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November 19, 2015
by Karen Allen,MS, LMHC, CAMS, CHt

Schools, Stress, Violence, and Resilience: Our Children's Environments

November 19, 2015 19:55 by Karen Allen,MS, LMHC, CAMS, CHt

School is now in full swing and children, as well as then parents, are probably experiencing increased demands on their time and their coping abilities. School involves concerns beyond those experienced by parents when they were children. Not only do children today report anxiety about school performance and acceptance, they also deal with increased violence in their place of learning. While there are no simple solutions or easy answers to social violence, there are things parents and concerned adults can do to create safe relationships and to develop an understanding of how to help children cope with their feelings and develop strategies to assist them in managing the problems and stresses of daily living. Resilience is one of those things.

Resiliency has become a buzz word in recent years. But, how many parents and caregivers understand resiliency and how to cultivate resiliency in their children? What does it mean to be “resilient?” Dictionaries generally indicate agree resilience is the ability to rebound or bounce back from a stressful situation or event to a pre-stress level of functioning. The definition appears to apply across many fields, not only psychology and sociology. The resiliency of a material is its ability to endure applied pressure and then return to its previous state before the pressure was applied. A rubber band when stretched and released bounces back and appears no worse for the wear. However, that same rubber band is unlikely to return to its original shape when stretched to capacity for long periods of time, or it may break when the force applied exceeds its structural capacity. Resilience in people is similar and is important because resilient children area able to bounce back from adversity and stress more quickly than non-resilient children. It is likely correlated with several factors commonly referenced as nature (genetic) and nurture (environmental). For example, in infancy a child’s temperament is often recognized by parents and caregivers through their conversations with others stating their newborn seems to be fussy or highly active while their other newborns seem to have been born with a calm and passive demeanor. Whether the observation is nature or nurture is difficult to assess even when the infant’s temperament coincides with the biological mother’s experience of fetal behavior during pregnancy. What matters most is how parents manage their reactions to their children and situations involving their children, and whether parents teach their children healthy coping skills and problem skills to manage appropriately temperamental behaviors.

While life will provide many situations that can challenge a child’s core identity and sense of value, one of the greatest challenges children will struggle with is that of relationships. Through teachable moments, which are excellent moments of intervention when parents can help children develop healthy coping and problem solving skills, children can learn how their choices and actions affect others, and about accountability. Fay et al. (2015)  propose that childhood is a great time for children to learn from their mistake by being allowed to experience the consequences of their poor choices because the consequences of those mistakes are much less severe than the consequences of poor choices made in adulthood. For example, the consequences of skipping bee practice for an eighth grader in likely to be less severe than the consequences of skipping a mandatory function as an employee. Mistakes in childhood can be great opportunities for learning how to become a responsible and productive adult.   

Responsible parenting is the key to fostering resilience in children. Through attuned care-giving, relational foundations are laid early in a child’s life even when caregivers are unaware of the great power they hold in shaping a child’s life. Early childhood caregivers, especially, have the power to shape the direction of a child’s life through words and actions used to communicate approval and disapproval. Their words can create confusion through mixed messages when what is said does not match attitude or action leaving the recipient feeling confused and insecure. Mixed messages can go both ways with messages that a) sound pleasant or b) sound threatening but the corresponding actions and nonverbal communication indicates the opposite. The underdeveloped brain cannot make sense of where things stand or exactly what is and is not acceptable-including them. How can children view themselves and other people as safe or valuable when early formative experiences suggest otherwise? Or how can they be expected to form strong healthy attachments in relationships if early formative experiences have borne out their needs and feelings do not matter? How do children develop a clear sense of identity and character as they mature when their role models have modeled inconsistency, incongruencies, and lack of affection, rigidity, or lack of accountability both personally and as parental figures?

On some level most caregivers will admit that children, even adolescents and emerging young adults, are still developing and maturing, and are not miniature adults possessing the experiential knowledge or abilities of seasoned adulthood. Yet, many youth today admit to feeling frustrated, angry, and misunderstood despite a more informed generation of parents about child development. Information and support is a quick click away via the Internet with a plethora of resources and experts available to educate and support parents who take the initiative to ask for help, or to learn about early childhood development both through literature, web sites, and media.

Parents and caregivers can foster resiliency in children through exposure to a variety of healthy activities, through multiple opportunities to contribute to the family and social groups, and by being allowed to participate in making decisions (and being allowed to experience the consequences of poor decisions). A responsible parent allows children to make mistakes and to experience the consequences of those mistakes realizing this is part of a child’s maturation process towards becoming a responsible adult able to function in society. When it comes to those things that can result in serious consequences, such as alcohol and drug use, parents set clear guidelines recognizing children’s minds are still unable to fully process the long-term effects of those activities and consequences of a poor choice related thereto. In a survey of adolescents conducted by Feldhahn and Rice (2007), teens admitted they are not truthful with their parents because they do not believe their parents are safe people with whom they can disclose their true thoughts and feelings. The kind of safe relationships children want and need from their parents are developed over a period of years beginning early in life.

Resiliency is built through modeling appropriate problem solving skills and behavior. Anger management specialists purport people (including children) become angry when they perceive a need is not being met. Marriage therapists John and Julie Gottman state arguments erupt when a needed conversation did not take place. How parents approach problems and disputes contribute to children’s understanding about how to manage their environments. Can needs be discussed without fear of sarcasm, contempt, criticism, or emotional shutdown? Children need opportunities to voice their concerns and their needs, perhaps even more so than adults because they lack the experiential knowledge and processing skills often needed to manage their environments effectively. 

Parents are the primary architects for building a culture of resiliency for their children. It is through a warm and positive relationship with clear and consistent rules and consequences that children build trust and resiliency. This safety net allows children to have the internal protections needed to explore their environment and develop positive relationships with peers and adults (The Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015). The nurturing parent will provide a safe and healthy environment for their child and will have high expectations for their child based on the child’s developmental level and needs. The escalating nature of violence and frustration among adolescents and young adults is a symptom of a deeper societal problem that cannot be ignored and expected to resolve itself. Today’s children need strong nurturing relationships more than ever if future escalating levels of violent behavior are to be curtailed. Resiliency may be a missing core characteristic in children and youth who commit acts of violence. Maybe it is time to look at investing in a safer future by fostering resilient children who possess effective problem solving skills and healthy emotional management skills.


Fay J. & Cline, F. W. Love and Logic. Retrieved October 20, 2015 from

Feldhahn, S. & Rice, L. A. (2007). For Parents Only. Multnomah Books. Colorado Springs Co.

Gottman, J. & Gottman, J. S. (2012). Bridging the Couple Chasm. The Gottman Institute Inc. Seattle, WA.

The Child Welfare Information Gateway. Nurturing and Attachment. Retrieved October 20, 2015 from

 Psychology Dictionary. What is resilience? Retrieved October 20, 2015 from          

About the Author

Karen Allen Karen Allen, MS, LMHC

I offer a comfortable and safe place where people can talk about their concerns and be a partner in their treatment. Services are affordable and appointment availability is flexible to accommodate your scheduling needs, including after 5 PM, weekends, and e-therapy.

Karen Allen can be found at
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