Dr Justin Coulson: 'Kids are losing resilience. These 3 steps will help build it early on.'

Aptamil Toddler
Thanks to our brand partner, Aptamil Toddler

Watching parents watching their children can be fascinating, particularly when there’s a tension between stepping in and intervening or stepping back and letting the child overcome a challenge by themselves.

An incident unfolded within earshot just recently while I was at the park with my kids. It was stereotypical in so many ways, but it teaches us something important about us, and about our kids.

Mum: Is he going to be alright? Don’t you think you should help him?

Dad: Just watch. He’s OK.

Mum: I really think you should go over to him. He’s going to fall.

Dad: He’s OK. I’m watching.

Mum: Seriously, we need to get him. (Mum gets off the bench and starts moving in her toddler son’s direction.)

Dad: He’s got this… Hey! He did it! How awesome. Did you see that? What a legend!

The toddler, a little boy about 15 months old, had just made his way across a wooden beam, chained to other beams and supports, so it gently swayed.

It presented no obstacle to the three and four year olds who raced across it without slowing.

But for a toddler, crossing the beam was a major task. The little guy made several missteps as he clambered across, holding the chains for balance. At one point some older kids nearly sent him flying, but he held on as they rushed past. Undeterred, he persisted until he reached the stable wooden platform at the end of the beam.

I’m not sure who was more proud once he crossed the beam: the parents or the toddler “acrobat”. To me, they were both successful. The toddler persisted and did something hard. The parents stayed close but let him develop his resilience by not getting involved – even if it was extra hard for mum.

Dr Justin Coulson. Image: Supplied.

Resilience issues?

Right now we’re watching resilience drop in our kids – particularly in their teen years. Research shows that resilience levels are dropping as our children mature, and anxiety and depression are affecting as many as one in seven (14 per cent) of our kids at any given time, and the trend is going the wrong way. It’s getting worse.

Any number of things are contributing to the mental health “crisis”, but the great news is that we can actually make intentional choices that will boost our kids’ resilience and accelerate their healthy development.

And the key thing is that we can start young. The early years might be the best time for us to kickstart them on the path to flourishing mental health.

So let’s start with toddlers. Here are three things parents and carers can do to boost our toddler’s resilience, starting today:

1. Develop social relationships early.

Any parent of a toddler knows that this is probably not going to end well, right? I mean, toddlers get very possessive: they don’t have a clue how to share! And their preferred style of play is “parallel play” where they play beside one another rather than with one another. Some play date, right?

But because humans are ultra-social creatures it actually pays for our kids to spend time around others. They start to learn about give and take, social cues, and being with others early. This can potentially amplify their learning as they observe another child, just like them, try new things. It’s amazing how much our toddlers love to copy one another. And they really can develop relationships, even at this age.

And even though they don’t like sharing so much, we can begin to teach them the basics of “turn-taking”. It’s like sharing, but not quite.

And by the age of 18 to 24 months they’re ready for this lesson at a basic level.

2. Climb up stairs or over play equipment.

Our home has a wooden staircase. It’s a unique setup that requires that we have no railing for the first four steps. We have six daughters and none of them has ever fallen from the stairs. But when friends bring their little ones over they’re very, very anxious about the potential spills they might experience.

Climbing stairs and clambering over playground equipment may seem risky when you’re only one or two years old, but it’s exactly this sort of healthy risk-taking that builds resilience.

Age-appropriate and relatively safe ‘risks’ teach our children to face fears, build strength, develop self-belief, and learn the limits of their abilities. As our toddler takes small risks, she or he tests boundaries and flirts with uncertainty. Research shows this increases their physical health, social skills, confidence, and resilience.


It’s exhilarating when there’s modest amounts of risk. And they learn their limits.

The biggest task we face is stepping back. Staying nearby is important just in case. But let them figure it out. They will almost always sense what’s dangerous and step away in time.

3. Play a game of ‘find the toys’.

In the real world playing games like ‘find the toys’ can be tedious. I mean, let’s be real. “Where’s the doll gone?” is only fun 826 times. Once we have to look for dolly the 827th time we can start to feel over it.

But… our toddler LOVES it. Completely. Studies have shown that they simply do. Not. Get. Sick. Of. It.


It’s the same with peek-a-boo. You can literally say “Peek-a-Boo!” 260 times and they’ll get shocked and then giggle with delight like it’s the first time.

There’s a reason for this. It’s somehow surprising for their little brains. They feel a tiny dose of fear and apprehension when the doll disappears (or when we do), and then “Peek-a-boo!”. We’re back. It’s relief. It’s a neuro-transmitter rush. They’re safe. And so is dolly!

The feeling of apprehension that resolves with connection builds a sense of psychological safety and an understanding that we are stable and staying around. It helps our baby know we’re there. And that builds resilience in powerful ways.

'The bucket list' of toddler resilience.

I’ve created the “bucket list” of 10 ways to boost your toddler’s resilience – you can find the rest of the list here:

But there’s one more key thing to mention. You’ll notice that giving them some time away from us, sticking them in front of a device, or leaving them to figure it out for themselves didn’t make the list.

That’s because those things ignore the most important part of resilience-boosting activities – and that’s you. The best way, bar none, for building your child’s resilience is for you to be there. Not intruding. Not ignoring. Just being there. Engaging. Encouraging. Loving.

That – more than anything else – is how you build resilience in your kids from the start.

Dr Justin Coulson is one of Australia's leading experts in parenting, relationships and wellbeing. He is a father of six, an author of three books, including 9 Ways To A Resilient Child, and runs the parenting resource website and podcast Happy Families.

What's the best advice you've heard about building resilience in young kids?

Aptamil Toddler

Playtime isn't just fun, it's key to building their resilience. So, in partnership with parenting expert Dr. Justin Coulson, we've put together a fun list of activities for toddlers to complete before they turn two that are proven to build their resilience and help raise them ready.