By Kelly Moore, PhD, LICSW, Scholar in Residence
As the Scholar in Residence for Well-Being at Eastside Prep, I am often called upon to help the community come together to support students. This year, I was invited to help make sense, emotionally, of one of the most difficult years in history. In the summer we decided I would work with our parent community, administration, staff, and faculty to provide support and well-being throughout the year, so they could, in turn, help the children whom they support, teach and, in the case of parents this year, all of the above. While I suspected this would be a trying and traumatic year for many, I also had a deep belief in the concept of resilience and, as I have been teaching for years, have felt it is something we as a society would grow into as we face unprecedented challenges ahead.
We are resilient people. As many of us study our lineage of ancestors, we find many generations of powerful people who withstood oppressions, famines, and wars. How do we know that? We wouldn’t be here if they weren’t able to recover from hardship and survive. Merriam-Webster defines resilience as: “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” Of course, there have been problems with the term resilience both in practice and in theory as it has been used as a tool of oppression (Haines, 2019)—to justify less than civilized treatment of folks or to rationalize and minimize their pain (abused kids are so resilient, as an example). So, I use the word cautiously and fully knowing the complex history it has for many in this country.
That said, there is something compelling about the study of being able to come back, sometimes even stronger, that has always piqued my curiosity. For example, why is it that some people can go through the exact same external situation and have completely different responses? Is it a fixed trait? Is it something that can be learned? How do we build it in our kids? Heck, how can we find it in ourselves? These questions led me to want to dive deeper into exploring this important topic during one of the most collectively challenging years we can remember. I feel honored that EPS asked me to share my findings with the adults in our community and to provide “care for the carers” in our school.
The model I use for all of my work is one that includes the individual, the immediate family, and the community at large. I call this the “me,” “you,” and “we” of resilience. Why all three? As a society, we are obsessed with self-help and often place the burden of getting by or healing firmly on the shoulders of the individual, ignoring the very relational aspects of our humanity and certainly skirting the communal nature of our species. Addressing resilience at all levels of analysis feels more complete and accounts for both the things we can do to help ourselves, but also the responsibility we have for building and sharing collective resilience in our communities and families. Throughout this year, I have been working with the adults in this community on just this—being able to both understand and experience some resilience, while also fully acknowledging and addressing the distress that accompanies these unsettling times.
We start with “me” because it is the area where we have the most influence and the place we need to return to when our relationships and community feel difficult. Our teaching began with the idea of working with our mindset. Mindsets are simply ways we think about something or hold something in our minds. It turns out, if we believe that stress and difficulty is bad for us and should be avoided, our bodies respond to it as a threat and cause more long-term damage (McGonigal, 2015). On the other hand, when we can respond to stress—particularly stress that is attached to something we care about and cannot change, like parenting our children, our teaching career, or simply showing up in the world as a compassionate human being—as a side effect of caring about something meaningful, our bodies, hearts, and minds can relax and you guessed it, become more resilient. Again, this is not an argument to put our children under undue stress nor is it justification for long-term oppression and stress that is unfairly distributed in our society, but it is an argument for tying our current strife to something more meaningful than ourselves. When we do that, we actually rise above the idea we have of what we can handle and see our true capacity. This ability to tie things that are out of our control to something bigger and important to us also increases what psychological researchers call “internal locus of control”—a concept that refers to how strongly people believe they have control over the situations and experiences that affect their lives. This is contrasted to an external locus of control, which leaves us feeling out of control and blaming others for what is happening in our lives, which is tied to the belief one is helpless.
Of course, everyone wants to know how to help their child get through this time without scars. It has been heartbreaking to watch graduations canceled, children on screens all day, proms online, and the mounting loneliness of our loved ones. Many of us are so used to being able to fix the problems that plague us—but not this time. We find there is nothing we can do to actually change our external circumstances. In terms of building resilience in the long run, this can be good news. By not being able to rescue our kids, we are left only with helping them confront reality as it is.
In our sessions at EPS, we did this through emotion coaching and validation. Emotion coaching and validation refers to acknowledging what our child is feeling and letting them know we “get them.” We reflect three good reasons they might be feeling the way they do before we jump in to problem solve, reassure, or downplay their concerns. Turns out this kind of “being with” our children helps them see themselves as competent and confident in dealing with distressing situations and thus, more resilient!
If there is one thing we have learned throughout this year, it is that we are not the independent and autonomous people we thought we were. We have been shown that our well-being is literally connected to that of others around us. For better or worse, the American culture is one that has a long history of valuing individuality, personal choice, and self-sufficiency. Those who study these things have long noticed that along with these values can come isolation, loneliness, and an increase in depression and anxiety. The “we” portion of our series focused on reclaiming interdependence and community as a source of healing and resilience for us all. Like generations of our ancestors, we used storytelling and genuine questioning to build community and create narratives of both our individual and collective stories of resilience. While we all have our very unique and idiosyncratic struggles, we are also part of a collective that has built in it the ability to rise up, and hopefully, be stronger than we were when we started.
None of us would ask for this kind of a year again, and some of us will have been much more impacted by the intensity of all 2020-2021 ushered in. We will need to continue to draw on our inner resources, our connection to our families and their inner worlds and, most importantly, to each other as a community. That said, I have faith if we practice resilience—individually, with our families, and collectively—we can emerge from this time wiser, more emotionally connected, and with a greater sense of confidence to face whatever challenges