Children's Resilience in the Face of Trauma (page 3)

— NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Jul 9, 2010

Resilience in young children.

Resilient infants and toddlers exposed to frightening events regain a secure base by seeking a close attachment with their caregivers. Resilient preschoolers conquer their anxiety and fear through play, have their caregivers at an arm’s reach for security and encouragement, persist on challenging tasks, and venture into new explorations. For example, young children who may wet the bed more frequently or cling more tightly to their primary caregiver after a traumatic event may let go of these tendencies as they cope effectively. From birth through age 5 the role of the family, particularly the psychological wellbeing of the child’s primary attachment, is crucial to foster resilience.

Resilience in middle childhood.

Resilient children during middle childhood remember and talk more freely about upsetting events, are able to use language to combat triggers and reminders, ask others for help, practice positive self-talk, or try new activities to keep busy. Middle school children whose grades may have slipped after a traumatic event will show a recovery in their school functioning as they adjust to the circumstances. In addition to the family, as children enter school and participate in other organized social settings (e.g., sports, church, the neighborhood), close relationships with peers, teachers, and other adults play an important role in fostering natural recovery and helping children remain involved in school, social activities, and special events.19

Resilience in adolescence.

Adolescence is a time of movement towards autonomy and self-reliance as well as a time of questioning identity, values and feelings. Nevertheless, resilient adolescents can talk about their feelings and reactions to peers and/or specific trusted adults such as a grandparent or mentors. So, for example, after a traumatic event, an adolescent might initially be irritable and strident in expressing political views, and withdraw from activities he/she used to enjoy. However, over time, resilient adolescents will show interest in considering different points of view and understanding the feelings and beliefs of others. They will become interested in what their future will be, although they may not be sure of where they are going.

Resilient children show:

1) Persistence – The child works on something until it is finished, tries to succeed on a task after failing, stays committed to his/her goals, and remains encouraged.
2) Goal-oriented/Motivated – The child has goals that are important to him/her, works hard to accomplish goals, and enjoys having goals and meeting them.
3) Adaptability – The child feels comfortable with change, believes there are many ways of seeing things, and can easily compromise.
4) Optimism – The child is usually enthusiastic, cheerful, confident that the future holds good things to come, and optimistic that things will get better in the future.
5) Willingness to approach novel events– The child finds it easy to go to new places, enjoys meeting and interacting with new people, and can return to a place where he/she had a bad experience.
6) High self-esteem– The child thinks he/she is a lot of fun to be around, that he/she can handle stressful things in life, and likes him/herself.
7) Intelligence – The child generates creative or novel solutions to unexpected problems or can identify similarities between a new problem and one he/she has already solved.
8) Good social skills – The childcan ask for help when he/she needs it, make friends easily and keep them, and not get into fights.


Resilience varies with age and situation, making it a completely unique experience within each child. In this time of global concern with terrorism it is important to pursue several areas of inquiry in order to develop strategies to foster resilience. It is crucial to understand issues such as how resilience emerges with different types of stressors and/or traumas, the timelines for children and adolescents to return to a normal developmental course after exposure to traumatic events, and when to intervene during this timeline of recovery. Our knowledge about the emergence of resilience will develop further as our children deal with different types of stress in their respective environments. However, it is important to remember that resilience is a common phenomenon arising from ordinary human adaptive processes. “It does not come from rare and special qualities, but from the everyday magic of ordinary, normative human resources in the minds, brains, and bodies of children, in their families and relationships, and in their communities.”20 The experience of 9/11 has left us with the knowledge that terrorist attacks can occur in the United States and that going forward, raising healthy children means raising resilient children.

About the Authors

Marylene Cloitre, Ph.D. is the Cathy and Stephen Graham Professor of Psychiatry and the Director of the Institute for Trauma and Stress at the NYU Child Study Center. Dr. Cloitre provides consultation and treatment to adolescents and adults exposed to a variety of adverse life circumstances such as childhood abuse, parental loss, and domestic violence. She has received several research awards and published widely on the topic of traumatic stress.

Nicole Anne Morin, MA is the assessment coordinator at the NYU Child Study Center for the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Her research interests include positive psychology, child maltreatment, and assessment of trauma.

L. Oriana Linares, Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist and Associate Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Child Study Center. She has conducted studies of community violence among preschoolers residing in high crime neighborhoods and of maltreated children entering foster placement.


1. Masten, AS (1994) Resilience in individual development: Successful adaptation despite risk and adversity. In MC Wang & EW Gordon (Eds.) Inner City Educational Resilience
2. Masten, AS, Best, KM & Garmezy,N. (1991) Resilience and development: contributions from the study of children who overcome adversity. Development and Psychopathology, 2, 425-444
3. Scheering, MS & Zeanah, CH (2001) A relational perspective on PTSD in early childhood. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 14 (4) 799-815
4. Hoven, CW, Duarte, CS, Lucas, CP et al (2002) Effects of the World Trade Center attack on NYC Public School Students: Initial Report of the New York City Board of Education. New York: Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, New York State Psychiatric Institute and Applied Research and Consulting, LLC
5. Ibid, p. 24
6. Terr, LC, Block, DA, Beat, MA et al (1997) Children’s thinking in the wake of Challenger. The American Journal of
Psychiatry, 154 (6)744-751

About the NYU Child Study Center

The New York University Child Study Center is dedicated to increasing the awareness of child and adolescent psychiatric disorders and improving the research necessary to advance the prevention, identification, and treatment of these disorders on a national scale. The Center offers expert psychiatric services for children, adolescents, young adults, and families with emphasis on early diagnosis and intervention. The Center's mission is to bridge the gap between science and practice, integrating the finest research with patient care and state-of-the-art training utilizing the resources of the New York University School of Medicine. The Child Study Center was founded in 1997 and established as the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry within the NYU School of Medicine in 2006. For more information, please call us at (212) 263-6622 or visit us at

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