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Child Development

Fostering Resiliency Throughout Childhood

Parents and supporters can foster resiliency in age-appropriate ways

Key points

  • Resiliency helps promote children’s social and emotional wellbeing.
  • Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development provides a helpful framework to support resiliency in age-appropriate ways.
  • Parents and supporters can foster resiliency in many ways including modelling and communication.
Patrick Slade/Unsplash
Source: Patrick Slade/Unsplash

Raising resilient children is not a destination, it’s a journey. It is learning how to best equip your child to meet life’s inevitable challenges. Research supports that resiliency is positively associated with curiosity, life satisfaction, and psychological well-being (Greup, et al., 2018; Haddadi & Besharat, 2010; Hiew, et al, 2000). In the ever-changing landscape of our world, it is crucial for children to develop their personal capacity for resiliency.

Resiliency is the capacity to rally, to bounce back, and to recover from a set-back or difficult experience. It is how we dust ourselves off and get back up when we fall. Resiliency matters because it helps promote social and emotional wellbeing.

Children who are resilient are able to successfully navigate their emotions, they trust themselves, and believe they can figure out what they need. Resilient children also know when to ask for help. Benard’s compilation of resilience research in her book Resiliency: What have we learned? concluded children who are resilient excel in four key areas of development:

  • Social competence
  • Problem solving
  • Self-efficacy
  • Sense of purpose, hope and meaning

Life will inevitably provide situations for children to experience challenges. The goal as parents and supporters is not to eliminate challenges, but to prepare children to deal with difficulties effectively. The truth is, parents will not always be there to protect children from any and all danger or harm, but can teach them the skills of how to think and act so they can protect themselves.

Resiliency across a child’s life span looks different. What it means to be resilient at 5 years old is different than what it means at 15 years old. Hopefully, when children are little, they will only require ‘little bounce backs’. The challenges children face often grow as they do, and might require more of a ‘comeback’.

Learning how to navigate manageable and age appropriate threats is critical for the development of resiliency. A helpful framework for conceptualizing age appropriate resiliency goals comes to us through the renowned scholar, Erik Erikson and his works on psychosocial stages of development.

Ages 3-5 Years: Initiative vs. Guilt

The goal of this age group is to build on the trust and autonomy from toddlerhood by exploring initiative. Children start to explore their world in more depth but are not expected to experience completion or mastery. Exploring their initiative can look like children emptying every toy shelf and starting every book, but not finishing any of these tasks. This can be frustrating for parents, but finishing tasks is not the purpose of this stage of development. If this natural initiative is too often thwarted, children can begin to develop guilt. We definitely want to minimize this emotional state as it corrodes our children’s willingness to take risks, and thus their resiliency. We want to encourage children to be curious and to feel free to explore. Ways to support children in this stage include:

  • Provide unconditional love and safety within the home
  • Teach self-soothing. When children fall down, teach them how to hold their own knee, apply pressure, rock, and tell themselves they will be okay.
  • Model behaviour that communicates optimism and confidence. Avoid catastrophic or all-or-nothing language (Eg. “This is the worst thing ever”).
  • Praise effort and exploration, not mastery or completion.
  • Help children learn how to acknowledge and label their feelings.
  • Help children learn to accept responsibility for their own behavior and understand their actions have consequences.
  • Establish that errors and failures are part of learning.
  • Incorporate resilient vocabulary (Eg. “You will figure this one out”) and use language that assures (Eg. “I am here”).

Ages 6-11 Years: Industry vs. Inferiority

The goal for this age group is to think about industry. This is when children aim to learn how to finish what they start. At this developmental stage, we want to start mastering some fundamental skills. The opposite end of industry is inferiority. According to Erikson’s work, this stage is when the child starts to develop their own beliefs about their capacity and efficacy, which is essentially their confidence in themselves that they can perform. As parents, we want to encourage children to see they can do things they previously could not. Some strategies for adults to support resiliency in this stage:

  • Provide unconditional love and safety within the home.
  • Acknowledge follow-through and sticking with harder tasks.
  • Balance children’s autonomy with your help.
  • Normalize setbacks and failures as part of the learning process.
  • Encourage children to accept responsibility for their actions and understand consequences.
  • Encourage open discussion and negotiation for increasing responsibilities (age appropriate).
  • Encourage flexible thinking and self-reflection.
  • Teach children the importance of self-care and self-compassion.

Ages 12+: Identity vs. Confusion

During pre-adolescence and adolescence there is a significant shift in development, moving to an outside-the-family-system focus. They ask internal questions like “Who Am I?”; “How do I fit into society?”; and “What will I do?”. The goal is for the teenager to safely explore their identity by taking risks and trying new ways of being. Through self-discovery, they can emerge into adulthood with a solid sense of who they are while having the ability to make decisions and problem solve based on their values, principles, and beliefs. To support teenagers, parents and supporters can:

  • Understand young people are trying to figure out the world all over again.
  • Listen with the intention of hearing them, not correcting or solving.
  • Make time for one another and include them in family life.
  • Engage in their world as a supporter not a rescuer.
  • Encourage their sense of exploration, play, and fun.
  • Model health and wellness practices.
  • Stay hopeful that their future will be bright and that your teenager is well equipped to problem solve issues.

As we witness children navigating the world, we can be inclined to jump in to rescue or save. It can take courage on our part as adults to watch children fall and fail. By keeping in mind their stages of development, parents and supporters can provide a safe and supportive place for children to fall.


Benard, B. (2004). Resiliency: What have we learned? WestEd.

Erickson, E. H. (1958). Young man Luther: A study in psychoanalysis and history. New York: Norton.

Erikson, E. H. (1963). Youth: Change and challenge. New York: Basic books.

Greup, S. R., Kaal, S. E., Jansen, R., Manten-Horst, E., Thong, M. S., van der Graaf, W. T. & Husson, O. (2018). Post-traumatic growth and resilience in adolescent and young adult cancer patients: An overview. Journal of adolescent and young adult oncology, 7(1), 1-14.

Hiew, C. C., Mori, T., Shimizu, M., & Tominaga, M. (2000). Measurement of resilience development: Preliminary results with a State-Trait resilience inventory. Journal of Learning and Curriculum Development, 1, 111-117.

Haddadi, P., & Besharat, M. A. (2010). Resilience, vulnerability and mental health. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 5, 639-642.

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