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How to Build Resilience in Children

Help your preschoolers cope with difficult situations.

How to Build Resilience in Children

Building Resilience in Children

Today’s lesson: If at first you don’t succeed—try, try again. While this saying might seem like a cliché, the message behind it is timeless. How many times have you told yourself to “shake it off?” How many times did you “bounce back” from a challenge or struggle? While we all face challenges in life, it’s our resilience, or ability to adapt and cope with difficult situations that helps us move forward successfully.

Even as children we can experience adversity. For a small child, emotions like sadness, stress, and anxiety can feel particularly big. And situations like bullying, moving to a new town, or facing problems at home can be overwhelming. Fortunately, this is where you come in.

The world is complex, and there’s no way to prepare for everything that may happen, but you can teach your preschoolers how to adapt and manage feelings of stress and anxiety. 

In this article, we’ll discuss resilience—what it is, why it’s important, and how you can build it in your children.

two young boys playing with clay toys


What is resilience?

Resilience is the ability to adapt, cope, and recover from difficult situations. The American Psychology Association (APA) describes resilience as occurring “through mental, emotional, and behavioral flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands.”

Resilience is a representation of adaptability. You can consider it a defense mechanism that we launch when faced with adversity or challenges. The stressor triggers resilience. Signs of resilience could manifest as feelings of optimism or control, effective emotional regulation, problem-solving skills, active use of social support, or attention to one’s physical well-being. While some typically look at resilience as solely a mental and emotional strength, there are actually four types of resilience:

  • Emotional
  • Mental
  • Physical
  • Social

Emotional resilience

Emotional resilience is the ability to regulate emotions during times of stress. It helps children understand how and why they experience a certain feeling during moments of anxiety, pain, grief, or trauma. Emotional resilience helps children manage their emotions in a healthy, constructive way. For example, instead of throwing a tantrum, a young child with emotional resilience can talk their way through a problem. A child might demonstrate emotional resilience through traits like optimism, acceptance, and perseverance. It guides them in understanding that difficult emotions and the challenges causing them won’t last forever.

Mental resilience

Mental resilience, sometimes called psychological resilience, is the mental capacity to adapt and cope with adversity and uncertainty. It is often associated with the term “mental fortitude” or the ability to focus on and execute solutions when faced with difficult situations. 

Imagine you give a preschooler the task of stacking 10 blocks in ten seconds. During their first few attempts, they try to stack the blocks one-by-one. Each time they fail, you can expect them to experience some frustration; however, a child with mental resilience can work past this frustration to solve the problem. They might decide to use two hands instead of one. Your preschooler might even ask you for help. Mental resilience allows children to develop efficient coping strategies, for example, remaining flexible and calm in response to stress.

Physical resilience

Physical resilience is your body’s ability to adapt and respond to physical hardships like accidents, injury, or illness. It determines how your body heals itself. You can imagine that physical resilience plays a significant role in health, and fortunately, you can build and nurture healthy lifestyles in children. Teaching children the benefits of eating a nutritious diet, engaging in regular exercise, and getting enough sleep can help them strengthen their physical resilience.

Social resilience

Social resilience is the ability to connect with others and work together to solve problems that affect people individually and collectively. In an early childhood education setting, this might look like a child’s ability to be social and make and maintain friendships. When children enter a new childcare facility or classroom in the middle of the year, they might feel anxiety and stress over missing their old friends and wanting to make new ones. Socially resilient children can work past these feelings and attempt to make friends. Another example of social resilience would be anyone in the class who takes the initiative to befriend the new child.

When you consider the traits associated with resilience, you might realize that many of them are not innate. Children are not born with the emotional intelligence to understand that difficult moments are temporary. As a child, you weren’t equipped with all the tools needed for coping and calming yourself.

Resilience theory is the framework for studying and observing how people are affected by and adapt to challenges and adversity. This theory also tells us that resilience isn’t a fixed trait. It can be strengthened, even during childhood. Resilience can be likened to the muscle groups of the body. Some muscles, like the hamstrings in the legs, are typically stronger than the biceps in the arms. In the same way, with resilience, children might demonstrate more resilience for one challenge than they do for another. There is no master key to building muscle or becoming more resilient. The process is complex and personal; however, there are several factors that contribute to how well people adapt to adversities. The most prevalent are:

  • The ways in which individuals view and engage with the world
  • The availability and quality of social resources
  • Specific coping strategies

Improving and practicing resilience with children can create a strong, but flexible foundation for becoming a balanced, healthy individual.

young girl in red dress plays with wooden blocks at a table as another girl in a brown dress sits next to her playing with dinosaur toys


Why is resilience important?

Realizing that we can’t control everything in life and processing that idea should begin during early childhood. Children face different challenges every day. They might have experiences that range from moving to new locations to dealing with family death or experiencing an adverse childhood experience (ACE) such as abuse or witnessing violence. Resilience is important because it’s what children need to process and overcome hardship. Resilient children are able to recover from setbacks, build their confidence, and strengthen their ability to cope when things are outside of their control. A lack of resilience can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as isolation or avoidance that can last into adulthood.

When children develop resilience, they are less likely to have anxiety or suffer with depression, and they tend to have increased social involvement. Building resilience in children equips them with the emotional and social tools needed to keep functioning positively.

How to build resilience in children

Challenges and adversity aren’t specific to age. Young children can experience stress, anxiety, grief, and more. That’s why it’s necessary to begin building resilience as early as possible. Kenneth Ginsburg, pediatrician and Professor of Pediatrics, created the Seven C’s Model of Resilience, which was published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Each is an element that you can support in your young children to help build and strengthen resilience. 

The Seven C’s of Resilience are:

  • Competence: The ability to perform a job or task effectively. It can help us navigate the world with skills like communication, self-advocacy, and negotiation. You can teach and model competency by allowing young children to watch you work from problems to solutions. 
  • Confidence: A belief in yourself and your abilities. It is a conviction where you trust yourself and believe that you can meet life’s challenges and succeed. Confident children are more likely to take chances, as they don’t allow failure to limit them.
  • Connection: A close tie to family, friends, and community. Building strong relationships helps young children develop a sense of belonging and security. 
  • Character: A combination of all the qualities that make children distinct from one another. It is the way children think, feel, and behave. Character is related to morality and how a child’s sense of right and wrong drives them to make decisions.
  • Contribution: Represents the act of giving or supplying something. When young children make contributions to their peers, it helps them realize responsibility and self-worth. It helps them develop a sense of purpose and reinforce positive reciprocal relationships. 
  • Coping: The thoughts and behaviors used to manage internal and external stressful situations. Coping skills are important to develop because they help children deal with stressors and overcome challenges. It is more beneficial to teach children a range of healthy strategies versus telling them “what not to do.” 
  • Control: The ability or power to decide or strongly influence the way something happens or how someone will behave. For children, it is knowing they have control over their actions and that they matter. Understanding control empowers children to act as problem solvers.

six young children standing on field kicking soccer balls at a net


With these elements in mind, the APA offers the below ways for building resilience in children.

1. Make connections

Social support is an important aspect of building resilience in young children. Teach your children the importance of connecting with their classmates and friends. This is better taught through demonstration. Guide them through lessons on empathy. Demonstrate the importance of listening to others. When young children have a strong sense of support from their community, this helps strengthen resilience.

2. Encourage your preschoolers to help others

Brave is an important word to young children. They often associate the word with doing things by themselves. To help build resilience, lead your children to the understanding that being brave also means knowing when to ask for help. Empower them in the classroom. Ask them for help with age-appropriate tasks they can master. Feelings of helplessness can often be overpowered by feelings of competency, so have your preschoolers help you make a list of ways they can help their classmates.

3. Maintain a daily routine

Establishing structure and a daily routine can be beneficial for young children. In building a schedule, set aside times for work, play, and snacks. In times of stress or transition, a routine can be comforting. Alternatively, you can consider creating moments or situations that occasionally deviate from the routine. Flexibility is a big component of resilience. Using moments of change to help your children develop flexibility will strengthen their resilience.

4. Take a break

When children are faced with stress or adversity that is too intense or long-lasting, they can become overwhelmed. This feeling can affect their ability to cope. Encourage your children to take breaks and focus on what they can control. These are excellent opportunities for creative play, exercise, or games.

5. Teach your preschoolers self-care

A healthy body is a great foundation for a healthy mind. Teaching your preschoolers the importance of getting enough sleep during nap time and bedtime, staying active, and eating nutritious foods will help them stay in a healthy mindset.

6. Move toward your goals

Creating goals helps young children focus on specific tasks. Instead of setting one large goal, break it into smaller ones. Learning numbers 1 to 10 becomes learning a new number each week. When children have a goal they’re working on, it can help them build resilience as they move toward the goal.

7. Nurture a positive self-view

When children have a positive view of themselves, it carries them through future challenges. Remind your preschoolers that the struggles they’ve had in the past have made them stronger for the future. Help them realize that they can trust themselves.

8. Keep things in perspective and maintain a hopeful outlook

When children experience painful events, it can be difficult to talk them past the current situation and help them look toward the future. Nurture positivity and hope. Optimism can help children remove their focus from their challenges and redirect their energy toward something good. However, this does not mean invalidating their feelings. Acknowledge their feelings and teach them how to reframe them. Teach them how to focus on what they have instead of what they’ve lost.

9. Look for opportunities for self-discovery

A strong sense of self can help young children build resilience. Every situation they experience can teach them about themselves. Did they get back on their bike after they fell? Did they keep trying to build a block tower after it fell over? Children likely don’t realize how important these actions are. In your classroom, call attention to behaviors and moments like these to help reinforce the idea of resilience.

10. Accept change

Change can often have a negative connotation. However, it is neither good nor bad. Help your preschoolers see that change is a necessary part of life. While they can’t always control what changes, they can control how they react to it. Give them examples of common changes in their lives. Their favorite color could change from red to blue. From last year to this year, they’ve changed by getting taller. Point out that things change, but they can handle it.

Play and resilience 

Adults tend to look at learning and playing as being mutually exclusive. We take breaks from learning or working to play. However, with young children, play is learning and working.

Through play-based learning, young children can discover themselves and their world. They can take concepts they’ve internalized and act them out during imaginative play. They use play to explore ways to interact with their friends and peers. Play also allows them to process and work through their emotions.

Play is essential for developing physical, cognitive, language, and social-emotional skills. It gives children the ability to use their imagination and creativity. Play also creates opportunities for children to display and strengthen skills, such as attention, self-control, and critical thinking, that are central to resilience.

Young girl coloring on paper


Resilience activities for children

Resilience is not innate. With practice, it is a quality that can be learned and strengthened over time. Building resilience in children should start as soon as possible to equip them with the proper tools to handle stressors. Here are eight activities to help your children begin building resilience.

Mindfulness breathing

Breathing is one of those actions we do without thinking about it. When dealing with stress or anxiety, our breathing changes. Instead of slow, even breaths, they become short and shallow. This can sometimes lead to hyperventilation or panic attacks. Mindfulness breathing—focusing your attention on breathing—is a powerful coping mechanism for strengthening resilience.


Growth mindset mantras

A growth mindset is a belief and understanding that your intelligence, talents, and abilities can be developed and improved. And resilience is what helps you maintain this way of thinking. They both take stress, challenges, or failures and transform them into something more positive.

Growth mindset mantras will help your preschoolers strengthen their resilience by enforcing a positive attitude. The following are a few mantras you can recite with your preschoolers:

  • I can’t do it YET.

  • I can do hard things.

  • Sometimes you win, and sometimes you learn.

  • I will try again.

  • I will do my best.

Guided meditation

Meditation may seem like a hard task for preschoolers. While it might be hard to get them to sit still for an extended period of time, teaching them the fundamentals of meditation can help them understand how to calm their minds and bodies. This can give them a better foundation for processing their feelings. Headspace, the guided meditation app, offers short 1-5 minute mini-meditations you can practice with children.

Musical chairs

Musical chairs might seem like just a game, but it is also another activity that helps build resilience in children. How? Think about the feelings that can arise when playing the game: Children might feel anxious about getting a seat, they might get impatient while waiting for the music to stop, and it’s easy to experience disappointment over not getting a seat. As the children play musical chairs you can prompt them toward positive, healthy coping techniques. 

Emotional check-in

We all have days when we don’t feel our best. Identifying what you’re feeling can help you figure out how to manage it. The same goes for your young learners. Consider incorporating an emotional check-in as a daily activity. Create a board that depicts common emotions for young children such as happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. As they enter the classroom each day, have them point to the emotion they are feeling. Take some time to talk with those who select delicate emotions. Not only does it give them an outlet, but it also allows their friends to show compassion.

Who can I go to?

A strong community and support system are important tools to help build resilience in children. Socially connected people are often better at managing and recovering from challenges. An activity you can work on with your children is “Who can I go to?” Prompt them to think of and list the people who often comfort them and make them feel safe. As you call attention to emotions that often feel uncomfortable, such as sadness, anger, and fear, guide them to recognize that they have people such as family members, peers, or teachers they can turn to. 

Resilience storytime

Stories are a great way to share messages of resilience with young children. While they’re busy being “entertained,” they’re also learning important lessons. During storytime, incorporate stories—books and movies—that demonstrate resilience. 

After the Fall by Dan Santat is a picture book that tells the story of how Humpty Dumpty overcomes his fear of heights after falling off the wall. As you discuss the story with your preschoolers, you can guide them through discussing why Humpty Dumpty didn’t want to climb the wall again, what made him change his mind, and how to work step by step to overcome fears.

The 2015 Pixar film Inside Out is a great film to incorporate into resilience storytime because resilience also requires managing feelings. The film is a reminder to children (and adults) to embrace themselves and give themselves the chance to work through their emotions.


Coloring is another healthy way to reduce stress and anxiety. It is a beneficial coping strategy that helps build and strengthen resilience. Coloring often puts children in a meditative state, while also helping them redirect their focus away from their big feelings.

Shake it off

Children have their share of struggles and challenges. And while you won’t always be there to protect their minds from everything, you can teach them ways to overcome challenges. Building resilience in children is the foundation for keeping children happy, healthy, and well-adjusted. The ability to “shake it off” isn’t learned in one lesson, so keep incorporating it into your activities. With the tools presented here, you can help your preschoolers to champion their emotions and strengthen their resilience.

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