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Growing and supporting children's emotional resilience

As I write we are finally in December after what has been the most extraordinary year which has impacted us all. Our emotional resilience has been tested, and at times I am sure you have found, as I have, that the reserves and resilience were low.  This seems a very good time to reflect on emotional resilience and how we support and build that in children.

Emotional resilience is about having the ability to overcome negative circumstances and adversity in your life, handling your emotions and remaining healthy and competent, having coping mechanisms and being able to bounce back to deal with whatever life throws at you. This doesn’t mean that if/when we find it difficult to pick ourselves up we have a lack of emotional resilience, but simply that it has been tested to the point at which coming back takes longer.

For children, it is about bouncing back from challenges they may experience in life: from problem solving in their play and using different tools, to moving home, starting school, bereavement, or family break up. The building of resilience helps children deal with the here and now, but also develop skills and habits that will help them deal with challenges throughout their life.

Resilience is important for children’s mental health. Children with greater resilience are able to cope better with stress, which is a natural response to difficulties in life. Stress is a risk factor for mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Some children are more naturally resilient through inherited genes; however, all children need help to build resilience. Children who face more challenges in their lives, such as instability at home, may need more support.

Comparatively speaking there is a relatively small amount of research into emotional resilience. However, much of that research has shown the key role families, early years settings, schools and the community play in promoting emotional resilience and positive mental health.

To build emotional resilience we need to support and enable children to:

·         Build relationships with adults and peers

·         Develop independence and self-help skills

·         Learn to identify, express and manage their feelings and emotions

·         Build their confidence through challenge

These are known as protective factors which help to support you when you are faced by negative or challenging situations. These protective factors include secure attachments and general good health and development. Attitude and behaviour of parents has been found to be one of the most powerful influences on children’s resilience. The role played by early years settings, in supporting children and parents, is key.




So, in what ways can we support the establishment of emotional resilience?

·         Building and maintaining key carer relationships within the setting, relationships children have with all practitioners and with their peers.  Provide that secure base through key attachments which gives a sense of security and enables children to develop.

·         Role modelling a positive attitude, demonstrating that when things go wrong, we can carry on, that we like challenges and will have a go. They need to see us overcoming difficulties or doing something where we have no idea what will happen, and that it is alright.

·         Ensuring the environment in the setting is calm, not too loud or overly stimulating, so it is conducive to quiet reflection and engagement.

·         Providing appropriate challenges for children, enabling them to problem solve and overcome difficulties, and not intervening too quickly.

·         Supporting self-regulation

·         Acknowledging children’s emotions and enabling them to understand and explore their feelings, looking at how we do this through opportunity, discussion and props.

·         Supporting children through transitions and change and helping children understand why they happen, whether it is a transition in the day and enabling them to become familiar with a routine, or perhaps it is moving rooms in a setting, or starting school. If you enable children to understand something it becomes easier for them to manage.

·         Using language that gives a clear message to children that they are valued, and they can do something and achieve. Using words to foster a can-do approach.

·         Enabling and encouraging children to engage in risky play. Taking risks, assessing risks and managing risks is a key life skill. There needs to be a clear understanding of what risky play means, and a whole setting approach. Risky play builds resilience through growing confidence and independence.

·         Helping children to understand delayed gratification, when they realise they can’t always have exactly what they want straight away.

·         Supporting parents to recognise what they can do to help their children build emotional resilience: having 1:1 time with no distractions, ensuring their children have enough sleep, helping their child to understand delayed gratification, and being outside.

As well as being aware of these protective factors it is essential we are aware of the risk factors which can impact negatively on a child’s emotional resilience and ability to build that resilience. These include:

·         Parental mental health and well being

·         Repeated early separation from parents/primary carer

·         Overly harsh or inadequate parenting

·         Abuse or neglect

·         Parental conflict

·         Domestic abuse

·         Parental job loss or unemployment

·         Socio economic factors e.g. housing, recession, local environment

·         Parental criminality

As you read that list of risk factors it may well occur to you that several on the list have been mentioned in the news a great deal this year. That brings us to one of the key reasons why I decided to write this article. There is a direct correlation between the identified factors of the secondary impact of Covid 19 and the risk factors that can compromise emotional resilience. We need to be aware and alert.

The secondary impact of Covid 19 in terms of risk as identified by the Health Visitors Association are:

·         Mental health – stress and anxiety

·         Loneliness

·         Couple conflict

·         Domestic violence and abuse

·         Food poverty

·         Increased unemployment

·         Child protection/safeguarding concerns

It is about identifying how you in your setting support the protective factors for each child. Consider how you would pick up on changes at home for children? This comes back to parental partnership and how you keep in touch with children and families when they are not attending, due to self-isolation or if you have to close a bubble or your setting. Being open minded is also critical, as families who have not previously been at risk may now be, owing to the impact of the pandemic.

At the end of November, the Royal Foundation published a report, ‘State of the Nation: Understanding Public Attitudes to the Early Years’. This report had been commissioned before the pandemic hit; however, the responses obviously reflect the impact of the pandemic, and they further correlate with both the secondary impact information and the emotional resilience risk factors.

This report found that:

·         During the pandemic parental loneliness increased from 38% to 63%.

·         The increase is more apparent in deprived areas. Parents in deprivation are more than twice as likely to feel lonely as those living in the least deprived areas.

·         63% of parents report spending more quality time with their children, however parents who have experienced financial difficulties or who do not live with a partner are more likely than average to say they have spent less quality time with their children, 13% and 16% respectively. The average is 9%.

·         37% of parents think the pandemic will have a negative impact on their long-term mental health.

·         Women (40%) and those experiencing financial difficulties (46%) are particularly likely to report a negative impact.

·         70% say they feel judged by others which impacts on their mental health.

·         35% feel judged on how their child behaves or how they choose to manage their child’s behaviour (36%).

The report highlights key indicators and where we might need to be alert to the needs of children and families. More than a third of parents thinking the pandemic will have a long-term impact on their mental health, shows us this is something we need to reflect on carefully and consider our role in supporting the child and their family.




Taking everything into consideration a good starting point is to reflect on practice, knowledge and awareness.

·         How are you maintaining contact with parents? What do you feel you might be missing due to the way you have had to change how you communicate with parents, or do you feel you know more?

·         When do you ask for ‘all about me’ forms to be updated? What is included in these that can help you understand and know the child’s family? Are these completed as a conversation together with the parent? If so, you may find out more during this two-way exchange, which can be more supportive and productive than an individual completing a form alone.

·         Do all of your team know about and understand emotional resilience? For the support of emotional resilience to be embedded practice within a setting there needs to be clear understanding and awareness from everyone.

·         How do you support each child’s emotional resilience? Which children do you think are particularly resilient and why? You may have a general ethos to support children’s resilience but remember each individual child’s needs will vary.

·         Are there ways in which you feel you could develop how to support children in building their emotional resilience? Why and what do you feel would be the impact?

·         What signposting do you provide for parents? How do you engage? How do you support families? In some instances, parents will see you as a source of information and someone that they can talk to for advice.

This is a complex area and I have only scratched the surface. I hope this can act as a starting point and enable discussion and reflection within a setting on emotional resilience, why it is important, especially now, and what it means to each child and for our practice.




Jenny Barber
Jenny is passionate about child care and early years and has worked in the field since leaving school. She has been working freelance since 2002, delivering bespoke training for local authorities around the country, for educational organsiations, in a variety of early years settings and schools. She has experience working with Montessori settings and Independent schools. She also regularly contributes to various Early Years publications and has published 5 books.

Edited by Jules

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This article is both sobering in the evidence it draws on to show the impact the pandemic is having on children and families, and also forward looking, offering practical points to reflect on in our settings. One thing I kept coming back to as I read it was the importance of taking each child's individual situation into account. 

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I shared this article with a friend who is like many,  at home trying to homeschool 2 young boys.  She is so concerned about the children's mental health and all the things they are missing out on by not being to 'socialise with their peers' and she found the content of this article really helpful.

She had not considered the things she could do to help them become more resilient in order to cope with their current routines and plans to start building in some of the ideas outlined into daily activities.


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