How Does Resilience Theory Work?

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated April 25, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Resilience can mean adapting to stress, adversity, tragedy, or threats. Resilient people use multiple coping skills to weather life’s challenges. Experts believe these traits can be formed early in life during a child’s developmental milestones. Learning more about resilience theory may help parents, caregivers, and adults learn how to become more resilient and support the growth of resilience in children. 

Gain resilience with professional support

What is resilience theory?

Resilience theory explores why some young people grow into healthy, well-adjusted adults despite risk factors indicative of mental distress, problem behaviors, and poor physical health. This resilience research indicates that certain variables can disrupt developmental trajectories that lead to these problem behaviors and help young people overcome the risk exposure. Learning how resilience theory works can help explain why some people are more resilient than others and how to use that knowledge to improve human resilience.

Many factors contribute to resilience, but research shows it is common. Some people may be more prone to resilience due to genetics or life experiences, but it is a skill anyone can learn. Researchers began exploring resilience theory in the 1970s by examining how adverse life experiences affected people. Early studies concluded that some risk factors lead to vulnerability, resulting in adverse outcomes. Examples of these risk factors include a family history of mental illness, maternal malnutrition or smoking, poor parenting, or large-scale societal problems like natural disasters, war, or crime.

These researchers quickly noticed that no connections between vulnerability risk factors and adverse outcomes were universal. Some people had the expected negative results, but others had dips and recoveries or even adapted and had higher achievements. They were curious about which forces drove some of these children not just to survive but to adapt and thrive. This research eventually led to the idea that the children who overcame their circumstances did so because of resilience.

Models of resiliency

Research into resilience theory in developmental psychopathology led to multiple models explaining how some children overcome their adverse risks. 

Compensatory model 

The compensatory model proposes that some positive factors, like a healthy diet or effective parenting, neutralize the risk factors, thus having the opposite effect on child development. These factors accumulate and can eventually mitigate the risks. For example, parental support compensates for fighting risks and leads to less violent behavior.

Protective factor model 

The protective factor model suggests that some factors can modify the relationships between the risk and the outcome. These factors can either be risk-protective or protective-protective. Risk-protective factors reduce the association between risk factors and negative outcomes. Protective-protective factors enhance the effects of positive influences and lead to positive outcomes.

Challenge model 

The challenge model of resiliency theorizes that exposure to moderate risk can help young people overcome risk factors. In this theory, the initial risk exposure must be challenging enough that it helps the child develop strong coping mechanisms to overcome the effects of the initial exposure without being too overwhelming. 

Additional research

Extensive research has been done on resilience since the early theories of the 1970s and 1980s. Below are summaries of some of these findings.  

Dose and cumulative risk

Studies show that the severity of exposure to one traumatic event or the accumulation of multiple risks makes a difference. Studies focusing on poverty, homelessness, war, maltreatment, and natural disasters have shown that when problems are higher, the ability to adapt is lower. These studies also show that some people experiencing the same level of risk are better able to adjust and demonstrate a significant amount of resilience. 

Promotive and protective influences

Promotive and protective factors can matter. Studies show that common protective factors lead to adaptive systems that lead to resilience. These factors include but are not limited to:

  • A nurturing family
  • Emotional security
  • A sense of belonging
  • Skilled parenting
  • Motivation to adapt
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Self-regulation
  • Optimism
  • Positive self-identity
  • A belief that life has meaning
  • Routines
  • Rituals
  • A well-functioning school
  • Community connections

Timing and opportunities

Toxic stress can have long-term effects on child development, depending on when it occurs. Early adversity can negatively affect brain development and caregiving, which can have significant impacts later in life. For example, postpartum depression can affect a child’s attachment style, a crucial aspect of early childhood development.

However, not all forms of stress are harmful. Some adversity may help children and teens develop adaptive skills and learn how to regulate their emotions and stress, and the timing may matter. Specific windows of opportunity align with periods of human development and create an environment ripe for change. For example, preschool-aged kids are experiencing a period of rapid brain and social development, making this time in their lives a critical period for learning. 

How to foster resilience in children

If you want to help your child develop strength and learn how to cope with future challenges or those that they are currently facing, consider the seven C’s of resilience, including the following. 


Competence is a sense that you can handle the situation you’re facing. You can help your child develop competence by: 

  • Focusing on their individual strengths
  • Allowing them to make their own decisions
  • Avoiding comparisons between siblings


Children with high self-esteem who believe in their abilities are more likely to be resilient. You can help build self-efficacy by: 

  • Focusing on the positive aspects of your child’s personality and desires and expressing them clearly
  • Recognizing when your child has done well
  • Providing honest and appropriate praise


Close ties with friends and family can provide safety and security and help children develop strong values. Connection may also help your child learn how to build strong support systems in the future. To help your child connect, you can: 

  • Provide a safe place for them at home
  • Allow them to express their emotions
  • Address conflict in the family openly


Children can benefit from developing their values and morals and learning to distinguish right from wrong. To help your child strengthen their character, you can: 

  • Demonstrate how their behavior affects others
  • Acknowledge when they are acting as a caring person
  • Avoiding racist statements or feeding into stereotypes


Children can learn to understand how individuals, including themselves, contribute to the world. Teach your child to contribute by: 

  • Pointing out that not everyone in the world has everything they need
  • Modeling generosity
  • Creating opportunities for them to contribute


Helping your child learn how to cope with stress can help them prepare to overcome future challenges. These lessons can include: 

  • Modeling positive coping skills
  • Not holding your child’s negative behaviors against them
  • Guiding them to develop positive coping mechanisms


Children who understand they have some control over what happens to them may learn psychological resilience. You can empower your child through the following: 

  • Helping them realize that outcomes can be due to people’s choices 
  • Using positive discipline as a way to show that actions are connected to consequences or rewards 

Gain resilience with professional support

Support options 

If you’re trying to help your child learn the skills to build resistance or are unhappy with your ability to adapt positively, talking to a therapist may be beneficial. However, it can be challenging for parents to reach out for support in person when supporting children or balancing a busy schedule. In these cases, it might be beneficial to try online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp. If you have a teen child from 13 to 19, they can also access online therapy through a platform like TeenCounseling. 

Signing up for online therapy matches you with a qualified, vetted mental health professional within 48 hours. There are no waiting lists, and you can get started right away. Research shows that online therapy is effective, too. In one review of 14 studies, researchers found that online therapy could be as effective as in-person treatment. 


Resilience theory attempts to explain the resilience processes that guide children in overcoming risk factors that commonly lead to poor outcomes. Research is continually growing and changing. If you want to help your child learn to adapt positively or build resilience, consider contacting a licensed therapist online or in your area. 

Cultivate emotional resilience with a professional
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started