Resilience

This handout was kindly written for Baby College by Nina Politimou, Senior Teaching Fellow at UCL, Institute of Education and an Associate Lecturer at Birkbeck, Department of Psychological Sciences


In both academic and practice contexts, the meaning of resilience is generally associated with doing better than expected in difficult circumstances. Resilience refers to general coping skills and mechanisms that can help us face the common challenges of life. It is also referred to as a capacity to deal with severe adversity, in other words, adapt positively under very difficult circumstances or significant threats.  

Reducing the effects of adversity and challenges is crucial for healthy children’s development and science has set out to understand why some children develop resilience and cope well with challenging situations and why some children do not. This is crucial as it can help more children reach their full potential.  

The effects of adversity: why resilience?  

During early stages of development, the brain is most open and sensitive to the influence of outside experiences, for better or for worse. It is widely acknowledged by experts today that adverse situations and stress in childhood, such as that caused by mental and physical abuse, neglect, extreme poverty and mental illness in caregivers, can alter the brain structure of a developing child. Those children are then more at risk of cognitive and developmental delays, health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, alcoholism, and behavioural and mental health problems such as depression. In fact, it has been shown that the more severe adversity a child experiences, 

the greater the likelihood of them showing developmental delays and other problems later on. 

However, some children do surprisingly well despite those odds. What are these key factors that boost resilience?  

Resilience: the building blocks 

To better understand the development of resilience we can visualise a balance scale. Resilience is present when a child’s health and development tips toward positive outcomes; in other words when protective factors and coping skills counterbalance any negative experiences.   


Research has identified that the single most important factor in building resilience in children is at least one stable, consistent and supportive relationship with a responsive parent, caregiver, or other adult. These relationships provide the scaffolding and protection that shield children from developing problems. They also build important skills such as the ability to plan, monitor, and regulate behaviour. This enables children to adapt and overcome adversity. Philip Fisher, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon who studies early childhood interventions to improve outcomes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, says that: "The presence of a supportive, consistent and protective primary caregiver, especially when the underlying stress systems are activated, is the factor that makes the biggest difference in healthy development." 

Research has also identified a number of additional common factors that predispose children to positive outcomes despite severe adversity. Apart from supportive adult-child relationships these include: 

1. building a sense of self-efficacy and perceived control; 

2. strengthening adaptive and self-regulatory skills; 

3. mobilising sources of faith, hope, and cultural traditions. 

Finally, it is important to note that not all stress is harmful. Learning to cope with manageabl