By Paul Hagen, Director of Student Well-Being and Amy Sanchez, School Counselor
Resilience is Paradoxical. We all want it—those who have it, after all, are happier, live longer, and are more successful by almost every measure—but none of us want the adversity that so often breeds it. None of us want to face pain, failure, difficulty, loss, or disappointment. But stormy skies, rough seas, and difficult times help us develop resilience in ways that smooth sailing simply cannot. Resilience is only developed through exposure to and recovery from adversity. And we have all had plenty of experience with adversity over the last several tempestuous months.
“We’re all in the same boat” is a sentiment we have all heard or used to describe the collective struggle of the last year. While the pandemic, social injustice, and political upheaval spare few their impacts, a more accurate statement may be that we are all in the same storm, but in different boats. Many families and communities have been hit disproportionately hard by the tumultuous experiences of the past year.
Due to the nature of these crises, including the factors of both luck and privilege, it is near impossible to completely protect ourselves from hardship. What we can do, however, is prepare our boats to weather the storms we face. The question is not, how can we stop the storm from coming? But rather, how can we ensure that our boats are seaworthy and prepared for whatever tempests lie ahead? Our Well-Being team has spent a lot of time this year thinking about this question, and working to contribute to the fortification of the boats of students, families, and the Eastside Prep community to resiliently handle this storm we find ourselves enduring. And enduring is key to resilience.
It is in the toughest moments that we are called upon to persevere. Resilience is not about resisting difficulty, insulating ourselves from challenge, or railing against the gales that buffet our lives or the world around us. Rather, it is about moving through the storm with grace, grit, and gumption; it’s about endurance. As Winston Churchill, someone who knew a thing or two about adversity, famously quipped, “If you are going through hell, keep going!” Easier said than done, but there are concrete ways we can do just that and emerge on the other side better for it and with greater resilience than ever before. These concrete actions for improving our resilience—for ensuring our boats are seaworthy—are based in understanding the psychology behind adversity
APPROACHING RESILIENCE FROM A PSYCHOLOGICAL LENS
Think for a moment about your gut response to this question: When you picture resilience, what image comes to mind? For me, I imagine the movie Unbroken, the incredible, and true, story of Olympian Louis Silvie Zamperini who survived an oceanic plane crash and internment as a prisoner of war during WWII. The trailer culminates in Zamperini lifting an impossibly large wooden beam over his head, symbolizing how adversity will not break him. There is no doubt that he was incredibly resilient, however, Zamperini’s life experiences should not be held as the one true model. Unbroken can tempt us into thinking that resilience is a quality some exceptional people are just born with. What we know from psychological research is that resilience is delightfully common in development and bolstered by factors outside of oneself.
As scientific understanding of trauma and the brain skyrocketed in the second half of the 20th century, resilience researchers such as Ann Masten began studying individuals who thrived in adulthood despite remarkable childhood adversity. The goal of this research was to uncover the individual traits of these people who beat the odds. From this effort, a small set of global factors did emerge to be associated with resilience, such as cognitive and self-regulation skills, positive views of self, and motivation to be effective in one’s environment. These traits, however, are not the main findings of this body of research.
The more impactful conclusion is that resilience to adversity is far more common than otherwise conceptualized. When we go looking for examples of resilience, we find them everywhere. Resilience is hardwired into normative development processes, such that our bodies are more able than we might expect to handle and recover from adversity. Masten, a world-renowned clinical psychologist, coined the term “ordinary magic” to update our understanding of resilience. She writes, “Resilience does not come from rare and special qualities, but from the everyday magic of ordinary, normative human resources in the minds, brains, and bodies of children, in their families and relationships, and in their communities.” Rather than being the exception, resilience is the norm. By connecting with those around us, we can support the resilience of each other as well as the collective “we.”
Of course, few would be satisfied with assurances that resilience is the self-righting power of development. How can we enhance this natural process in our children and in ourselves? Integrating what we understand from research about the protective factors and qualities that enhance resilience, we offer three opportunities:
- Don’t Do Difficult Alone. Build community and meaningful relationships before crisis comes. Invest in those you love. The parent-child relationship is especially crucial, the hallmarks of which should be warmth, responsiveness, and sensitivity. This is a significant buffer against other stressors.
- Don’t Be Afraid to Feel. Feeling negative feelings isn’t weakness—talk about them, empathize with your child that the things they are going through are really hard. Develop coping skills. Meet your child where they are before trying to problem solve. Of course, if you feel yourself or your child getting stuck in negative thinking or rumination, consider how to get out of that thought spiral. Give yourself time to grieve and admit that things are really hard sometimes.
- Practice Self-Care. Just as we are told when we board a plane to put our own oxygen mask on before we put it on someone near us, we should care for our own emotional needs before we provide support for others. Peer support for adults is crucial. As celebrated psychologist Dr. Suniya Luthar says, “If you want a child to be functioning well, tend to the person who’s tending the child.”
These have been challenging times—our boats have been battered by heavy seas, but we sail on. We will weather this storm together, knowing that the protective factors we practice will keep us afloat
What the Kauai Study teaches us about Resilience
CHALLENGES IN ADOLESCENCE DON’T MEAN FAILURE LATER IN LIFE
In 1955 a group of innovative researchers, psychologists, and social workers began an ambitious study of children born on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The researchers would follow each of the 698 children born that year to better understand resilience, adaptation, and well-being over time. The findings of this impressive forty-year study add reassurance about our children’s capacity for resilience and provide interesting clues about what protective factors lead to still greater resilience. The researchers clustered these protective factors into three categories:
- factors within the individual
- factors within the family
- factors within the community
While some of these factors are clearly innate (protective factors within the individual, for example, were documented in children as young as one), many others can clearly be developed, reinforced, and advanced. It is evident that we can create supportive family and community structures for our children, and we can support the development of individual protective factors, too.
Perhaps a more remarkable finding in the Kauai Longitudinal Study, however, was that most children who had significant risk factors (such as poverty, family conflict, etc.) and who had developed serious coping problems as a result, overcame this setback by adulthood. While not quite as successful as their peers with well-established protective factors in place, most of these “at risk” children and teens had surmounted their adversity and gone on to live productive, healthy, and well-balanced lives. These teens who had been considered “troubled” were able to change the trajectory of their lives through strategic “turning points” such as going to college, participating in therapy, changing jobs, or getting married.
That’s good news for all of us who care about young people, because it means that challenging situations or circumstances can be overcome. It means that children and adolescents can rise above the difficulties they face, choose to embrace positive “turning points,” practice resilience, and move past adversity to live happy, healthy, and productive lives. It means that the challenges of childhood and adolescence need not define a life.