What can we learn from the neuroscience of resilience?

The pace and unpredictability of our world mean resilience is more important than ever. Yet, as parents and teachers, we’re seeing more kids struggle with emotion and increasingly disruptive behaviour in classrooms. What does the science say about this apparent fall in resilience? We invited neuroscientist Kathryn Berkett to share her insights.

Kathryn Berkett has dedicated 22 years to understanding how extreme trauma impacts the developing brain. She has a Masters’ degree in Educational Psychology and is a certified Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics Practitioner.

Kathryn points out that the changes we’re seeing in young people correlate with rapid changes to the way our children are growing up. Today’s parents have less daily support from extended family and are stretched between a myriad of responsibilities.

Building resilience starts right at the beginning

Parental presence is critical because building resilience starts as soon as we arrive in the world. It's a matter of building up our emotional ability to cope with many mini moments of 'tolerable stress'. Even those 'peek-a-boo' games allow babies to practice recovering from the momentary panic about where you’ve gone.  

Thousands of tiny interactions with their trusted carers allow our little ones to gently build their resilience without genuine danger or fear. This has a profound effect on shaping the brain.

Red brain and green brain show risk vs reason

Kathryn explains the different ‘modes’ of mental response as ‘red brain’; survival instinct, and green brain; executive and reasoned function. Whenever we sense a threat, the red brain overwhelms our green brain and our ability to reason.

Everyone can relate to Kathryn’s tongue-in-cheek example of the cold, life-threatening feeling that overwhelms you when you lose your keys and you’re running late! Most of us have experienced the symptoms of tunnel vision, a cold sweat, and an irrational instinct to recheck the normal place just in case those keys have ‘walked back’. If it’s not true with keys, it is for some other modern crisis.

For kids to be resilient, they need to help improve their red brain's ability to differentiate life-threatening risks from the usual challenges of life. If not, the powerful survival response will eventually deplete their ability to reason and regulate emotions.

Everyday moments contribute to resilience

Beyond the first few years, we can find daily opportunities to support the healthy development of our kids. And it may be where you least expect it.

Moments of waiting can give children undervalued opportunities to do nothing but ‘observe normal’. Too often, digital distractions take over while we’re queuing at the supermarket, standing on the side of a sports field, or being around with friends and siblings.

In contrast, the media presents extremes. On social media and TV, our kids see the most beautiful and successful, the saddest and most dramatic, and so on. In some ways, it’s almost impossible for today’s young people to see how everyday situations can be handled in a normal non-remarkable way.

Strong support sometimes means stepping back

We’re genetically wired to protect our kids from stress and discomfort. However, Kathryn warns that ‘helicopter parenting’ – constant hovering – can be detrimental. Instead, we need to let our children learn to manage ordinary life stressors. Our role is not to manage these stressors for them but to provide them with enough security so they never feel genuinely endangered. It's a delicate balance.

Kathryn’s advice is that our presence, attention, and understanding are irreplaceable in building our kids’ resilience. Safe, predictable boundaries are also essential. And what about occasionally letting your kids get bored in the supermarket or waiting for others to finish? According to the science, that's perfectly okay too.