Building Resilience in Children: Some Ordinary Magic

Sheela sounded worried on the phone and requested an emergency counselling session for her 11 year old daughter-Neha. A very concerned Sheela explained that her daughter- typically an academic high achiever had obtained the third rank in class. This was perceived as unusual by the family considering that Neha always secured the first rank. Upset by her result Neha had retreated into a moody shell, seemed irritable with her friends and parents and began to frequently request her parents for a change in school as she felt ‘humiliated’ by her results. In the next round of tests, Neha’s performance slipped to the fifth rank, prompting her parents to seek help.

Mrs. Sinha, a fifth grade teacher spoke in glowing terms at a monthly grade level meeting about a particular student of hers. She shared that Mira had joined the school recently under very traumatic conditions. Mira’s father passed away very suddenly in a road accident. The absence of any financial or family support meant that the mother had to relocate the family to her parent’s house. Mira had to abruptly leave her school in the middle of the academic year- a school that she had been in since her Kindergarten years and was very attached to. Mrs. Sinha observed that Mira’s positive outlook and warmth allowed her to make friends easily in the new school and within the course of a term she was on the Junior debate and basketball team.

What could help us understand why Neha a consistently high achieving student was so overwhelmed by a lower academic rank? What factors helped Mira deal with her multiple losses and cope positively in her new environment? Traditionally research on mental health outcomes in children has leaned towards focusing on risk factors as predictors of the quality of mental health. However over the past three decades research is shifting to understand how children who experience adversity are able to overcome it in their lives.

The construct of resilience has emerged through this research to explain why some individuals are able to literally bounce back from significant amounts of stress in their lives. Interestingly research gathered on resilience indicates that it is not necessarily an unusual quality! Dr. Ann Masten, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota and an eminent researcher in the area of resilience in children observes that, “resilience does not come from rare and special qualities, but from the everyday magic of ordinary, normative resources in the minds, brains, and bodies of children, in their families and relationships, and in their communities…” Psychologists Dr. Sam Goldstein and Dr. Robert Brooks in their research on resilience recognize that while all individuals have a capacity to display resilience, there are variations in levels. They elaborate on the concept of ‘resilient mindsets’ and more importantly stress that parents and teachers can strengthen resiliency abilities in children.

Building resilience- the ability to adapt positively to stress, can help our children manage a range of difficult emotions. It does not however mean that children will be immune to or won’t experience difficulty or distress; these are normal responses and need to be acknowledged as such.

As a parent you are probably more than aware that getting your child to navigate through childhood in these rapidly shifting and complex times is not really a carefree process! You can however equip your child with more effective coping skills. Here are a few tips:

  • Help your child build connections. Teaching your child to make friends provides a strong support network
  • Teach goal setting behaviours- encourage your child to set reasonable goals and how they can achieve them one step at a time. Acknowledge their effort at all times regardless of outcomes
  • Encourage coping ‘self-talk’. While working through a difficult situation, teach your child to be aware of thoughts- coping thoughts such as ‘This is tough but I am going to try’, ‘It helps if I take one step at a time’ –create coping behaviours
  • Children may not always consider a broader perspective or take a long- term outlook. Help them to recognise that change happens and to maintain a hopeful outlook about the future. Humour when used sensitively is very helpful for allowing a child to keep things in perspective
  • Encourage your child to reflect on a situation that is troubling- help them acknowledge their feelings, use these as learning experiences and allow a sense that learning happens through making mistakes
  • Build in some unstructured time during the school day and during holidays to allow children to be creative and make some decisions about their time. Children need down time to help them unwind
  • Nurture strengths in your child and appreciate that children are uniquely talented
  • Be aware that your responses to stressful situations can help your child model appropriate behaviours. What you do matters!
  • Embarking on fostering a resilient mindset is a personal journey involving you and your child. If you or your child need help in working through these suggestions or would like to discuss it further, please consider talking it over with a qualified counselling or clinical psychologist.

    Talk It Over


    • Masten Ann, Ordinary Magic: Resilience Processes in Development, American Psychologist, March, 2001.
    • Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein: Achieving Balance, Confidence, and Personal Strength in Your Life. 2004. Mc-Graw Hill.
    • Masten Ann, Ordinary Magic: Resilience Processes in Development, American Psychologist,2001.
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    About Neena David

    Dr. Neena David has a Masters in Applied Psychology (Women's Christian College, Chennai), an M.Phil In Clinical Psychology (National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences- NIMHANS, Bangalore) and completed her doctoral research from the Centre for Human Ecology, Tata Institute of Social Sciences,Mumbai. She is a certified Clinical Psychologist and has over 16 years of therapeutic experience in working with adults, children, adolescents and families across a range of settings. Dr. David's approach to therapy is Eclectic and pragmatic- integrating her years of experience, therapeutic skill sets and a deep appreciation of the uniqueness of client life narratives.Her clients include couples, families, individual adults and adolescents. She also conducts diagnostic learning assessments for children and consults for schools on these issues. The intricate complexities and dynamics of human interaction and resilience are her abiding interests.