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Overcoming Adversity: How Supportive Relationships Help Children Develop Resilience

John and Ian infront of the BBBST sign

Why do some people develop the ability to overcome significant adversity in their lives, while others struggle to do so? And what can we learn from those who have succeeded, even against the odds? A working paper from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child at Harvard University provides evidence that children who have at least one stable, committed, positive relationship with an adult are more likely to develop the skills and abilities necessary to overcome adverse life experiences.

Supportive relationships with a caring adult can protect children from developmental disruption by helping them learn to effectively cope with stress, monitor and regulate behavior, and adapt to change. The combined effects of adaptive skill-building, a supportive relationship, and positive life experiences contribute to a child’s resilience under difficult circumstances. These findings support decades of research in the field of youth development showing that one-to-one relationships such as those supported by Big Brothers Big Sisters’ mentoring programs enable a child to thrive, even under the most challenging circumstances.

Research findings have identified four key factors that increase the likelihood of positive outcomes for children facing adversity. When these influences are operating effectively, a child is more likely to achieve positive or desirable life outcomes. When these factors are absent or inconsistent, positive outcomes are less likely. These common factors include:

• Availability of at least one stable, caring, and supportive relationship between a child and important adults in his or her life

• Helping children build a sense of mastery over their life circumstances

• Development of strong executive function and self-regulation skills (the ability to manage behavior and emotions, and cope effectively with stress)

• Supportive context of cultural or faith-based traditions

Many factors contribute to a person’s resilience, including genetics and other biological factors, internal predispositions, and external experiences. But a person’s ability to adapt to change, cope with stress, and sustain well-being is not set in stone – in fact, with the right combination of positive interventions, resilience can improve over time. This suggests that the beneficial impacts of Big Brothers Big Sisters’ long-term, one-to-one mentoring relationships may be even more significant for those children who face greater challenges in their daily lives.

Sources: The Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring, National Scientific Council on the Developing Child

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