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Resiliency is Natural: Supporting Children's Developmental Stages and Needs Helps Them Achieve Resilience

Resiliency is Natural:
Supporting Children’s Developmental Stages and Needs Helps Them Achieve Resilience

By Jacqueline King-Presant, M.Ed.

Resilience is an Interconnected Aspect and Outcome of Natural Development

Resiliency is an all-important mindset that is declining in children and young adults today 8 (Read more on this topic in my earlier article in this series Empowering Children Towards Resiliency.) Resiliency is also connected with every other part of healthy development. If a child’s developmental needs are met, they will feel safe enough to venture out into the types of new and difficult experiences that must be encountered to gain resilience. 2, 3 They will also be in a better state in which to approach and orient themselves towards these experiences, once encountered.

Resiliency is Natural

Nature seems to have equipped children with a pre-disposed trajectory towards achieving resilience through natural drives which occur at different stages.

According to Erick Erickson, 4 each developmental stage has its own crisis, which can be seen as an opportunity to become resilient in a certain way. The outcome of each successfully navigated childhood crisis, is an important component of resilience: hope, will, purpose, and competency.

For example, one of the crises that occurs in toddlerhood is the autonomy vs. shame and doubt crisis; with a positive outcome of “will.” The strong will our children display at this stage, while sometimes difficult, is important to support so that it can be used to overcome later struggles with resilience. We support it by understanding and supporting the child’s need to take risks, feel independent and powerful; and participate in daily “real” tasks autonomously at this stage. 5 While we support their emotions in the ways I will describe in the next article, they will be well on the way to a resilient mindset.

While no two children are the same, and each follows their own developmental trajectory, it is helpful to familiarize ourselves with norms of children’s developmental processes, stages, and abilities so that we can support them in gaining each of the important aspects of resilience. 6 It also helps us to set realistic expectations 4 through more accurately predicting their abilities.

A Firm Foundation

According to classic child developmental theorist Abraham Maslow, some basic foundational needs of a child are food, water, shelter, warmth, sleep, security, affection, and acceptance. 7 Other needs arise at different times in a person’s development. If at any point any of these needs are, or are felt to be, unmet; the person’s resilience during a particular situation can be affected. 6

A firm foundation of having basic needs met, means that children will be able to access the more evolved, “smarter” parts of their brain during struggles and difficult situations. 6 This ability to stay calm and think through a situation leads to the confidence to face any challenge with resilience.

If basic needs are not met, one can get locked into less evolved parts of the brain, such as the amygdala or lizard brain, 8, 6 which are responsible for releasing stress hormones that inhibit the ability to stay calm and problem solve. In fact, anything that stimulates the amygdala (such as fear, overstimulation, and screens/toys with flashing lights for younger children 9) can inhibit this problem solving ability, and therefore one’s ability to confidently navigate life’s challenges.

An important – and fulfilling – need for parents to focus on is unconditional love and acceptance, which equates to love and security for a child. 3, 6, 10 As doctors Brooks and Goldstein state in their book Raising Resilient Children “Feeling [unconditionally] loved, special, and appreciated is a cornerstone of a child’s resilient mindset” 3

Children also need to feel autonomous and powerful (and this drive is intense during the early childhood years), just as they need to feel loved and supported in other ways; so it is helpful to ask ourselves whether these needs are being met. However, if they aren’t, our children will let us know through their behavior – it is just up to us to interpret this behavior and understand what it is calling for. Rather than set more limits or restrictions, often it is more independence, feelings of being powerful, as well as love and understanding that is needed during difficult times with our children!

Later on, in the middle and late childhood years, the developmental drives for feeling “good at” something become important, as does the drive to feel socially successful. So supporting our children through allowing them to participate in the activities they enjoy so that they may become proficient at those activities and giving them support socially can go a long way.

When we understand our children’s developmental needs, we understand why punishments like “time out” may not be a choice that are in line with our goal of resiliency for our children: They leave the foundational needs of acceptance and affiliation with one’s tribe – family or social unit unmet. This can leave a child stuck in less-evolved parts of the brain long after the experience. This makes it impossible for them to truly take anything away from the intervention (of punishment), other than their perception that their parent does not understand their needs in the moment, that they are not worthy of being around the family or social group, and possibly not to get caught doing whatever it was they were doing (if they are even capable of impulse-regulation yet, which very young children are not). 11, 6 In fact, in the brain; “time out” shows up basically the same way as a traumatic event – leaving a child with fewer emotional resources with which to truly process and understand events. 6 It is actually more useful – as well as enjoyable for all involved – to focus on connecting, informing, and problem solving together whenever possible.

A little knowledge and trust in our children’s developmental process goes a long way towards supporting their resilience. Through this, we also greatly strengthen our relationship with them, which is a most valuable resource for any child. Also integral to understanding and supporting our children’s development and resilience is knowing how to normalize failure, struggle, and big emotions – as well as how to help them gain emotional intelligence and coping skills. We can also encourage healthy risk taking, independence, and problem solving skills in specific ways.

This is the second in a series of four articles on this topic by Jacqueline King-Presant, M.Ed., a child development specialist and consultant. The other articles are:

Empowering Children Towards Resiliency

Supporting Children's Emotional Intelligence for Resilience

Supporting Independence, Risk Taking, Perseverance, and Problem Solving for Resilience 


1 Gray, P., Ph.D. (2015). Declining Student Resilience: A serious problem for colleges. Psychology Today.

2 6 Steps to Building Kindness and Resilience with Dan Siegal (videos). The Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education.

3 Brooks, R., Ph.D. & Goldstein, Ph.D. (2001). Raising Resilient Children. Chicago: Contemporary Books

4 McLeod, S. (2013) Erick Erickson. Simple Psychology.

5 Lillard, P.P. & Jessen, L.L. (2003) Montessori From the Start: The child at home, from birth to age three. New York: Schocken

6 Siegal, D., M.D. & Bryson, T.P., Ph.D. (2011) The Whole Brain Child. New York: Delacorte Press

7 McLeod, S. (2016) Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

8 Goleman, D. (2005). Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam Books

9 Payne, K.J., M.A. & Ross, L. (2010) Simplicity Parenting. New York: Ballantine Books

10 Siegal, D., Ph.D. & Hartzell, M., M.Ed. (2003) Parenting From the Inside Out: How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. New York: TarcherPerigree

11 Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by Rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. New York: Mariner Books.


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