MISCONCEPTIONS SURROUNDING THE TERM 'RESILIENCE'
Resilience is a hot topic – at Resilience in Kids we focus on resilience in primary school aged children, but you don’t have to look far for articles and initiatives that talk to resilient teens, schools, organisations, cities, countries. Sydney even has its own Chief Resilience Officer.
Despite all of this, a shared understanding of what resilience is, and isn’t, is lacking and there are misconceptions surrounding the term. I’ve gradually become more aware of these as I interact with parents and educators and continue to research this topic, but a conversation I overheard at one of my son’s recent soccer games brought this to the fore.
A child came off the pitch and disclosed to his mum that he thought one of the players on the other team was a bit rough. His parent’s response was “you need to toughen up!”
Resilience equating to toughness is one of these misconceptions. But what are some of the others?
Let’s first explore the misconception around toughness. ‘Tough’ is defined as: ‘strong enough to withstand adverse conditions or rough handling’ or ‘able to endure hardship or pain’ (adjective) and ‘endure a period of hardship or difficulty’ (verb). However, it is also defined as: ‘demonstrating a strict or uncompromising approach’ or being ‘strong and prone to violence’ (adjective) and being ‘rough and violent; (noun) (Source: online dictionary). When applied to people, we can imagine them being Teflon coated, unwavering, hard, physically strong and emotionally aggressive. This is not what we want for our kids.
There is a similar misconception that being resilient means expressing no vulnerability. Resilience is founded on our ability to acknowledge where we experience emotions in our bodies - to label and express these and experience them fully. Showing vulnerability can be scary and it isn’t always appropriate but it allows us to connect deeply with others and to build strong and lasting relationships. In my 20 years of corporate life there is one presentation I will always remember. It was by a senior leader who expressed how personally challenging he had found it working his way up the corporate ladder with no formal qualifications and significant health challenges. People in the audience were in tears.
Another misconception is that resilience is about ‘pushing through’. Irrespective of whether we are stressed, unwell or overwhelmed we need to keep going no matter what. It’s true that resilience involves perseverance, growth, effort and hard-work; it involves us stepping up and not shying away from things we may be fearful of just because we are afraid. But it also involves us listening to our bodies, responding to what they are telling us and not buying into the ‘always on’ zeitgeist – we have a choice.
Parents often ask whether learning to be more resilient means to fundamentally change who you are: “My child is sensitive – I don’t want that to change if he attends your workshops!” “My child is assertive, does that need to change?” Strengthening your child’s resilience does not mean changing who they fundamentally are. It simply means giving them a toolkit of coping strategies that they can draw upon in need. You may see changes in your child – they may present more confidently, and appear less nervous. But your child is still fundamentally the same person.
How many times have you heard people refer to resilience as being about ‘bouncing back’? The concept of flexibly returning to a stronger state after experiencing adversity is sound. However, we like to take this concept a step further and say that resilience is about ‘bouncing forward’ and growing and developing as a result of adversity. We use the analogy of a rose bush – prune it in Spring and you will have many more beautiful roses come summer.
I’m often asked if the process of building resilience is one that relates only to managing negative or difficult emotions. This forms a part of any process to build resilience, but cultivating positive emotions, such as gratitude, empathy and optimism, is also key.
It’s easy to think that only those who are experiencing challenging times need to top up their resilience. This absolutely isn’t the case – resilience is something that all of us can develop to help us through those tricky times, irrespective of what is going on for us. Resilience isn’t just needed for those big life events such as divorce, moving to a new house or a beloved pet dying. We need resilience to handle the small, everyday challenges that come our way daily.
Another misconception is that resilience is something that you either have or you don’t. Something as complex as resilience could never be that binary. Resilience is made up of a number of factors and never looks the same in two people. It’s includes behaviours, thoughts and actions; it is fluid and flexible and ebbs and flows. There are always opportunities to top up our resilience and flex that resilience muscle.
Avoid using the words ‘tough’ or ‘strong’ when referring to resilience
Encourage your child to express their emotions - give them the vocabulary needed to do this