Word Cloud of activities and emotions that promote resilienceApril 2018
A product of NAPTAC
Native American Parent Technical Assistance Center
Written by Joann Sebastian Morris
Brief in PDF

Visit the Native American Resource Collection


At A Glance
This brief describes the importance of resilience in Native communities and suggests ways that Parent Centers can share the skills that reinforce resilience with Native parents of youth with disabilities.

There’s Also a Brief for Youth!
Parent Centers can also share NAPTAC’s Resiliency message written for youth, available at:


Resilience is “… the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress…It means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences.” (1) Lakota researcher Martin Brokenleg offers a Native perspective: Resilience is “… being able to get up again when life knocks us down. That is what is required in order to live life well. Resiliency is being strong on the inside, having a courageous spirit.”(2)

Native Resilience, Historically

In past times, the word resilience was unknown, but the concept of it was very familiar to American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/ANs). Resilience was integral to their lives, especially to child-rearing. There was a shared belief that all children—whether born with or without a disability—were gifts from the Creator. They were to be nurtured and lovingly taught how to be valuable contributors to their family and community. Parents, extended family members, and clan relatives had specific roles to play to make children strong and resilient. (3)

Since then, much has happened to AI/AN families to disrupt their traditional ways of life, including:

  • displacement from sacred homelands;
  • death from imported diseases;
  • involuntary removal of their young to far-off boarding schools;
  • pressures to give up remaining land and other rights; and
  • daily exposure to negative stereotyping and racism.

Such hardships gradually yet systematically eroded the individual and community resilience of Native people.

Fortunately, aspects of traditional values and behaviors have endured. Navajo sociologist Charlotte Goodluck identified 42 strengths of Native cultures, including tribal identity, extended family, language, traditions, humor, ritual, group orientation, stories, view of children, and spirituality. (4) These strengths have sustained AI/ANs through generations and must continue to be nurtured in youth, especially those with disabilities.

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Reinforcing Resilience, Today and Tomorrow

When we mindfully foster the resilience of our young people, they learn the skills that can turn life’s adversities into strengths. Being resilient doesn’t mean that a youth (or a parent!) won’t still experience difficulties in life. It means they’ve learned the behaviors, thoughts, and skills to help them adapt to and rebound from a setback. All youth and adults can build on their innate resiliency: “…resilience does not come from rare and special qualities but from the everyday magic of ordinary human resources in the minds, brains, and bodies of children, in their families and relationships, and their communities.” (5)

Being born with or acquiring a disability can be a stressor, whether the disability is visible to others or not. Reinforcing the resilience of Native parents and youth with disabilities makes it less likely that these youth will be overcome by the inevitable ups and downs of life.

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Resilience Builders

The most important factor that protects youth from adversity is ONE caring adult in their life. It can be a family member, clan relative, spiritual mentor, educator, coach, or any adult who gives unwavering support to a youth.

All caring adults need to be familiar with the 10 skills cited below, research-based builders of resilience in youth. Encourage Native youth to:

1. Expand their relationships with family/tribal members, friends, teams, and social causes.

2. Set personal, realistic goals related to academic or cultural studies and/or their hobbies.

3. Practice problem solving by facing problems not wishing them away. Learn to self-calm when stressed.

4. Persevere; don’t give up. Focus on their unique strengths and accomplishments.

5. Develop inner direction—the internal ability to evaluate social situations. Use life skills, such as communication skills, assertiveness, and impulse control.

6. Foster a sense of humor and use it appropriately, to help put things in perspective.

7. Remain optimistic and confident in their abilities and future. Advocate for themselves with assurance in IEP meetings.

8. Use creativity to express themselves and release feelings. Be adept at a cultural skill.

9. Manage their feelings, rather than being overwhelmed by them. Talk about their feelings.

10. Value spirituality. Believe in a higher power. Take up positive thinking, meditation, and/or Native rituals.

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Suggestions for Parent Centers

Keep in mind the innate resilience of AI/ANs when outreaching to them. Signs of respect can build trust and result in lasting relationships.

Provide trainings on resiliency to Native communities, including examples of how to enhance resilience among family members, especially AI/AN youth with disabilities.

Share this brief at Parent Center exhibit booths in AI/AN communities to remind Native parents of the critical importance of reinforcing resilience in their youth with disabilities.

Share with AI/AN families NAPTAC’s separate Resiliency message written directly to Native youth.

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1—American Psychological Association. (2020). Building your resilience. Washington, DC: Author. Online at: https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience

2—Brokenleg, M. (2012). Transforming cultural trauma into resilience. In Reclaiming Children and Youth, (21)3, p.12.

3—HeavyRunner, I., & Morris, J.S. (1997). Traditional Native culture and resilience. In RESEARCH/Practice (1)1, p. 1. Reprinted by the National Resilience Resource Center, 2012.

4—Goodluck, C., & Willeto, A. (2009). Seeing the protective rainbow: How families survive and thrive in the American Indian and Alaska Native community (p. 2). Washington, DC: Annie E. Casey Foundation.

5—Greene, R.R., & Conrad, A.P. (2002). Basic assumptions and terms. In Seeing the protective rainbow: How families survive and thrive in the American Indian and Alaska Native Community (p. 2). Washington, DC: Annie E. Casey Foundation.

6—American Psychological Association. Op.cit., p. 2-3.

7—Henderson, N. (2012). Unlock the power of your personal protective factors. In The resiliency workbook: Bounce back stronger, smarter and with real self-esteem
(pp. 13-16). Solvang, CA: Resiliency in Action, Inc.

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NAPTAC was the Native American Parent Technical Assistance Center, funded by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) at the U.S. Department of Education for several years to develop materials that Parent Centers around the country could use to support the training and information they offer to Native American and Alaska Native parents whose lives are impacted by disability. This document was produced under U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs No. H328R130012-14. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the positions or policies of the Department of Education. No official endorsement by the U.S. Department of Education of any product, commodity, service, or enterprise mentioned in this publication is intended or should be inferred. This product is in the public domain and is now housed at CPIR, as part of its Native American Resource Collection. You are free to copy and share it, giving the citation as:

Morris, J.S. (2018). Reinforcing resilience: How parent centers can support American Indian and Alaska Native parents. Albuquerque, NM: Native American Parent Technical Assistance Center (NAPTAC). Available online at: https://www.parentcenterhub.org/naptac-tier3-education-youth

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