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Exploring the Complexities of Resilience

  • March 24, 2021
  • Anxiety, Depression, Patients and Families, Trauma

Many children experience adversity and traumatic events. Researchers continue to try to understand resilience, or the trait that makes some children, and adults, better able than others to cope and adapt to adversity.

Resilience researcher, Michael Unger, Ph.D., recently presented a discussion on resilience in children as part of the National Institute of Mental Health’s Directors Innovation Speaker Series. Ungar suggests the process of resilience is complex and can be very different for different people and in different circumstances: “We're clearly seeing a move away from purely an individual or “bounce back” kind of notion of resilience to one which is a much more dynamic process.”

For example, mindfulness-based stress reduction programs have been shown to have a positive effect on children's well-being. But looking closer, Unger notes, the research shows that children who are in higher risk environments tend to benefit more these programs than those in lower risk environments.

Among factors that may support an individual’s resilience include a positive identity, some experience of power and control, positive relationships, cultural connection, social cohesion and belonging, access to material resources, and social justice. The most common factor among resilient children is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult, according to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child. The combination of supportive relationships, adaptive skill-building, and positive experiences is the foundation of resilience, the Harvard Center concludes.

While personal traits like perseverance make a difference, ultimately, “the world has to be able to provide us with what we need to do well,” Unger suggests.

The right amount of stress: building resilience through practice

Part of the process of building resilience is learning to cope with manageable stress. With the help of supportive adults, children can learn healthy and effective ways to cope with life’s inevitable challenges and stressful situations. Practice coping with smaller stresses can help build the ability to better respond to larger obstacles and hardships later.

From resilience research, Dr. Unger notes, “the right amount of stress is required for successful development of all systems”—too much stress and it weakens. But the right among of stress leads to “increased capacity for resilience when dealing with future disturbance.”

Strengthening resilience throughout the lifespan

While early life experiences are crucial in brain development and provide the foundation for learning, behavior and resilience, “the capabilities that underlie resilience can be strengthened at any age,” according to the Harvard Center. Health-promoting activities, such as regular physical exercise, stress-reduction practices, and building executive function and coping skills, can significantly improve the ability of children and adults to cope with, adapt to, and even prevent adversity in their lives.

Young adults particularly at risk during the pandemic

While the COVID-19 pandemic has upended many people’s lives, young adults’ mental health has been especially impacted. Ongoing surveys from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shown young adults consistently experiencing higher rates of depression and anxiety symptoms compared to other age groups throughout the pandemic. In February 2021, nearly half of young adults were experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression.

Unger offers suggestions for young people during these stressful times:4

  • Focus on what you can control.
  • Lean on your strengths and abilities.
  • Recognize that asking for help is a sign of strength—feel empowered to tap into the network of resources around you, friends, family and professionals.
  • Believe in your own ability to make things better and have faith in your ability to hold those with decision-making power accountable to make the changes needed.


  1. NIMH Director’s Innovation Speaker Series: Diagnosing Resilience: A Multisystemic Model for Positive Development in Stressed Environments (
  2. January 14, 2021, Michael Ungar, Ph.D., founder and director of the Resilience Research Centre and Canada Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.
  3. Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University.  Key Concepts:  Resilience.
  4. Ungar, Michael. Here’s How Today’s Young People Can Live a More Resilient and Less Stressful Life. Thrive Global. December 15, 2020
  5. Michael Ungar, editor. Multisystemic Resilience: Adaptation and Transformation in Contexts of Change. Oxford University Press, 2021.

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