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A Short Primer on Resilience

How the interaction of biology and environment builds kids’ coping skills
illustration of a blocky figure pushing a rock up a mountain, set against evening blue sky

Excerpted from research generated by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

Children who thrive despite hardship usually have both a biological resistance to adversity and strong relationships with at least one adult in their family or community. Resilience is the result of the interplay of protective factors — of the interaction between biology and environment.

Resilience seems to derive from four common factors:

  1. supportive adult-child relationships;
  2. a sense of self-efficacy and perceived control;
  3. opportunities to strengthen adaptive skills and self-regulatory capacities; and
  4. mobilizing sources of faith, hope, and cultural traditions.

Learning to cope with manageable threats is critical for the development of resilience. Not all stress is harmful. There are numerous opportunities in every child’s life to experience manageable stress — and with the help of supportive adults, this “positive stress” can be growth-promoting.

The capabilities that underlie resilience can be strengthened at any age. The brain and other biological systems are most adaptable early in life, but it is never too late to build resilience. Age-appropriate, health-promoting activities can significantly improve the odds that an individual will recover from stress-inducing experiences. For example, regular physical exercise, stress-reduction practices, and programs that actively build executive function and self-regulation skills can improve the abilities of children and adults to cope with, adapt to, and even prevent adversity in their lives. Adults who strengthen these skills in themselves can better model healthy behaviors for their children, thereby bolstering the resilience skills and wellness of the next generation.


We’re in a moment where anxiety is running rampant, spreading like an epidemic among adolescents. What can we do? In a series of pieces, we look at how to help teenagers face their fears, build resilience, and grapple with the pressure to achieve — on the road to college and beyond. Read more at What Do Anxious Teens Need?

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