The Development of Resilience

Posted by on Apr 22, 2011 in Practical Parenting | 3 comments

“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of overwhelming grief… and of unspeakable love.”

Washington Irving

To my eye,

cultivating emotional resilience in our children is the most important task ahead of us in the 21st century. This post will outline the steps required to help your children become adaptive when facing the unavoidable challenges of life.

For those of you who have not been following this blog regularly, let me briefly clarify a few things:

  • The adaptive process is the process by which we are changed by that which we can not change. When we come up against limits in life and sink into our vulnerable feelings around not getting our way, we are then transformed from the inside out. Over time this leads to the capacity for emotional resilience which is a muscle that needs to be exercised in order to develop properly.
  • As parents, we play a key role in helping our children become adaptive and emotionally resilient.
  • A child stands the best shot at developing emotional resilience when they grow up in an environment of unconditional love and spaciousness, and one wherehealthy boundaries are set.
  • There is a difference between everyday limit setting — where we employ strategies such as distraction, giving reasons and explanations for the limit, and negotiating to find a win-win — and limits set specifically to support adaptive functioning. Everyday limit setting is by far the most prevalent use of boundary setting — probably 95% or more — but bringing a child through the adaptive process is essential for the cultivation of resilience, the preservation of emotional vitality, and to set the conditions necessary for kids to grow into their full potential.

Adaptation is probably less than 5% of all limit setting, but no other process is as powerful in cultivating emotional resilience and the capacity to remain open in the face of great difficulty and challenge.

Now let’s take a look at how to do the dance of adaptation.

A note of caution: This is a very complex process. There is no “one size fits all” approach that will work. It requires you as a parent to be very consciously engaged in this intimate dance of communication. I will outline the steps required in this process to help you as a guide, but in the end you will have to throw away the “rule-book” and follow your intuition. Having said that, I will give you a simplistic outline of the steps of this dance to help orient you in the beginning stages.

The steps in the adaptive process are:

  1. Present the limit/boundary
  2. Hold them in the experience of futility
  3. Draw out the sadness
  4. Embody a safe refuge until the still-point is reached and the emotions shift naturally

1. The boundary must be presented clearly.

“No, you can not have any more ice cream tonight.”

If you have decided that this is the right time to take your child through the adaptive process, start by presenting the limit in a clear and firm way. Bringing clarity and firmness does not require being mean – it simply means that you have made a decision about what is best for your child in this particular situation. The clearer the boundary the less time it will take for your child to sink into the reality that they are not going to get their way in this particular situation.

2. Hold them firmly, but lovingly in their feelings of futility.

“I know you want more, but my answer is no – no more tonight.”

The importance of a firm limit is that it helps your child’s brain switch gears from fighting to get their way towards sinking into their feelings of disappointment. In Sesame Street language, you help them move from mad to sad. Most of us will first try to find ways around being disappointed and not getting our way, so a firm boundary helps the brain begin to let go of that option.

Again, this does not require being mean. Your eyes, the openness of your body, your posture — these can all communicate love for the child even as you let them know that a behavioral limit is in effect. But the important part is to make clear that no amount of struggle or cleverness will change your mind.

3. Draw out the vulnerable feelings by adding a touch of sadness to your voice and body language.

“I know darling; it’s hard……………Oh sweetie……….I’m sorry.”

Through both verbal and non-verbal communication, you want to add a touch of sadness into the field. Here you are gently priming the limbic system in the direction of softness. You are letting them know you feel their pain. Sensing your compassion, they will be more likely to sink into their vulnerable feelings and begin the process of adaptation.

4. Embody a safe refuge in which they can cry, and hold in a loving and spacious way until the vulnerable feelings wind down, a still point is reached naturally, and they spontaneously emerge out the other side.

(Deep breaths, long silences, and a loving, yet spacious embrace)

If we are grounded, spacious, and clear our children will be able to sink into our loving arms and have a good cry. It is best to not try and “fix” things with, “It will be all right….Don’t cry….It’s not the end of the world.” The feelings of disappointment and sadness need to be fully experienced — not bypassed or short-circuited — for the adaptive process to develop its fruits. Tears and disappointed feelings always wind themselves down in their own time and the still-point is eventually reached.

The still-point is often marked by a deep-breathed exhale — that “Hhhhaaaaaa…….” at the end of a good cry. An then spontaneously, without cajoling, something new arrives in the field. Sometimes your child will look deeply into your eyes with the presence of a sage or an infinite look of boundless love. Sometimes there is pregnant silence where the mysteries of the human heart are touched and understood in some unexplainable and wordless way. At other times, your child may simply emerge into playfulness; all the tension and frustration cleansed from their bodies.

“It is my experience that emotions, no matter how powerful, are not overwhelming if given room to breathe. Contained within the vastness of awareness, our emotions have the power to connect us with each other rather than driving us apart.”

Mark Epstein

Take Home: Helping your child become adaptive is a challenging, but essential part of parenting. When we help our children accept the necessary limits of life, and support them in sinking into their vulnerable feelings like disappointment and sadness, we are helping them develop the key capacity of emotional resilience.


Learn more details about the adaptive process in

Loving Discipline Home Course

Listen to Week 1 for FREE!


Read other posts on the Adaptive process:

The Invincible Vulnerability of the Mature Heart

Helping a Child With Tears of Futility

Self-Regulation and Walking the Maze

Beyond Tiger Mothers and Glass Children: Resilience, Vulnerability, and Growing Up

Or listen to more than two hours of mp3 material on the adaptive process in The Essential Parenting Home Course.

Thanks to Gordon Neufeld for hi-lighting the importance of the adaptive process for me. You can read more about Gordon’s work at


  1. Hi,
    Just discovered your website. Thank-you for this post. Really helpful and a great reminder!!!!

  2. Great article. I love the practical advice–it makes it easy to apply and make real changes in how I deal with meltdowns. Thank you!

    p.s. we linked to this article in our monthly picks on

  3. Thanks Sumayah and Maha. Great to be in conversation with you and thanks for linking to!
    The Home Course has over 2 full hours of mp3’s on the adaptive process and the nuances of how to best support it – in our kids and in us parents.


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