First of all, let’s have a look at what resilience is.
It is defined as ‘the ability to recover quickly from difficulty.’
Brené Brown (don’t you just love her?) talked about the qualities of highly resilient people in her book ‘Rising Strong.’
‘The most transformative and resilient leaders that I’ve worked with over the course of my career have three things in common: First, they recognise the central role that relationships and story play in culture and strategy, and they stay curious about their own emotions, thoughts and behaviours. Second, they understand and stay curious about how emotions, thoughts and behaviours are connected in the people they lead, and how those factors affect relationships and perception. And, third, they have the ability and willingness to lean in to discomfort and vulnerability.’
Another quality that Brown discusses is a connection to creativity. Being a creative thinker lets us explore all sorts of different avenues and options in a fearless way.
So we can break this down into some key traits that exist in people that have the ability to recover quickly from difficulty.
- Relationship focused
- High emotional intelligence
- Willingness to try and fail
- Divergent/creative thinking
This rhetoric seems to be accepted when we talk about resilience in adults which is what Brene Brown was referring to. However, I have noticed a trend when adults are talking about resilience in children that focuses only on trying and failing. We are taking the literal definition of resilience and applying it, without looking at fostering the traits that help someone get to the point where they are able to do it effectively. It is like expecting someone to win the 100m world title without training. Sure, competing in the race is essential to winning, but running the same race each year is unlikely to lead to success without the physical and psychological training happening in the background.
With children, it is often seen as a positive thing to manufacture difficulty in a child’s life (through arbitrary boundaries, insistence on trying something they are not comfortable with, insisting that they attempt something that will likely end in failure) in the name of resilience building. The ability to suppress emotion in the face of this failure is similarly celebrated. But perhaps the most common thread in our thoughts about resilience in children is ‘doing it alone.’
The thing about life is it throws up enough curveballs for us to navigate without us having to create more. We seem to be in this weird funk where we are creating difficulties in some areas of our children’s lives for them to explore hardship, whilst simultaneously blocking the event of natural difficulties by deciding what our children can and can’t do through strict boundaries.
This is a simplistic example around possessions.
‘You must share your new doll because you have a friend here to play.’
‘You cannot cut the hair of your new doll because it will ruin it.’
You are disregarding the emotions of your child with regards to their new possession and forcing the difficult situation of relinquishing a prized possession, while also isolating them in the situation as the outsider.
In the second scenario, you are preventing your child from encountering the potentially difficult emotion of regret by imposing your own feelings on the situation.
Children naturally come across hurdles without us creating them. During this difficulty, being able to rely on the relationships around them is what is going to foster the trait of being relationship focused down the track. Getting the message that their feelings are real, no matter how unrelatable or irrational they seem, is what is going to help them read and process their emotions as an adult. You can’t grow to value relationships if the relationships of your youth are defined by no one being on your team.
The final point that Brown makes is about creativity and creative thinking. The childhood experience we seem focused on providing for our children is one where every situation has a right answer and a wrong answer, a right way and a wrong way. More than this, fear of failure and making a mistake is central to the way we standardise and measure learning. Yet, creativity is fostered in an environment where experimentation and mistakes are integral to the learning process.
So what should we do instead?
Empowering children to make choices from a young age and to live with the natural consequences of these choices will expose children to a whole range of hardship. For our family, this includes the freedom to make choices about their body and the freedom to make choices about their possessions.
Show your kids that you see that their feelings are real. Encouraging children to suppress emotions or denying them time and space to explore and validate them is counterintuitive to building resilience. You cannot stay curious about your emotions if you are taught that they are not real.
Try and give them this space to process their feelings without offering answers. Janet Lansbury talks about children learning that feelings have a beginning, middle and an end. Children learn this by being allowed to feel the full spectrum. If we intervene to make things better, they are getting the message that they are not capable of overcoming these feelings alone.
Wait, isn’t that a contradiction? Am I saying don’t leave them alone and then leave them alone?? No. The difference is being available. If your child tries the process alone and falters, that’s ok! You are there to step them through the process, empathise and model how they can do it. They are going to learn the value of relationships and they are going to learn to explore their feelings and behaviours.
I think most importantly, you don’t have to experience every difficulty to learn to lean in to discomfort. Forcing discomfort is likely to have the exact opposite effect by encouraging children to avoid it when they finally have the freedom to do so as an adult. When children are allowed to successfully explore discomfort on their own terms, this is the way in which they are going to be encouraged to keep doing it.
When children are given this freedom, sometimes their choice will be to avoid discomfort. For some, this may look like avoidance for an extended period. But every time their choice to say no is supported, you are validating their emotions and starting to help foster the confidence to say yes.
My eldest son hates new social situations and environments. So when I say we might be going somewhere new, I empathise with him as he runs through the anxieties he has. He always has the option to stay home with one parent. And he has chosen that. And he has missed out and felt sad about that. But these feelings have allowed him to join in other times and more consistently on his terms. And when he has a good time, this is the best encouragement he could have to keep leaning in on those feelings.
Creativity is more complex. My take on creativity and its role in our thought processes as adults centres on flexibility. We can’t encourage flexible thinking in a black and white world. It is compounded by the fact that many children spend their days in an environment where their learning and successes are being constantly measured. We need to exist in the grey. We can open up this creativity by allowing autonomy and choice. Allowing a constant reassessment of personal limits and experimentation within these bounds teaches our children that all situations are unique and require thought. One size fits all answers are leading our children away from flexible thinking. Ken Robinson outlines this brilliantly in his Ted Talk ‘Do Schools Kill Creativity?.’
Resilience is not built by navigating the world alone or relying solely on ourselves. It is the strength of the networks around us and the value we place in those relationships, validation and understanding of our emotions and behaviours, and an environment encouraging creative thought that will define whether or not we grow into individuals capable of recovering from life’s challenges.