Are Children Really Resilient?

Published on April 23, 2015 by

Kids posing over white“They’ll be fine.  They’re young. They’ll get over it. They won’t even remember. They just need to toughen up.” I have heard people refer to children like this many times when working with clients, but it is not completely accurate. Many people assume that children are highly resilient and adaptable. Are children really resilient? Of course they are. People in general are resilient. We can endure and overcome heart-wrenching challenges, especially with the support of others. However, just because a person is young does not mean that they can escape unscathed from any situation. On the contrary, children may become more traumatized than an adult might during a given experience.

Because children are impressionable, trauma can have a long-lasting impact on them. Their brains are still developing, so trauma can have a greater effect on their malleable brains than an adult’s brain that is no longer developing. Makes a lot of sense, right? Neuroscientists have literally found how trauma can leave its imprint on their developing brains through brain imaging. There are other things to consider as well.  Children have not had the life experiences to teach them that traumatic experiences are an exception and not the rule.  They have not developed as many coping skills as an adult might have. They do not have as much control over their life situation and support systems as an independent adult does. Maybe they were traumatized by someone who was supposed to be a support to them.  The idea that because they are children they will be fine is a sad myth for these reasons and others.

So why does the myth that children will be fine, forget, or easily get over the traumatic event exist?  Perhaps people believe that children will be fine because children do not have long conversations and express themselves verbally the same way adults do.  Hence, adults may not hear about it, or if they do it could be through a couple fleeting comments.  Children may act out (or even “act in”) instead of speaking out.  “Acting in” in can include internalizing situations, feeling guilty or blaming themselves, become depressed or self-harming themselves.  Perhaps the myth exists because children can continue playing and laughing despite their significant emotional challenges.  Just like adults, smiling doesn’t mean they aren’t traumatized by something.  Perhaps adults think that they are too young to understand or to be aware of what is going on.  Children are often more aware than we think, so it is often wise to be aware of what we say and do around them.

Perhaps the myth exists because we as adults don’t think a certain event should be traumatizing.  First, we need to understand what trauma is.  Trauma is exposure to a threat of harm and can be something obvious like being sexually abused or witnessing a death or being in a tornado.  While children may or may not not become traumatized in the sense of developing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, children can also experience some stress symptoms over “smaller” situations.  Examples of events include witnessing a car on fire while driving down the freeway, seeing a scary movie or advertisement, or witnessing domestic violence three years ago even though the family is happy and healthy now.  Children can exhibit signs of stress during or after divorce, even though we may think they weren’t involved in or aware of the details of it.  We might tell them to toughen up because it’s just “teasing,” but being bullied can be traumatic. Going to the doctor’s office can be traumatizing (I think we all agree on that one).  Regardless of the reasons we sometimes assume differently, children can become traumatized and there are signs of post-traumatic stress to look for.

Children can respond in a variety of ways to trauma.  Sometimes they become obviously distressed when they have reminders of the trauma.  They may become avoidant or withdraw from certain people or situations.  Children may make comments to you about something that happened, or you may recognize signs of trauma in their play or artwork. They may play something recurrently. Some children have increased nightmares. Maybe you know they often think about the bad memories.  Other children become oppositional, defiant or have temper tantrums when they are traumatized. You may notice they are more irritable.  Others have symptoms similar to ADHD and act impulsively or have difficulty concentrating.  Some children exhibit regressive behaviors such as bed-wetting again.  Children may startle easily.  If you think that your child may have symptoms of traumatic stress, a mental health therapist that specializes in working with children may be helpful.  A therapist can assess what they are experiencing, help teach skills to deal with their anxiety, and help them process and overcome the trauma.

Thankfully, that same developing brain means that they have a tremendous capacity to grow and heal.  Through big and small stressors, empathize with your child and spend time with your child talking or playing.  Just like an adult, children want to feel understood and validated. Establishing safe and loving routines is invaluable. They need that stability.  There is hope.  Remember that caregivers are the most important part in a child’s recovery.

Tanya Lindquist, CSW – Psychological Assessment & Treatment Center