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Resilient children have good outcomes in spite of experiencing stress, trauma, tragedy or adversity. An early close relationship and supportive communities are some of the most important ways to help children build resilience.

Too much stress is toxic

When a child's stress response system is activated over and over again, or for too long, and without adult support, this results in toxic stress that can weaken the brain structure and bodily systems.

Resilience is important

Even when families have risk factors and tamariki may experience stress, trauma, tragedy or adversity, a warm and loving relationship with a parent or parent-figure when baby is small is a powerful way to protect tamariki – although it’s never too late to put protective factors in place that build resilience. Although a child may have a lot of risk factors in their life, there may be enough protective factors to create positive outcomes.

Responsive care increases resilience

One of the most important protective factors is consistent, loving, responsive care from at least one parent during the early years. This care builds a secure attachment relationship. If a parent can’t provide this care, a close relationship with another adult such as a grandparent who can nurture baby and help them recover from stress can also help build resilience.

Young babies’ brains grow and adapt to help them survive in the environment they’ve been born into. While they develop coping strategies that help them survive, having coping strategies is different from being resilient. Learning how to cope with low or moderate levels of stress is a healthy part of a child’s development, and caring adults play an important role in this. When a child’s stress response system is activated by stress or trauma, a supportive adult can reduce the potentially harmful effects by providing comfort and reassurance to help the child tolerate the stress.

Caring, supportive relationships are a strong protective factor into adulthood. Children and adolescents need people they can rely on for emotional support. This may come from whānau members or from a caring neighbour, teacher or sports coach.

Safe neighbourhoods and strong communities with good resources also provide protection.

Early years are important, but it’s never too late

The early years are an important time to put in place protective factors and reduce risks to build resilience. This is when babies’ brains are most adaptable to their experiences. However, it is never too late to build resilience. Children and adolescents are still able to improve their coping skills and adapt to new challenges if protective factors are put in place.

Other resources

Stress – the good, the bad and the ugly | Brainwave (external link)

The experience of poverty for infants and young children | Brainwave (external link)

Supportive relationships and active skill-building strengthen the foundations of resilience | Center on the Developing child (Harvard University)(external link)

Resilience: a common or not-so-common phenomenon? | Dr Robert Brooks(external link)