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  • Writer's pictureSherelee Clarke

Bouncing back: how to nurture resiliency across the lifespan

By Gaynor Word-Smith

Resilience is not simply the ability to survive a difficult experience or a set of circumstances, instead it is an ability to adapt and cope with circumstances in a way that enables a person to emerge stronger, to thrive in the aftermath, and to integrate the lessons learned.

Resiliency, the ability to bounce back from setbacks and disappointments, equips children and adults to successfully confront challenges and seek solutions to problems. Developing and nurturing this ability in young children, enables them to learn strategies to overcome adversity through middle childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

Resilient children and adults learn how to set realistic goals; have realistic expectations when it comes to achieving goals; learn how to solve problems; and develop a sense of confidence in their decision-making processes. They view ‘mistakes’ as challenges to overcome and opportunities for learning, rather than ‘failures’ to be ashamed of, rejected or avoided.

Understanding and developing resilience leads to healthier, happier people and communities.

Nurturing resiliency in young children

Children with a resilient mindset feel loved, valued and appreciated. Their concept of self presents an image of strength and competence in their own abilities, and they develop effective interpersonal skills in their relationships with others. These children are comfortable in seeking out assistance from others, believing that others are there to help them succeed. They trust that the adults in their lives care about them and are there to support their endeavours.

In order to develop resiliency in young children, adults need to be consistent, trustworthy and loving in their approaches to children. In their book, Raising Resilient Children: Fostering Strength, Hope & Optimism in your Child, Brooks & Goldstein identified ‘guideposts’ embedded in adults who have the ability to foster resilience in children. The following approaches and strategies can be learned and applied by adults who are responsible for young children’s development:

  • Be empathetic. Try to see the world through the child’s eyes. Put yourself in the child’s shoes.

  • Communicate effectively. Listen actively. Find the time to give each child in your care, your undivided attention. Listen with ears, eyes and heart.

  • Learn to identify and rewrite negative scripts. Know that if you keep doing what you are doing, you are going to keep getting what you are getting. Adults must first change their behaviour, before children can adjust theirs. Adults role model acceptable behaviours, and children copy.

  • Demonstrate belief in a child’s worth. Show a child they are loved, valued and appreciated. Use respectful, kind language and voice tones. Listen without interrupting.

  • Demonstrate acceptance. Accept a child for who they are, not who you want them to be. Embrace their unique qualities and individuality.

  • Focus on strengths. Catch children demonstrating positive actions and behaviours. Acknowledge their positive behaviour through praise, encouragement and reinforcement e.g. I saw how you showed Sally where to find her shoes. That was kind and helpful.

  • View mistakes as learning opportunities. When children make mistakes or ‘mess up’, use this as an opportunity to reinforce the message that mistakes are experiences from which to learn e.g. The paint has spilled on the floor. Let’s clean it up together and think about ways we could carry the paint so that it doesn’t spill next time.

  • Help children foster a sense of responsibility, compassion and a social conscience. Provide them with opportunities to make contributions to their home, their school, their community.

  • Build self-esteem. Children with a healthy self-esteem have a realistic sense of what they can control in their lives, and this where they focus their attention. This requires effective problem-solving and decision-making skills, carefully nurtured by the adults in their lives.

Nurturing resiliency in young adulthood

The transition from adolescence to adulthood is one of the most challenging times of life. The key to success during these ‘white water rafting years’ lies in how resilient young adults can be in the face of ongoing life challenges.

The expectation of instant gratification, immediate solutions and the social pressure to succeed is overwhelming for young adults who feel inadequately equipped to deal with challenges or perceived failures. “There’s a whole trend of perfectionism that doesn’t allow for people to make mistakes or fail at things they try to accomplish” says Wellness Coach, Dana Bender whose work involves helping young adults realise that ‘failure’ plays a significant role in moving forward and becoming wiser through these experiences. Here are five ways that young adults can build resiliency:

  • Make Self-Care a Priority. Eat nutritious food, get enough sleep, and exercise regularly. Physical, cognitive, emotional and psychological wellness are key factors in building resiliency.

  • Go After What You Want. Young adults can often feel overwhelmed about study and career paths that are not aligned with their unique skills, interests, and abilities. If their choices are reflective of the significant adults in their lives they are trying to please, giving up in the face of obstacles and challenges is more likely than when on a path that reflects their unique selves.

  • Break Down Your Goals Into Smaller Steps. Realize that there is no such thing as “an overnight success”. Progress happens incrementally. Older adults can help and encourage younger adults to break down their goal into manageable steps.

  • Remember That Mistakes are Part of Learning. Building resilience is about learning from your mistakes and learning from your failures. Ask: What is this experience teaching me? Focus your attention on the strengths being honed along the way. Ask: How can I apply my strengths to the next situation I face?

  • Be Part of a Community. As they take risks and face challenges, it is essential for young adults to strengthen social networks and find supportive people with whom to share their feelings, triumphs and challenges. Draw strength from other like-minded individuals.

Nurturing resiliency in midlife

Adam Grant, a management and psychology professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania says:

Midlife can bring all kinds of stressors, including divorce, the death of a parent, career setbacks and retirement worries, yet many of us don’t build the coping skills we need to meet these challenges. The good news is that some of the qualities of middle age, such as a better ability to regulate emotions, perspective gained from life experiences and concern for future generations; may give older people an advantage over the young when it comes to developing resilience.”

Here are some of the ways you can build your resilience in middle age.

  • Practice Optimism. Optimism is part-nature, part-nurture and doesn’t mean ignoring the reality of a dreadful situation. For example, after experiencing a crisis you could think “I’ll never recover from this.” Or you could acknowledge the challenge in a more hopeful way, saying, “This is difficult, but it’s an opportunity to reflect on, rethink my life goals and find another way to move forward.”

  • Rewrite Your Story. What is your story? And who are you without your story? Numerous studies have shown that we can benefit from reframing the personal narrative that shapes our view of the world and ourselves. “It’s about learning to recognize the explanatory story you tend to use in your life,” says Steven Southwick, a psychiatry professor at Yale Medical School. “Observe what you are saying to yourself and question it. It’s not easy. It takes practice.”

  • Don’t Personalize It. We have a tendency to blame ourselves for life’s setbacks and to ruminate about what we should have done differently. In the moment, a difficult situation feels as if it will never end. To strengthen your resilience, remind yourself that even if you made a mistake, a number of factors most likely contributed to the problem. Shift your focus to the next steps you should take.

  • Remember Your Comebacks. Remind yourself of the challenges you have personally overcome. Reflect on what you went through and how you got through. The strengths, skills, abilities, attitudes that helped you then, will help you again.

  • Support Others. Resilience studies show that people are more resilient when they have strong support networks of friends and family to help them cope with a crisis, but giving support to others, gives you an even bigger resilience boost.

  • Take Stress Breaks. Times of manageable stress present an opportunity to build your resilience. Recognize that you will never eliminate stress from your life. Instead create regular opportunities for the body to recover from stress — just as you would rest your muscles between weightlifting repetitions. Taking a walk break, spending five minutes to meditate or having lunch with a good friend are ways to give your mind and body a break from stress.

  • Go Out of Your Comfort Zone. Resilience doesn’t just come from negative experience. You can build your resilience by putting yourself in challenging situations. Join an Adult Learn to Swim Class. Take up a new sport or hobby. Learn a new skill. Visit a new country. Run a marathon. Share your secret poetry skills with strangers at a poetry slam. “There is a biology to this,” said Charney, co-author of the book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges. “Your stress hormone systems will become less responsive to stress so you can handle stress better. Live your life in a way that you get the skills that enable you to handle stress.

Nurturing resiliency in older adulthood

The concept of resilience in aging was born out of the paradox of old age. According to The University of Arizona’s Center on Aging, older adults report feeling contentment despite the losses and physical decline experienced in later life, experiencing fewer mental illnesses than their younger counterparts. Researchers have argued that this is due to resilience, which is about developing a set of learned traits impacting positive aging and wellness.

To increase your own ability to cope with difficult circumstances, these tips can get you started:

  • Maintain an optimistic attitude and always look for the “silver lining.”

  • Engage in new activities.

  • Cultivate new friendships or join a social group.

  • Accept that some things are out of your control, and take action on the things you can affect.

  • Practice stress-management techniques.

  • Develop a spiritual practice like prayer, meditation, yoga or mindful journaling.

  • Maintain perspective; don’t let your thoughts run away with you.

  • Practice self-care through proper nutrition, regular exercise and good sleep habits.

  • Volunteer your time to help others.

  • Ask for help when you need it.

  • Look for the lessons you can learn from the situation.

Resilience requires both nurture and nature. Continue to maintain your focus toward practicing the things you can do to overcome difficult circumstances, and you may soon find that resilience becomes second nature.


Teacher Leadership Mentoring and Life Coaching. Personal and Professional Development.

Gaynor is a teacher educator and mentor facilitating personal & professional leadership wellbeing outcomes for teachers.

Reach Education Ltd

Reach. Teach. Lead.

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