Resilience researcher shares insights

April 22, 2015

There are many factors that go into the development of ­resilience in children, says child psychologist Emma Climie, who is the lead researcher in the Strengths in ADHD research group, based at the University of ­Calgary.

In this Q&A, Climie shares her insight as a researcher who’s focused on resilience.

Q. What is resilience?

A. Resilience is the ability to overcome things that ­happen in one’s life, the ability to bounce back from some kind of adversity. We measure resilience by looking at how well children can bounce back from adverse events with the understanding that some children are able to do it better than others.

Q. How long has resilience been around as a subject for academic research?

A. It really started to pick up in the last couple of ­decades, sort of in the late ’90s. It ties into the idea of the positive psychology movement, which looks at building on strengths rather than primarily focusing on ­weaknesses.

Q. What kind of progression has resilience research taken in the last 20 years or so?

A. The first series of studies were looking at homeless youths in the States, and they were looking at factors that were allowing these kids to be more successful in schools. We’ve moved from “what are the factors” to “how do we build the factors” and now we’re looking more into the neurological factors — are there ­neurotransmitters, what is the role of neurotransmitters, what is the role of neuropsychology, more genetic
components.

Q. Why is resilience a trait that is desirable to foster in children?

A. Kids who aren’t resilient are the ones who struggle when obstacles are in their path. They have a hard time getting around them or sorting them out or problem solving. The kids who are able to roll with things a little bit better are often the ones who are able to manage life’s ups and downs a little bit more easily.

Q. At what stage is it possible to tell how good a child is at this?

A. It really depends on the individual child. You can see it early on in terms of infant and toddler temperament — where some babies are calm and easygoing and ­others are more fussy or demanding — but it doesn’t mean that when they’re older they won’t develop some of those skills to be resilient and manage situations.

Q. What is known about the impact that parents can have on a child’s resilience?

A. When we look at the children who are more resilient, they’re the ones that have strong connections with parents and other important adults. It’s the kids who are in secure, safe family environments, who have a network of people around them, who often are the kids who are able to do well when they encounter adverse situations. One of the most important factors for developing resilience in children is having that supportive environment.

Q. What are some other factors?

A. More generally speaking, having social relationships is another important factor. Having a friend — it doesn’t have to be a big network of friends — but having one other buddy to play with or do activities with is important. The school environment is also very important — are they involved in the school, are they involved in extracurricular activities? That opportunity to have some independence, to think on their own and have some ­success in different aspects of their lives, is important.

Q. How do learning disabilities factor into the resilience equation?

A.. The kids who have learning disabilities, these are the kids who have some adversity, they have something in their lives that’s causing a bit of difficulty or adversity. They are the ones that will need to find some support, whether that’s through schools providing modified learning or accommodations or parents providing extra supports at home, maybe tutoring, maybe practicing reading or math, or whatever their difficulties are.

Learning issues are just one piece of the puzzle. There are other aspects of that child’s life that could be going very well, and the important thing is to have a balance between areas that are working really well and areas where have need. The key is to find ways to use those ­areas of strength to support those areas in which they need some support.

Q. Is that a universal concept, the idea that if children have problems in one area of their lives, it’s important to help them have success in another area?

A. I would argue for that, yes. I work very much from a strength-based approach to working with kids. You don’t necessarily ignore the things that they’re not doing well, but you find ways of helping them in those areas of difficulty using areas of strength.

So, for example, if they have a very strong social network, have a lot of friends in class but are having difficulties in math, what supports can we put in place in the classroom that allow them to build on those social skills? Maybe they work with buddies; maybe they do presentations.  

For parents

Emma Climie’s tips for helping children become ­resilient

  • Spend time with your children.
  • Keep children connected with others.
  • Foster a healthy home-school relationship.
  • Get children involved in activities that are of interest to them and that they’re good at.