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  • Gonzalo Laje

Cultivating Resilience: Tools for Helping Children Navigate Hard Times

There’s a lot of pain in the world. To be sure, there are also moments of rich joy, beauty, and connection, too. But usually, it’s the former experience, not the latter, that brings people to therapy. I have the privilege of working with some really amazing families. Time and time again, I hear caregivers asking what they can do to support their children. Time and time again, I hear caregivers worrying that this hard, hard thing their child is going through will disrupt the positive trajectory of their life. They often ask, “How do we make it stop? How do we help our child be okay?” And frankly, as a fellow human, I resonate with those sentiments. It is so painful to watch people suffer. It is so tempting to think that if we could just get rid of the hard thing, then everything would be okay. But here’s what I know as a clinician. Life is a mix of good and bad, fair and unfair. We have agency and we also have limits. It’s important to look at situations with a holistic and systemic understanding. And, perhaps most pertinent to this blog, we don’t always have control over whether or not certain things happen to us, but resilience is a game changer.

What is resilience?

Informed by bodies of research, experts in the field, and my own clinical experience, I offer this definition of resilience: resilience is the set of experiences and skills that help us to come through a hard time and be “okay.” Something can be jarring–or even upsetting–and we can pull from our resources so that we both acknowledge that and come through the other side. It’s our ability–sometimes in the moment, sometimes with concerted effort and time after the fact–to bounce back from hard things.

So what?

Much as we may want to bubble wrap our loved ones so they never encounter a potentially traumatic event, the CDC shares that about 64% of adults in the US reported they’d experienced an adverse childhood experience by the time they were 18 years of age. That’s a big number. Maybe even a shocking one. So take a breath, take a sip of water, and keep reading. Did you catch how I started this paragraph with the phrase potentially traumatic event? Experiencing a potentially traumatic event doesn’t mean someone will be traumatized by it. In fact, we know that two people could experience the same thing–be in the same car at the same time with the same people–and one person’s brain encodes the car accident as a trauma and the other person’s brain does not. After the event, the former find themselves more sensitive and with increased anxiety. They benefit from therapeutic work that emotionally desensitizes them to the accident--dials back some of the intensity of the visceral response associated with it. The latter acknowledges that the event was difficult or scary or unjust AND they have a stable sense of self and safety, in spite of it. Their day-to-day functioning doesn’t shift too much (or for too long) after the event.

This begs the really important question: why? The answer is, there are multiple factors at play. Everything from access to resources to the child’s developmental age (if you want to read more about the specifics, check out this article from the National Childhood Traumatic Stress Network: These factors are called “resilience factors.” Resilience serves as a buffer between potentially traumatic experiences and a person’s perception of the event. And the great news is, resilience isn’t a personality trait: it’s not a “ya have it or ya don’t” situation; resilience is a skill that is developed.

How can we support it?

There are SO many ways–fun, developmentally appropriate ways– we can set our children up to cultivate resilience! And they may be smaller and more ordinary things than you’d think:

  • Teach creative thinking

Resilience is, in large part, being able to adapt when something unanticipated happens. The same skills you want your child to be able to shore up when the waiter tells them they’re fresh out of their favorite food are the ones flexed in games like “Would you rather…?” and fictional questions such as, “If Taylor Swift and Eloise from the Plaza met, what do you think would happen?”

  • Normalize the ups and downs of life

Expectations are really powerful things. If we expect that life should always be good, we should always be happy, and things should be easy–then when we encounter moments that are hard, times when we’re sad (or mad or scared or any emotion other than happy), or we really have to work at something, we tend to get down on ourselves and assume we’re doing “it” wrong or, in fact, aren’t good at it and never will be, so what’s even the point of trying. Expectations are built from repeated experiences and messages. Use the experiences and messaging you’re a part of to both empathize with and normalize the ups and downs of life. “You burnt the popcorn again? Oops. That’s a bummer. Next time you’ll cook it for less. Guess we’re having chips with our movie tonight.” “Your friend said something that hurt your feelings, even though they didn’t mean to? Ouch. Give yourself a hug and think about how you want to address it.”

  • Acknowledge their feelings, hold space for that

Part of processing events is actively acknowledging them. If a child is feeling massively disappointed that they have to choose between going to two friends’ birthday parties that are scheduled for the same afternoon, tap into your reflective listening, demonstrate empathy, and use wondering statements to stimulate their own problem-solving skills. But remember, before we can access our thinking brain, we need our feeling brain to feel heard; empathy is almost always the first step.

Want to learn more?

There’s so much more to be shared around resilience. If you’re curious about how to help your child cultivate resilience, join us for our November Coffee Chat, 11/16/23 at 9:30 am (Note: this Coffee Chat is scheduled for a Thursday, not our usual Fridays).

Further reading/learning:


Licensed Graduate Professional Counselor


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