Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Research indicates that external factors (related to neighborhood, family, school, and/or peers) are primary causes for most youngsters’ learning, behavior, and emotional problems.

This is a rather astounding statement. The primary causes of learning, behavior and emotional problems comes from external sources. This, of course, raises questions. Of particular concern is: How does the neighborhood, family, school and/or peers influence an individual child? What is the mechanism? These external people must communicate something to the child which causes these learning, behavior and emotional difficulties – what exactly is it that is so dangerous? What messages are the ones that cause the problem. We use terms such as abuse, neglect, invalidation, poverty, etc. to indicate risk factors, but we know that some children thrive despite these factors – what is the primary cause of this resilience?

Childhood poverty long ago emerged as one of the most sensitive predictors of a familiar litany of problems – school drop out, teen pregnancy, and substance abuse among them. Recent research indicates, however, that the family disorganization that often accompanies poverty is more damaging to children than the financial limitations per se. And what exactly is it about the family disorganization that is damaging? Could it be mixed messages?

Protective factors act as buffers to risk producing conditions. Resilience refers to an individual’s ability to cope with risk factors.

“Resilient children are children who remain competent despite exposure to misfortune or to stressful events . . . .

Characteristics of resilient children include:

  • A sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy, which allows the child to cope successfully with challenges
  • An active stance toward an obstacle or difficulty
  • The ability to see a difficulty as a problem that can be worked on, overcome, changed, endured, or resolved in some way
  • Reasonable persistence, with an ability to know when “enough is enough”
  • A capacity to develop a range of strategies and skills to bear on the problem, which can be used in a flexible way…”

These ideas, echoed in thousands of articles, suggest that most children are influenced by the effects of their own development. Because of these effects, they are resistant to these negative influences. Yet, how can this be? For the effects are influenced by the neighborhood, family, school, and/or peers. This seems to be a quite circular argument – on the one hand, the effects of external forces cause most youngsters’ learning, behavior, and emotional problems, but these same effects cause resilience.

Others expand on these remarks, to include characteristics such as:

  • good intellectual functioning
  • appealing and sociable personality
  • high self esteem
  • social confidence
  • spirituality/faith
  • talents recognized by self and others

This list would imply some internal aspects of resilience, whose cause is less apparent. However, parsing these and other lists seems to support the notion, that interactive communication is the critical element. For example, the reference to good intellectual functioning does not mean, as it might in other contexts, that the child is bright. This factor has less to do with capacity than with performance. It means that resilient children perform to their capacity academically, not that they are the brightest kids in the room.

Appealing and sociable personality must mean that the kid is comfortable with people and with him/herself thereby including the next two variables – high self-esteem and social confidence. It is hard to see that these are, in fact, separate and independent variables. Then the question arises, is self esteem an innate characteristic or does this come from somewhere else as well? Are children born with self-esteem or is it developed and/or eroded by interaction with the environment?

What we know of self esteem, is that there are at least two factors within it – self affirmation and self confirmation – e.g., the individual child must not only affirm themselves, but they must get confirmation from at least some of the significant people around them. Thus interactive communication must be a significant factor in both resilience and learning, behavioral and emotional problems. This seems to weaken the argument, for if the same factors influence both the positive and the negative, there must be another element in the factor that makes the difference.

Skipping for the moment spirituality and faith, we can parse the variable ‘talents recognized by self and others’, with the same indications. This is a somewhat confusing variable since it again seems to indicate an innate characteristic that places the child in an advantageous position to avoid problems. Yet we all can identify a talented athlete, rock star, or movie personality who is anything but resilient. We would go further and suggest that people with innate defects have shown a resilience that few of us can match – the ‘elephant man’ comes to mind as the exemplar.

What then is it we are exactly talking about? Is it spirituality and faith, and if so, what kind of spirituality and faith – and aren’t these really two different things? The spiritualist of each major faith – the Cabbalist, the Gnostics and the Sufis are often shunned by the major religious organizations and often attacked. And don’t the Buddhist have a faith without any spirituality at all? Besides, how does the child get spirituality or faith?

The article Competent Kids indicates that whatever experiences challenge a child, s/he draws on well-defined external supports, inner strengths, and learned skills to respond resiliently. But these again beg the issue. One creates or allows external supports or does not based upon one’s prior experiences. One has or does not have inner strengths and learned skills depending upon ones own interpretation of the world. It is not enough to say that a child has optimism; one must understand how optimism and these other qualities develop.

We come back again to the concept of interactive communication, and perhaps we need to spend a moment talking about what we are talking about. Communication in human beings seems to be accomplished in a fairly straightforward manner through language. We talk about difficulties in communicating with children who are deaf or autistic, despite that fact that we communicate a great deal to both. Human communication is not as simple as it seems.

First, it has been suggested that ninety-three [93%) percent of the information or ‘message’ communicated is contained in the non-verbal part of the communication. This means that only seven [07%] comes from the words we use. This simple fact is astounding for it implies that I convey to the child much, much more than what I say. It implies that the child has a skill to absorb what I mean as well as what I say. We know, of course, that we also have skills at deceit and can hide some of what I mean, but deceit takes energy and intentionality, and much casual and causal information lacks either. We say what comes to mind without thought of either the words or the non-verbal content.

However, this is not all that occurs. The other person, in this case the child, must interpret the information or message. Now we know that words are ambiguous to a fault – no word has meaning except in context – and if the context is unclear, a spring could mean a spring, a spring or spring. Thus the principal after a disciplinary talk with a child, thinking s/he had a pretty good outcome, wished the child a ‘good day’ and was overwhelmed by the child’s hostile response – for the child believed that the principal was being sarcastic to wish a good day after providing consequences for misbehavior. What, after all, did the principal mean?

In order to interpret the child must compare this message with other messages for each interpretation is based on prior experiences. Thus, interpretation is somewhat idiosyncratic to begin with. And each set of words is incomplete as well. “Do you have the time?” – doesn’t mean, “Do you have the time?” – for if it did, the answer would be a simple Yes or No. Yet rarely does the question get answered that way. Fortunately, over much time, messages tend to be able to be generalized. Have a good day does not mean sunshine, nor does it necessarily mean enjoy the day – but mostly is a pro forma method of greeting which takes little or no thought.

Yet what if the child generalizes the messages received in a positive or negative way. If s/he is able to generalize most messages received in his/her lifetime as positive, s/he is likely to be very resilient – “Things turn out best for those who make the best of how things turn out” (Linkletter). On the other hand, if the child tends to generalize most messages in the negative, s/he is likely to be eroded in his/he beliefs about self and other people – s/he doesn’t like me because I am ….

This oversimplification leads us to the most important messages and interpretations and generalizations. What is significant is not whether I am poor, not as bright as the next person, etc., but what I believe about myself and others. Poor is not as good as rich, but there are a whole lot of rich people who act as though rich is the worst thing in the world. And some poor people who are not impressed with money and things, as the history of religion will support. “It’s so hard when I have to, and so easy when I want to” (Annie Gottlier). So to a large extent it is the attitude of the individual as to what is good, bad or indifferent. And attitudes are generalized mental states that are built around meaning – what does this mean to me?

And what does all of this mean to us? What it should mean? If resilience is a positive characteristic that we would hope to increase in all children, we must spend some time being concerned with the messages that are sent and received – and these may not be the same! The intent of a message is NOT what it means to the child. If you want to understand what the message meant to the child, you have to observe the response. When the principal said “have a good day!” – the message received was not what we might presume was intended.

Messages get skewed in a lot of unintentional ways. A mother’s role is to protect her child. When the child is atypical or has a difference, the mother wants to keep the child from harm. So when the mother is told that her child is mentally retarded, what is the most natural of responses in regard to the child – keep him/her safe from failure and harm. But, does the mother then keep the child from taking reasonable risks, because of her fears? Does she keep the child from reaching his/her optimal level because she does not want him/her to get hurt by failure? Does she consider learning from failure? How does the mother encourage her child to ‘be like everyone else’, when the child is not? And when the messages of protection are interpreted and generalized by the child – what is a potential conclusion – I am not adequate, I can’t do what others can! – a rather negative outcome. What’s a mother to do?

Any perceived difference between what is conceived as the norm or the typical, must be resolved. If I am slower processing information than other kids and know it – how do I make a judgement about this fact? I might decide that I am less of a person. But that will only happen if being as smart as other people is the priority of my life. What about being nice? Or being honest? Or being loyal? If one or more of these variables rises to a level of importance in my life, then the fact that I am not quite as smart becomes relatively less important. But how do I decide on the importance of these qualities? From the messages that I receive from those most significant to me. And often, because the parent is traumatized by the information, s/he traumatizes the child instead of reframing the information. This is natural and human, but it can be avoided. Experts are the significant people for parents and experts give some horrendous messages, often in most horrendous ways.

No, it not a problem, its autism! Not likely to be heard. The message that the child is autistic is probably passed with the same coding as a death in the family. I am sorry for your loss becomes the major information the parents receive whether verbally or nonverbally. They may not even know what autism is – but they know by the demeanor that the word is dire. It would be unfair; of course, to be too blasé about the issue, but how to convey the difficult news in a manner that will maximize the message is tough.

But the problem of developing schemata has other issues as well. These generalizations about differences can occur long before a child has the language and logical capacity of the ‘left brain’. What of a child who in the first year of life has the experience of distress and is ignored or worse yet beaten? What generalizations about self and others are likely to occur? While it is true that the infant may not even yet be able to discern self from others, s/he is fully capable of visceral feelings of being unloved, disregarded and ignored. The generalizations may come later as ‘feelings’, sensations, intuitions of being worthless, hopeless and helpless – yet such feelings are ineffable – only the concepts can be said metaphorically – the explanation of those meanings remain unsayable. Yet such children may be resilient at least to the extent that they are totally reliant upon themselves. This is a negative resilience that allows survival, but not success.

All people operate mentally with a never-ending process of appraisal or comparison of self and others. The differences are noted and then two questions must be answered – first, why am I different and second, is this a good thing or a bad thing. Answering these questions requires to a large extent prior experiences. Thus, part of the answer is influenced by the child’s schemata or generalizations about self and others. If the schema is such that I have always been the subject of the event – meaning that I have a degree of control over the outcome of the event – I am likely to see the new experience as something that I can do something about – internal locus of control. If, on the other hand, I have always experienced myself as the object of the events – meaning that other people are in control for either good or bad – I might perceive myself as a ‘victim’ of these new circumstance and unable to influence them – leading to potential thoughts of helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness – the big three of negative thought. If any semblance of these attributes exists in my schemata, my ability to ‘bounce back’ is diminished.

Given this, we now have the questions: “How do schemata about self and others get developed?” and “How can I help to optimize the ability of this child to think of him/herself as the subject of experiences?”.

How do we help children become resilient? This is the charge. What will be the message?

What is Resilience?

As research has teased apart the strong fibers of resilience, we are developing a picture of what resilience is – and isn’t. We recognize, for instance, that resilience is not a special trait that some people are fortunate enough to be born with and others not. Rather, it is a capacity that anyone can develop – it is a learned behavior, just as problems in living are learned behavior. And we know that resilience is not invincibility. An individual who flourishes despite one set of stresses may buckle when confronting another. His/her capacity for resilience changes – for better or for worse – in response to his/her own growth and the changing circumstances of life. We also know that resilience is not synonymous with super achievement. Ann Masten defines resilience as “manifested competence in the context of significant challenges to adaptation or development”. By ‘manifest competence’ she means that the individual meets the developmental tasks and responsibilities expected of someone of his age and culture.

If we want to foster resilience, we have to choose when we are going to do so. Life is a cycle that promulgates certain messages and generalizations. If the parents are resilient, they are likely to convey messages of resilience to their kids and conveying messages to kids at birth, infancy, day care, elementary school is better than conveying messages to adolescents for the early years are the years of schemata formation. However, this does not preclude providing appropriate messages and shaping the environment for older kids or young adults. How many army recruits learned resilience with the ‘cover each other’s back’ coherence of the troop. How many recruits decided in boot camp that they were someone worthwhile because they were relied on and that others were worthwhile because s/he relied on them.

One can conceive of the emphasis being upon messages in the early years [combining the parents in the message propagation] and an emphasis on the experience from adolescence. Remembering always that the adolescent is likely soon to be a parent and s/he will tend to give the same kinds of messages s/he received.

Children need these abilities and resources to face many common — and some not so common — crises. When the International Resilience Project asked children and their parents around the world what adversities they had experienced, the answers were numerous. Among those difficulties experienced within the family, in order of frequency, were:

  • death of parents or grandparents
  • divorce
  • separation
  • illness of parent or siblings
  • poverty
  • moving, family or friends
  • accident causing personal injuries
  • abuse, including sexual abuse
  • abandonment
  • suicide
  • remarriage
  • homelessness
  • poor health and hospitalizations
  • fires causing personal injury
  • forced repatriation of family
  • disabled family member
  • parent’s loss of a job or income
  • murder of a family member

In addition, children and their parents reported facing the following adversities outside the home:

  • robberies
  • war
  • fire
  • earthquake
  • flood
  • car accident
  • adverse economic conditions
  • illegal, refugee status
  • migrant status
  • property damage from storms, floods, cold
  • political detention
  • famine
  • abuse by a non-relative
  • murders in neighborhood
  • unstable government
  • drought

Children need to become resilient to overcome the many adversities they face and will face in life: they cannot do it alone. They need adults who know how to promote resilience and are, indeed, becoming more resilient themselves. One of the ways to improve communication with children is to identify and use a language and vocabulary that supports the goals. The vocabulary of resilience is more than a set of words that will allow us to talk about this emerging concept. It is a set of tools to use in promoting resilience. Armed with the language necessary to recognize resilience when they see it, adults can help children identify resilient behavior more easily in themselves and others. They can use the vocabulary to reinforce those feelings and beliefs that support resilience and to guide their own and their children’s behavior. The more concepts they understand, the greater their options for acting in ways that help children meet the crises in their lives with strength and hope. Children who learn the vocabulary are better able to recognize resilience in themselves and others. They become increasingly aware of how to promote it.

In the Guide, Grotberg identifies language to overcome adversities. Children are taught to draw from three sources of resilience features labeled: I HAVE, I AM, I CAN. What they draw from each of the three sources is described as follows:


  • People around me I trust and who love me, no matter what
  • People who set limits for me so I know when to stop before there is danger or trouble
  • People who show me how to do things right by the way they do things
  • People who want me to learn to do things on my own
  • People who help me when I am sick, in danger or need to learn


  • A person people can like and love
  • Glad to do nice things for others and show my concern
  • Respectful of myself and others
  • Willing to be responsible for what I do
  • Sure things will be all right


  • Talk to others about things that frighten me or bother me
  • Find ways to solve problems that I face
  • Control myself when I feel like doing something not right or dangerous
  • Figure out when it is a good time to talk to someone or to take action
  • Find someone to help me when I need it

These are wonderful affirmations that can be used and habituated cognitively. Only the I HAVE holds the potential for problem – if the child does not have these factors, s/he is hurt by the lack. However, if the child does not have or does not believe s/he has, then the orientation for providing help is very clear. This may require work with parents to either enable them to be there for their child and or give them over to someone who will be there for the child; to help the parents who are there for the child to create the relationship which helps the child change his/her negative beliefs; or, to provide someone outside of the family who will be there for the child.