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Childhood Resilience

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The impact of homelessness on children is well documented: their health, development, and educational outcomes are much worse compared to their peers. They struggle with mental health issues, have high rates of exposure to violence in their families and communities, and are separated from their families at higher rates than other children.

In the face of these challenges, where is the good news? Is there any? And how can we draw out and enhance the qualities that make children more resilient to formidable challenges they must cope with? We can’t “make” children resilient, but we can shine a light on those qualities and skills that help them develop key elements of resiliency. Ann Masten, one of the foremost researchers of resilience in children, writes, “Resilience does not come from rare and special qualities, but from the everyday magic of ordinary, normative human resources in the minds, brains, and bodies of children, in their families and relationships, and in their communities.” This “ordinary magic” means that children will be more able to adapt to adversity and threats when their basic human systems are nurtured and supported.

Factors that Contribute to Childhood Resilience

While many factors contribute to resilience, three stand out:

  • Cognitive development/problem-solving skills
  • Self-regulation
  • Relationships with caring adults

Cognitive Development/Problem-solving Skills

As a species, we have been solving problems since the beginning of time. Watch a child play and you will see that his/her problem-solving skills are nearly always at work. Infants attempt to soothe themselves by figuring out how to put their thumbs in their mouths or crying for a caregiver. Toddlers try to fit shapes into shape sorters. As children mature, the problems they solve get more complex. Solving problems engages our prefrontal cortex, sometimes called the “thinking brain,” which is the seat of our executive function. During times of stress and trauma, this part of our brain is typically shut down so that our body can respond to the threats it is facing. By helping children engage in problem-solving activities, they not only gain a sense of self-efficacy and mastery, they also re-engage the parts of their brain that may have been offline. Because the neural pathways of young brains are still being wired, the more we can engage and reinforce healthy pathways, the better. Developing problem-solving skills also helps children with self-regulation skills, another key quality that fosters resilience.


Self-regulation is the ability to control oneself in a variety of ways. Infants develop regular sleep-wake patterns. Schoolchildren learn to raise their hand and wait patiently to be called on rather than shouting out an answer. College students concentrate for hours on a research paper, delaying the gratification that might come with being outdoors on a sunny day. Self-regulation has been identified as “the cornerstone” of child development. In the seminal publication From Neurons to Neighborhoods, experts conclude, “Development may be viewed as an increasing capacity for self-regulation, seen particularly in the child’s ability to function more independently in a personal and social context.” It involves working memory, the ability to focus on a goal, tolerance for frustration, and controlling and expressing one’s emotions appropriately and in context. Self-regulation is key for academic and social success and plays a significant role in mental health outcomes—all things that can be a challenge for children experiencing homelessness and other stressors.

Relationships with Caring Adults

Ideally, we form close attachment relationships with our primary caregiver(s) beginning at birth. As we get older, those relationships extend to teachers, neighbors, family, friends, coaches, and others. Disrupted attachment relationships can be devastating for young children because they are still developing an internal working model of what relationships look like and because they rely so intensively on their caregivers to get their basic needs met.

By developing relationships with caring adults, whether they be parents, family members, coaches, teachers, or neighbors, children learn about healthy relationships—ones that are consistent, predictable, and safe. They receive guidance, comfort, and mentoring.

Play: A Key Strategy for Developing Resilience

What strategies can we use to draw out children’s resilience? The short answer is play. According to the Life Is Good Playmakers Blog, “Children who grow up afraid don’t learn how to play. They learn how to survive.” One of our jobs then becomes to draw out children’s natural playfulness, which gives them an opportunity to discover, learn, and heal. As the iconic Fred Rogers tells us, “Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning. They have to play with what they know to be true in order to find out more, and then they can use what they learn in new forms of play.” We can create play experiences for children of all ages that give them ways to engage in solving problems, develop self-regulation skills, and form relationships. Here are some ideas:

  • “Simon Says” helps children practice several self-regulation skills (for example, working memory and inhibitory control)
  • Legos, blocks, and other tactile toys give children opportunities to solve problems and focus on a goal (“I want to build a tower. How can I build the tower really high without it falling?”). If they are playing with an adult (especially one who lets the child direct the play), they are also building a relationship.
  • Breathing exercises and body work (yoga, stretching)
  • Reading books, playing games, and having conversations about identifying emotions
  • Letting children talk aloud (and/or hear you talk aloud) about solving a problem. What are the pros and cons to possible solutions?
  • Dancing, singing, listening to music, and playing musical instruments and experimenting with speed (fast song, slow song), volume (sing loudly, sing quietly), and breath (play your instrument and hold the note as long as you can…now try making short, staccato notes)
  • Any activity that strengthens the relationship between the child and his/her primary caregiver

The Art of Resilience at Psychology Today found that it is important to remember that “Resilient people don't walk between the raindrops; they have scars to show for their experience. They struggle—but keep functioning anyway. Resilience is not the ability to escape unharmed.” Trauma can undermine resilience because it challenges the very things that make us strong. “Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning,” writes Judith Herman. By helping children restore and enhance their sense of control, connection, and meaning—through the skills described above and in many other ways—we can give them opportunities to persevere and thrive.

For more information about early childhood, visit the Center for the Developing Child.

This article was published to highlight the theme of Children and Families. Learn how SAMHSA promotes the importance of children's mental health.

Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources.

Last Updated

Last Updated: 11/22/2021