“Over the course of the last 50 years, there have been tremendous improvements in the physical health of children and the life expectancy of adults. It is chastening to realise that there have not been parallel improvements in psychological functioning or mental health. On the contrary, psychosocial disorders in young people have tended to increase in frequency over the last half century.

Why has this been so? I would argue that this has to be an answerable question. If we had a proper understanding of why society has been so spectacularly successful in making things psychologically worse for children and young people, we might have a better idea as to how we can make things better.”

– Michael Rutter, 2002


We all want our kids to do well and to be well. One of the things that determines social and emotional wellbeing is “resilience”. Resilience is regarded as the ability of an individual to access resources to prevent, minimise, or overcome hardship.

My favourite definition of resilience comes from a draft paper titled “Whole School Matters” (September, 2008)…

“The capacity to deal constructively with change or challenge, allowing the person to maintain or re-establish their social and emotional wellbeing in the face of difficult events.

I involves thoughts, feelings, and actions.”


Resilience is a little like a bank account. If you have a good amount of savings and the gas bill comes in, it hurts, but you have enough to cover it. If you have little to no money in your bank account, then you will be scraping and struggling and worried about how you are going to pay the bill. The more savings you have, the better you feel. The earlier you start saving the more resources you will have to pay the bills, have a bit of fun, and cover unexpected events.

Same with resilience. The more protective factors a child has, the more resilient the child will be. The protective factors are environments which provide: a sense of connection and belonging;  physical and emotional safety; warm, caring and supportive relationships; and the opportunity for and recognition of achievement (Silburn, 2003). Resilience is a complex interaction of relationships, genetics and environmental factors (family, school, work, society).


pathways to resilience

The Pathways to Resilience (Silburn, 2003)


The risk factors include poor socio-economic environments, harsh and punitive parenting, domestic violence, substance abuse, poor nutrition, difficulties at school and with peers, low self esteem, poor problem solving, negative thinking, and stress (Silburn, 2001).


pathways to vulnerability


The optimal environment for children is a positive one with warm reciprocal relationships, realistic expectations, boundaries and limits, and assertive discipline. Children learn resilience through feeling heard and understood, and feeling that they belong. The  supports in a child’s environment build inner strengths (Best Start, 2012) as children learn coping skills, and about feelings and how to manage them, within the context of relationship with significant others.

Resilience is also developmental. Experiences in the early years provide the foundation upon which situations are viewed as either threatening or adaptive. Developmental difference can impact on the child’s worldview and how s/he is parented, and therefore the child’s resilience. A child with a disability or disorder (for example, AD/HD, autism, anxiety, sensory processing) requires support, intervention, and treatment as early as possible to increase the child’s function in all aspects of life.

“Learning starts in infancy, long before formal education begins, and continues throughout life. Early learning begets later learning and early success breeds later success, just as early failure breeds later failure.”

– James J Heckman


Resilience inner and outer

Best Start, 2012


There has been a steady decline of resilience and mental health in young people over the past 3 decades. The reason that resilience is important is quality of life. If children grow up with more protective factors they are more likely to have a sense of self-worth, achieve more, have more rewarding relationships, have better health, be able to solve problems quicker, and live longer lives. These children will have a reduced risk of mental health problems. Currently in Australia, 1 in 4 of our young people will be diagnosed with clinical depression. Seventy-five per cent of child wellbeing indicators in Australia are in the middle to bottom third rankings compared to other OECD countries (ARACY, 2013).

As an Aboriginal woman said to me many years ago, “you can’t be a strong tree, if you don’t have strong roots”. So how do our children grow strong roots? Australian psychologist, Andrew Fuller, cites the research and advises that those children who are most resilient have been found to have three factors in their life…

  1. Feeling love, connection, and belonging within their family;
  2. Having a few friendship groups, so that if they fall out with one group they can align themselves with another group;
  3. Having adults outside the family that take an interest in them.

As the family is the most important environment in which to develop resilience, we can’t treat resilience as something separate to our parenting. Below is a list of things that rob or encourage resilience within the family (Dr Justin Coulson)…

resilience table


What I am increasingly finding in my work with children, is that they feel they cannot bring their struggles and problems to their parents. The message from parents to their children resoundingly is “build a bridge and get over it”, “stop being a drama queen”, “suck it up princess”, or “man up”. Up to 90% of the children I work with feel they cannot talk to their parents, or when they do they are dismissed, rescued, punished, or ignored. The majority of Year 6 children I speak with, young people heading into high school and adolescence, feel their parents don’t listen to them. Resilience isn’t rugged individualism, true grit, or extraordinary self-reliance (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2015). In teaching children to be resilient we don’t throw them in the deep end, we gently give them “just enough help” to increase their competence over time.

There are many models of resilience. One of them is the Resilience Doughnut created by Australian psychologist, Lyn Worsley ( The doughnut has seven components, each representing an external factor in the child’s life which impacts on resilience. The Resilience Doughnut focuses on strengths rather than weaknesses. Rather than trying to ‘fix’ the weaknesses, we celebrate and enhance the strengths to further boost the child’s resilience. This creates a stronger sense of competence and self-belief which will enable the child to tackle the harder stuff.


resilience doughnut

The seven factors of the doughnut are:

  • The Parent Factor
  • The Skill Factor
  • The Family and Identity Factor
  • The Education Factor
  • The Peer Factor
  • The Community Factor
  • The Money Factor

At the centre of the doughnut are the inner beliefs and processes of the individual which contribute to resilience. The “I Have” is an inventory of the supports and strong relationships in the child’s life. The “I Am” is how the individual views him/herself. The “I Can” is a list of all the things the individual can do.

“The great surprise of resilience research is the ordinariness of the phenomena …Resilience does not come from rare and special qualities, but from ordinary everyday magic of ordinary, normative human resources in the minds, brains, and bodies of children, in their families and relationships, and in their communities.”

– Ann Masten

There is a lot of talk these days about teaching resilience to children in school. Schools are excellent places for children to experience the protective factors mentioned above. However, we can’t treat resilience as something that our children must learn, like they learn maths, or the rules of whichever sport they choose to play. Parents are their child’s first teachers and there needs to be a greater focus on parents learning positive parenting skills and providing an environment in which our children grow their resilience skills, rather than placing the onus on children to learn resilience.

In order to develop normally, a child requires progressively more complex joint activity with one or more adults who have an irrational emotional relationship with the child.

Somebody’s got to be crazy about that kid. That’s number one.

First, last, and always.

– Uri Bronfenbrenner


Narelle Smith




ARACY (2013). ARACY report card: The wellbeing of young Australians. Retrieved from

Best Start (2012). Building resilience in young children. Ontario’s Maternal, Newborn and Early Child Development Resource. Retrieved from

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2015). Supportive relationships and active skill-building strengthen the foundations of resilience: Working paper 13. Retrieved from htttp://


Other resources

Ann Masten talking about resilience (1 hour lecture)…

Further Reading …

Teacher Myth #3


Categories: Child Development


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