By: Jen Pool
In my home state of Virginia, it’s “Resilience Week” which is the kick-off to May being Mental Health Awareness Month. Various organizations are highlighting “resilience”, encouraging rest, sending out freebie bingo cards of ideas to practice resilience, and of course, there are all the social media quotes and images. But it got me thinking – what does resilience really look like, not just in vague terms, but for me as a parent of two kids growing up in a world that has frequently and consistently required them tobe resilient?
Maybe the world has always been this tumultuous and I’m just now seeing things through the eyes of someone who has tiny humans to protect and fight for, who wants to shield them from harm while at the same time encourage them to grow in independence. It’s confusing and, wow, is it hard.
Truth be told, I have to stop myself from flinching when people throw out the “kids are so resilient” catchphrase. I’ve heard it far too often and too frequently in a dismissive tone that seems to classify children’s feelings as less than because children just don’t have the vocabulary to communicate what they’re going through. The first time I heard it was at a funeral, where four-year-old twins had to watch their daddy get honored in a casket because he died by suicide. “They’ll be fine,” so many people said, “kids are resilient.”
I’ve heard it said about kids who have been abandoned, assaulted, neglected, abused, and more. Then, those same adults who used resiliency as a term of pride stop using that word when the behaviors from those same kids come across as negative or aggressive. All of a sudden those kids, who were once covered with praise of “resiliency”, are looked at as failures who are disrespectful and need to fall in line.
So where and how do we cultivate healthy resilience in our children; the ability to overcome without denying our emotions and feelings, to be able to face challenges and struggle but still not fall apart? I wish I had the answers for you, instead, I feel as if I have more questions.
There are lots of therapeutic answers, books, and experts out there. I’m just a parent of a teenager and a tween with training in Adverse Childhood Experiences who’s been working with, and listening carefully to, various survivors of trauma for a decade. Please take the advice of your therapist and actual experts, but here’s what I’ve found to be true:
Kids aren’t as resilient as you think: I think we bypass children’s feelings because we don’t have all the answers, and that makes us uncomfortable. Kids don’t have the language or life experience to give them the words to communicate what they’re going through or what they’re feeling. Additionally, they may not be awarded the psychological (or physical) safety and time to be able to explore how a situation has affected them. Instead, they learn to be quiet, cope in means that may be maladaptive later in life, and store any trauma in their body for later.
Trauma affects development: Increasing studies and understanding in the scientific community have shown us that trauma gets stored in the body and can affect neurological development. As in, trauma – even at birth and very young ages – affects how we view and interact in the world. Epigenetics is bascially our family tree passing familial trauma through biology down to each generation. None of us make it out of this world unscathed, but we can learn how to be healthy and healing individuals despite early or familial trauma. The earlier trauma gets addressed, the better it is for everyone – especially a developing child.
Resiliency isn’t a lack of emotion: “Keep Calm and Carry On” is a great tagline, but it’s not meant to be a marching order for how to live each day of your life when encountering something traumatic. Resiliency is so much more than not looking bothered or tamping your grief over a situation, it’s a complex lesson involving mental and emotional awareness that needs to be taught, refined, and preferably done so in a safe and supportive environment.
It does take a village: I was recently speaking with a young lady who was lamenting how she “should have known” how to handle a complex situation that most grown adults would have struggled with. I asked her why she thought that when no one had ever taught her how to deal with a situation like that, she didn’t have parents in her life who she felt safe enough to go to, and she lacked the life experience to know where to go in order to find resources and community. It was a lightbulb moment that allowed her to dole out some grace for herself. But how often do we find ourselves “shoulding” ourselves or others? Resiliency is more than a word, it’s a community of trusted people, learned discernment, resources, tools, and time.
The dictionary might define resilience as “the capacity to withstand or to recover quickly from difficulties” but I say sustainable resilience includes community, psychological safety, and a base understanding of how trauma affects both the brain and the body.
Jen Pool is a Board Member for Grit Plus Gumption Farmstead. She also works as the Director of Community Development for another 501(c)(3) outside of Washington D.C. and is a certified Life Design Coach, Enneagram Coach and ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Trainer.