Building Resilience in Youths
Today we face adversity that our parents never conceived of. A pandemic comes around once in a century. And it’s not only Covid-19. Every parent’s worst fear is that something horrible will befall their child, be it illness, abuse, war, or an unexpected accident and we may not be able to help see them through it.
In the last decade a lot of research in mental health has focused on the impact of the“Adverse Childhood Experiences” or ACEs in early life and in more recent years, how to combat the negative and potentially life long issues that may arise. In the mid to late 90s, the Kaiser ACE Study took place over two years and involved over 17,000 participants. The study found that if children experience a higher number of adverse experiences in their first 18 years of life, the more likely that child is to develop life long physiological, psychological, substance misuse, and relational dysfunctions or disorders. These adverse experiences are categorized into three areas of abuse, neglect, and household challenges, each with various subcategories. You can see the ACE questions here. The ACEs can tell us how at risk a person may be, and it doesn’t tell us a lot. It doesn’t tell us about stressors outside the home or certain stressors inside the home were due to neglect or poverty, community violence or intimate partner violence, among other things. It also doesn’t tell us about protective factors and differences of individual people. If your ACE is high, it may feel alarming to see it there black and white. It would be understandable that seeing this score can be dismaying and there is hope!
Protective factors increase a person’s resilience. Resilience is defined as a quality or qualities that allow people to overcome hardship, distress, adversity, or trauma. In the face of traumatic events, resilient people find ways to overcome, heal and move forward. While this is difficult for everyone, highly resilient people have skills that allow them to recover. There is some evidence to support the idea that resilience is a combination of genes and early childhood. While there is not a lot that can be done about genes, early childhood coping skills can be used to teach resilience. This is where hope comes in! We can build resilience in children to help overcome ACEs and traumatic experiences. In fact, many researchers suggest that resilience can only happen in the face of adversity. Some people develop negative or maladaptive coping skills in the face of trauma, which can influence future recovery from other more challenging or traumatic experiences. However, teaching skills that foster resilient thinking and coping can reduce the impact of traumatic stress and PTSD.
How do we build resilience in our children? First we need to understand four ideas about resilience. The YOUTH THRIVE guide, developed by the Center for the Study of Social Policy summarized:
Resilience is a process and an outcome; it is not a personality trait. As mentioned earlier, becoming resilient can only happen through facing difficulties.
Resilience is contextual with respect to setting, point in time, culture, and social factors. Our culture and place in society can influence what skills will allow us to thrive and overcome the adversity we face. What may be effective and adaptive in one culture may not be in another culture.
Resilience reflects a person’s pattern of positive adaptive behavior in response to current or past risk factors or adversity. The skills we use allow us to become resilient.
Resilience results in personal growth and positive change. When we overcome trauma with positive and adaptive coping skills, similar experiences can seem less challenging.
These last two components may be the key to building resilience in children. First adults must help children reframe, meaning understanding they are not responsible for the abuse, neglect or household challenges that they have experienced. Healthy habits, such as exercise, eating well and getting enough sleep, among other things that reduce stress have been found to be another factor in building resilience in youth. Close, trustworthy relationships with supportive adults and caregivers has been found to be essential. Most importantly challenging negative, challenging maladaptive thinking patterns, learning emotional regulation, and habitually focusing on factors within our control can build a child's sense of internal locus of control, this is perceiving that they are in control of what happens to them or their reactions to what happens to them. Little setbacks or small failures can help children learn it is okay to make mistakes and learn self-compassion. Accepting that sometimes we fail and sometimes bad things happen is essential. Learning that we are not destroyed by the things that happen to us, this is how we can help children build resilience and face life’s stressors, small and big.
Written by: Gissell Reyes, Ma, Ma, LAC, NCC