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Nurturing Resilience in Children

As parents, we want our children to navigate life’s ups and downs with grace and confidence. To this end, and from an early age, children need to be supported when dealing with adversity so they can mature in a healthy way and increase their resilience. So, how can we support them to grow into resilient adults?

We turned to Sunrise Waldorf School (Sunrise) teacher Katia Rheault for her insights on this important topic. Ms. Rheault has been studying resilience and presented some of her findings in a parent enrichment evening last year.

With her assistance, we are taking a closer look at how parents can help their children become resilient adults, and how Waldorf education supports this.

What is Resilience?

Resilience is the ability to bounce back after a crisis or stressful event. Thanks to resilience, people can go from a stressed state and return to a calmer and more regulated one.

Our nervous system has evolved to keep us safe. When a threat or a stressor is identified, our nervous system shifts and mobilizes our inner resources (oxygen, nutrients, blood flow) to either attack, escape, or “play dead”. This is the normal fight/ flight/freeze response also called the trauma response. After we have successfully dealt with the threat, we can return to our normal resting state (aka “rest and digest”), and homeostasis (physiological balance) is re-established.

“The faster you can recover from stress, the more resilience you have. That’s why trauma is so debilitating,” said Rheault. “The problem is when [the trauma response] is not disconnected, even after the stressful event is over, and the cues for safety have not returned. Then our ability to recover from stress is undermined, therefore our capacity for resilience is diminished.”

Starting from birth, all children experience both stress and relaxation, and need to be supported to move from a stressed state to a more regulated one. An article out of Harvard University explained that when children experience “manageable stress” and learn to deal with it, they “become better able to cope with life’s obstacles and hardships, both physically and mentally.”

One of our main tasks as parents, then, is to do our best to help our children work through life’s everyday stresses while protecting them from significant traumas as much as possible. It’s important to remember that life can be messy and unforeseen challenges do come up. When they do, it may not be the trauma itself, but how we deal with it that matters the most.

“Parents who support children to recover from stress in a healthy, functional way, will make them more resilient as they grow up,” said Rheault.

How Parents Can Support Resilience in Their Children

Although some children are simply born more resilient than others, there are things we can do as parents to support our children’s ability to recover from stressful events, no matter their temperament or basic constitution.

Taking Care of the Basics

Every parent knows what can happen to children’s emotional states when they are tired, hungry, or haven’t had enough exercise. They often become cranky, demanding, upset, or prone to tantrums: they become dysregulated. Resilience requires a solid base, and if a child’s core needs aren’t met, it can be much more difficult for them to deal with stress.

Rheault wrote, “Children need to receive adequate nutrition, sleep, and rest according to a predictable and consistent rhythm.”

And in addition to their physical needs, children also have core emotional needs that have to be met: safety (boundaries, emotional security), connection (reciprocity and love), predictability, and play.

Attachment and Connection

Children need to feel attached to at least one caregiver. This appears over and over in literature on resilience. Of course, having more loving caregivers is wonderful, but at least one stable and consistent attachment is necessary.

Rheault explained, “Children need to feel safe and secure in the presence of caregivers. Connection means ‘I need to be fully seen, heard, and accepted by you’.”

The Harvard University article explains that these relationships “also build key capacities—such as the ability to plan, monitor, and regulate behavior—that enable children to respond adaptively to adversity and thrive.”


At birth, our nervous systems are far from being fully developed. That is why children need to regulate their own emotional and physiological states with their parents’ help. This is called co-regulation.

Rheault wrote, “When babies become stressed and dysregulated, they are unable to self-regulate on their own.”

Over time, when provided with enough consistent nurturance, children eventually become capable of soothing themselves. This article on “Parenting for Brain” compares the process of learning to self-soothe to teaching a child how to ride a bike. In the beginning, the parent holds the bike steady without letting go. This is the support babies and young children need with their feelings. Then, as children develop, parents can provide less and less support. “Each child has a different timeline, depending on temperament, constitution, and sensitivity,” wrote Rheault.

When co-regulating, parents need to remain calm and present as much as possible in the face of their children’s distress. This is not always easy to do, but the more we can stay in an unstressed state, the easier it is for children to find their way back to homeostasis. According to Rheault, co-regulation may include, “Safe, nurturing, appropriate touch (physical holding, a soft voice, kind eyes), and providing space for a child to take the time to become regulated at their own pace.”

She went on to explain that children all have their unique paths back to regulation. Parents need to attune to their children and experiment to identify the types of support that work best.

Modeling Resilience

“Children integrate what they receive from outside, and are affirmed by the certainty of habit,” wrote Rheault. If we want our children to learn resilience, we as parents have to model it to them.

Every time we take a few deep breaths before losing our tempers, or recover from stress in our own lives by taking care of ourselves, we are teaching our children to do the same.

As parents, we also need a strong support network. Children require a lot of time and energy. For parents to be resilient, they too must attend to their needs, getting plenty of nutrition, sleep, exercise, and downtime as much as possible.

Predictable Rhythm

This is a staple of all parenting advice, but it’s good for developing resilience too. Predictability and rhythmic routines give children a sense of security which helps build resilience.

“The more rhythmic life is for a child, the more their energetic (etheric) body is supported,” said Rheault. “The more that is supported at home, the better it is for children.”

Rheault explained children do best when living by “event time,” not “clock time.” In event time, the start and the end of any activity is determined by the experience itself, not by the time on the clock.

“Living according to ‘event time’ is healthy in that one can breathe more easily through any activity – flexibility is allowed, spontaneity can take place, and taking one’s time is socially acceptable; all of this keeps stress levels low,” wrote Rheault.