AMES, Iowa -- Stress often is a part of life, even for children. How they deal with stress determines how it affects their overall health. Are they overwhelmed or do they bounce back?
“Being able to bounce back after stressful experiences can help a child thrive,” says Cindy Thompson, a human sciences specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.
“Most professionals in the field of human development refer to this ability to bounce back as resiliency,” said Thompson, who specializes in family life issues.
Individual capabilities for resiliency
Resiliency begins with a strong foundation of individual capabilities such as a positive view of life, feeling that what a person does makes a difference, and being able to regulate emotions like anger and frustration.
“Some of these characteristics are inborn. For example, by nature some people have a more positive view of the world, while others have a more negative view. We call this temperament,” Thompson said.
Other individual characteristics, however, can be developed and fostered. People like to know that they can impact the world around them, and parents and caregivers can help foster this feeling in children in a variety of ways, such as providing children with age-appropriate chores. Even simple tasks like setting the table or sorting socks help children feel they contribute.
Another strategy is to provide materials and experiences that are slightly more challenging than what a child is currently able to complete.
“Setting a rattle just out of reach, adding a puzzle with a few more pieces or even introducing new words into your conversations with children can help them feel confident and capable. Allowing older children to run errands, or asking for their help with technology or yard work can build similar confidence in teens and young adults,” Thompson said.
Being able to regulate uncomfortable feelings like anger, frustration and sadness also helps children bounce back from stress.
“Helping children with uncomfortable feelings often can be difficult for adults, because we tend to avoid anything that makes us uncomfortable. One of the best ways caregivers can help children manage feelings is by creating an environment where all feelings are accepted,” Thompson said.
“Emotions are a normal part of the human experience. When we tell children not to be angry or that they shouldn’t cry, we send a powerful message that feelings are not OK and that children shouldn’t trust themselves,” Thompson said.
Relationships are essential
Resiliency also is fostered when children have caring relationships with competent adults.
“It’s often not enough to just care about children. Each child comes into the world with unique interests, skills and abilities,” Thompson said.
Children benefit from parents and caregivers who take the time to learn how children develop and what is appropriate at different ages. Children also benefit when parents and caregivers practice skills and competencies around patience, empathy and compassion.
Thriving communities are critical for supporting children’s ability to bounce back from stress, Thompson continued. Communities with resources for families such as strong schools, parks and other recreation opportunities, quality child care, and employment opportunities help families manage stressful times. This helps parents, caregivers and children to become resilient.
Individual capabilities, caring and competent relationships, and thriving communities all play crucial and interconnected roles in helping children and families bounce back from stressful experiences and be resilient, Thompson said.
Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, in partnership with other organizations across the state, offers workshops for professionals, volunteers and families on the negative long-term impacts of early stress and how to prevent and mitigate those impacts.
ISU Extension and Outreach also offers many opportunities for children, adults and families to learn about new ideas and develop skills. Contact any ISU Extension and Outreach county office to learn more about what is available locally. To learn more about efforts across Iowa to support resiliency, go to https://www.iowaaces360.org/.