resilient, and will adapt to major life challenges, such as family separation.

What is resilience and why is it important for children?

In broad terms, resilience is our ability to recover and get back on track after stressful traumatic events or phases in life. In other words, our level of resilience directly impacts our capacity to heal, or cope with life’s challenges. It’s critical to develop resilience from an early age to help us manage emotional and physical behaviours in relation to stressful events. Resilience is needed to help children heal and continue a healthy developmental journey despite setbacks in early childhood.

Are children naturally resilient?

As mediators, when discussing with parents the impact of family separation on their children, we often hear parent’s remark that ‘kids are resilient they’ll be OK…’ in response to the question of how the children are coping with the family separation. It’s true, some children on the strength of biology, nurturing experiences, and a healthy attachment to caregivers especially in the first few years of life, do develop skills of resilience from an early age to help them navigate through and heal from adverse child experiences such as family separation. But for many children, this is not the case and coping with a traumatic event like family separation can be extremely debilitating. Without adequate skills of resilience, children may have increased difficulty in their ability to cope with the separation and additional, more complex challenges throughout life. In short, kids aren’t born resilient, they learn and develop resilience chiefly from stable and nurturing relationships with adult caregivers.

How can we help build resilience in children going through family separation?

Importantly, there are some relatively simple and effective things parents can do to help their kids become more resilient in the face of adverse experiences. Teaching kids to understand and manage their emotions, improving your listening and communication skills with your children and being able to help them navigate every day challenging events and phases in life are all important to building resilience in children. Research also shows that children can thrive despite adverse circumstances if they have at least one stable, committed, and supported relationship with an adult.

Of the many important factors that contribute to building resilience in kids, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, three key factors stand out as critical to the development of resilience in children:

Cognitive development/problem-solving skills: By engaging kids in problem-solving activities, they develop a level of independence and accomplishment which gives them confidence. Problem solving also helps kids fire up the parts of their brain that may have been offline. Because the neural pathways of young brains are still being wired, through this kind of engagement, healthy brain pathways are being reinforced.

Self-regulation: This focuses on working memory, the ability to focus on a goal, tolerance and management of frustration, and the ability to acknowledge, control and express emotions appropriately. Self-regulation in childhood is critical for positive mental health outcomes in later life stages.

Relationships with caring adults: Relationships with caring adults, including (but not limited to) parents, family members, coaches, teachers, or neighbours, helps children learn about healthy relationships characterised by consistence, predictability, and safety. In turn, from these relationships, children receive guidance, comfort, and support.

Resilience isn’t a special gift. It develops through normal human relationships and guidance

The good news is the critical skills of resilience can evolve in children through basic levels of support and guidance. According to Ann Masten a universally respected researcher of resilience in children, “Resilience does not come from rare and special qualities, but from the everyday magic of ordinary, normative human resources in the minds, brains, and bodies of children, in their families and relationships, and in their communities.”

The essential takeout: A caring adult relationship is the key to developing a child’s resilience

Even during traumatic and difficult phases of a child’s life, there is always capacity for “ordinary magic” to help kids evolve their capacity to adapt to adversity and perceived threats when their basic human needs are nurtured and supported.

For more information and help on developing resilience in children, download this free Resilient Kids Toolkit developed by the team at Royal Far West.

Author: Cath Pope

Family Dispute Practitioner, Fresh Start Mediation


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