Resilience theory & what parents can learn from it

Resilience is a skill we all want our kids to have. Here are some insights from the resilience theory to understand what resilience is and what makes children resilient.

Resilience theory & what parents can learn from it

Resilience is a skill we all want our kids to have. But how much do we know about it? Is it a character trait that children are born with? Or is it something that builds over time?

Although the term has been overused in the last decade, resilience theory has a strong scientific basis. In this article, we will move from theory to practice in an effort to understand resilience.

The concept of resilience from material sciences to social sciences

The word resilience was first used in 1807 by Francis Bacon, the English philosopher known as the father of empiricism. He used the word resilience to describe "the ability of materials to return to their original shape after being compressed or stretched."

Resilience is a relatively new concept in the social context. The term's first usage in psychology studies was in the 1970s.

One of the first scientists to use the world resilience to describe a human feature, Norman Garmezy, a professor of psychology studied the concept of resilience in an experimental setting for the first time.

He identified potential threats to children to be chronic or acute. Chronic threats could be having parents with mental or social problems or being a child of problematic divorce. Acute threats could be exposure to traumatic violence or being in an accident.

Rather than looking at what makes children vulnerable to threats, resiliency research focuses on what protects them. That's why the term has become extremely popular among parents in the early 2000s. A secret sauce to make our children protected against life's hurdles? Yes, please!

30-year-long study in Kauai, Hawai

Before Garmezy's first usage of the term, in 1955, developmental psychologist Emmy Werner started a 30-year-long study in Kauai, Hawai.

She followed 698 children from the pre-birth stage all the way to their thirties. One-third of these children belonged to the high-risk group: maternal stress in the womb, poverty, family problems...

By the age of ten, two-thirds of the high-risk children developed learning or behavior problems, and by the age of eighteen mental health problems or teen pregnancies.

But one-third of these high-risk children thrived. They achieved academic, domestic, and social success. They were also open to new opportunities to grow further.

Werner's study was groundbreaking as it provided evidence that not all children crumbled under adverse life conditions.

Can resilience be learned?

Yes. Resilience is a process. The research on resilience is not fully coherent but they agree on one argument: resilience is a set of mental skills that can be taught.

All humans have the same stress-response system. According to George Bonanno, professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, the real question to ask is: why do some people use this system more effectively than others?

The answer is hidden in our perception. Does adversity become traumatizing? If yes, we suffer. If not, we don't.

We can train children, even adults, to better regulate their inner states. This long-haul training seems to be the ultimate resilience builder.

What creates resilience? 5 Cs of resilience

I collected together 5 factors that seem to repeat themselves across studies. Here are the 5 Cs that protect children from stressors and lead to their resilience.

1) Confidence: Children should be confident that the world is a predictable place and things will work out even through tough times. In most studies, resilient children are the ones who thought they could "create their own destiny."

2) Closeness: Close family bonds. Children of emotionally stable and warm mothers show greater resilience. Good relationships protect children against stressors. Grandparents can make up for the physical or emotional absence of a primary caregiver.

3) Coping skills: Children's mental coping skills. These can be listed as planning, self-control, self-reflection, self-confidence, determination. It is important to note that these skills are not a sign of the superiority of a child against others. All of these skills can be learned.

4) Community: Children benefit from a network outside of the family too, such as a supportive relationship with a teacher, or someone who will link them to a bigger community such as a mentor or a social worker.

5) Constructive change: When things go south, there's always the possibility to change things around. Obtaining a new protective factor such as starting a new education, developing friendships, or finding a supportive teacher can promote resilience.


Resilience doesn't mean being invincible or isolated from challenges. Nor does it mean recovery. Resilience is the state of being able to go through adversity with relative stability.

There isn't a clear cut formula for how to build resilience. It depends on factors ranging from genetics to the child's environment. But one thing is certain: when provided with proper protection, no matter at what stage of adversity they are in, all children can develop resilience.

Finally, the most common theme across resilience studies is that a positive parent–child relationship significantly influences children’s resilience.


A healthy parent-child relationship starts with the right parenting mindset.

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