Updated: Mar 29
Resilience is a term used to measure or assess someone’s ability to ‘bounce back’ from adversity.
Resilience is a very handy thing to have – it helps us cope with disappointment and failure as adults.
I’ve had some really interesting conversations recently with parents of older adolescents who have cruised through school, always getting top marks and being hailed as ‘exemplary’ students. In each case, that same young person has then gone out and failed their driving test… And their whole world collapsed. In the case of one of those young people, they spent an entire weekend in their bedroom unable to show their face as they had NO IDEA how to cope with the feelings of failure they were experiencing.
Failure has become a dirty word in our society – especially in the school system. Schools are perpetually working towards avoiding failing inspections, rather than avoiding students failing exams. This is important because although superficially, the two things will look EXACTLY THE SAME – good exam results ensure good Ofsted outcomes – the focus of the school’s attention is in entirely the wrong place for the purposes of building resilience. They’re focussed on removing the possibility of failure rather than living with and learning from, those experiences of failure. And that process of living with and learning from is exactly how we build resilience.
We don’t tend to use the word resilient to describe adults, we use it almost exclusively to describe children; children who usually have survived the unsurvivable and witnessed the unthinkable.
There are two competing truths to bear in mind whilst reading this blog – one is that children are (mainly) made of rubber and magic so they WILL appear to bounce back; and the other is that ‘normal’ is as ‘normal’ does.
We are what we are because of where we came from
‘Normal’ is a relative concept and our view of ‘normal’ is entirely dependant on what we grow up with. It follows then, that children who grow up in abusive homes will learn that abuse forms part of their ‘normal’, in the same way that children who grow up in non-abusive homes will believe that ‘normal’ definitely doesn’t include violence or abuse.
Understanding what a child’s view of ‘normal’ is, is imperative to understanding all sorts of things from their behaviour to their persistent emotional state. It can also give us insight to how best to approach dealing with or managing not only the child, but their adults too. Children do not become chaotic or superficially ‘resilient’ in a vacuum, their coping strategies and accepted level of ‘normal’ chaos is learned from their adults and their environment.
Imagine you are introduced to a child who, for their whole life has only ever eaten sandwiches.
Imagine you offer that child the choice between another sandwich and a plate of delicious steak (fake-steak is acceptable for the purposes of this metaphor!) and chips…
Which will the child choose? That’s right! They’ll go for the sandwich and all the well-meaning grownups will stand around, scratching their chins saying (usually within earshot of the child!) one of two things:
1) “I don’t understand, don’t they like steak?!”
2) “I don’t understand, why would anyone choose a sandwich over steak and chips?!”
BECAUSE THEY DON’T KNOW ANY DIFFERENT! ‘Normal’ for that child means sandwiches, not hot meals. I can pretty much guarantee that those same well-meaning grownups will be a bit cross and offended at the time, money and effort put into preparing that ‘poor child’ a decent meal when the child isn’t even grateful…
You’ll notice that none of those responses from the well-meaning grownups consider anybody other than the well-meaning grownup…. “I don’t understand…”. “I’m offended…”. “I’m projecting…”
(Projecting is what we do when we assume – never assume, it makes an ass out of u and me – that the other person will think the same way as we do. In this case, the projection is, “I’d prefer steak and chips to a sandwich so I think you should too and when you don’t, I’ll judge you by my own standards based on my beliefs of how you should think!”)
What does any of this have to do with resilience? I hear you ask. Good question!
Our resilience grows through what we go through
We build positive resilience by experiencing and enduring run-of-the-mill pain and failure with the right support.
For example, our pet goldfish dies. If we’re in a nice, non-abusive home where our childhood feelings and thoughts are valued and validated, we’ll be sad about the death of the goldfish, we’ll have it explained to us that the goldfish had a good life and that’s what we should focus on, we’ll be told how absolutely great goldfish heaven is and what a fab time the goldfish will have there with all their fishy mates. We might have a fishy-funeral and say a few comforting words as Goldy goes swirling round the toilet bowl on his or her way to the next life…
In other words, that child has been given time and space to process their feelings of sadness and loss in a supportive, non-judgemental way, surrounded by adults who care enough (and who are able) to hold space for them and help them regulate their emotional responses. They haven’t been belittled, laughed at, told it was ‘only a fish’, or to ‘get over it’, they’ve been given a way of coping positively with what is probably their first real experience of death.
If that same goldfish dies in an abusive household where a child’s feelings are not valued or validated, that child will not be supported to cope with the loss, they will be expected to get over it, get on with it, get blamed for not feeding / cleaning out the fish, get told they’re a failure because the fish died….
Can you see the difference?
One method grows and develops resilience – a positive and useful trait, whilst the other grows survivalism – a negative and traumatic trait.
I said at the start of this blog that we don’t describe adults as resilient usually, and that’s true. We respect the experiences of that adult for what they were – traumatic. When children have been traumatised, we don’t really feel very comfortable acknowledging that – someone MUST be responsible for traumatising a child and we have all kinds of weird social expectations and secret cues around how we can describe abused / abusive adults in order to not hurt their feelings or further traumatise them.
(When I say weird social cues, what I really mean is that we don’t like saying stuff to adults that might be perceived as mean or, God forbid, truthful!)
The thing is though, children don’t have choice. Adults do.
Children have to live with whatever their adults decide for them, so if one of their adults decides to take up a relationship with someone who is, say, an alcoholic, that child has absolutely no say in that decision. They have to go along with what the adult has decided, and they’ll likely end up living in a household with someone who abuses alcohol. I guarantee you that child will be described as resilient because they’ve ‘coped so well’ with the adverse experience of living with an alcoholic.
They’re not resilient, they’re abused. They’re traumatised. They’re damaged…
Nobody’s ready to challenge the grownups though…. Unless something happens that’s deemed to be a risk of imminent harm or danger to the child, the grownup’s right to choose to live with an alcoholic far outweighs the child’s right to live a life free of abuse.
How weird is that?!
Especially when we consider that EVERY parent would say in a heartbeat, “I’d do anything for my kids!” (Except, of course, remember that the impact of our grownup relationships on our children is pretty much indelible… That would mean de-prioritising our own need for an adult relationship and grownups aren’t very good at that.)
The child will live in an environment where their needs are de-prioritised as a matter of course (that’s the unfortunate nature of addiction) and their so-called ‘resilience’ will come from that constant pattern of:
Child has a need and demonstrates that need.
Need is belittled, de-prioritised and overlooked because the adult is preoccupied with their own need – alcohol.
Alcohol is either in or out of supply, and that dictates what happens next:
Out of supply – Childs gets it; either because they’re irritating to the now clucking adult or because they’re ‘to blame’ for the lack of alcohol.
In supply – Either the child has a great time while the alcohol lasts because their adults are happy drunks; or they have a terrible time because their adults are anything but happy drunks.
Either way: When the alcohol runs out and the hangovers run in, the child is, at best, surplus to requirements – just something else adding to the noise and stress.
This child’s “resilience” is actually survival. They’ve been taught by their adults that the adult need for alcohol is greater than the child’s need for parenting. They’ve learned that the only need that will be prioritised in their house is the adult need. They’ve learned that they’re unimportant, and that’s traumatic for any child – after all, they didn’t ask to be born, they had no say in that either and the world at large conditions all of us to understand that ALL parents love their children unconditionally, no matter what.
A child who is being abused doesn’t stop loving their abuser, they stop loving themselves.
Children who grow up in chaotic or abusive households are NOT resilient, they’re abused and traumatised. That trauma and abuse changes the very way that child’s brain functions, and if we don’t recognise that for them – remember, they believe it’s ‘normal’ – we will also be responsible for causing and perpetuating further abuse and trauma. Our professional interactions with that child aren’t unlikely to look something like this:
Child has a need and communicates that need inappropriately because they’re traumatised.
Adult punishes child for ‘misbehaving’ instead of understanding that they’re miscommunicating.
Child has their existing view that they are the problem, reinforced.
Child is further traumatised and their sense of self erodes further. This results in a child who hates themselves…
The child who hates themselves has no motivation for, or knowledge of how to change – they may as well continue along the line of the self-fulfilling prophecy, after all, it’s ‘normal’ for them.
The child’s ‘behaviour’ declines further.
The child continues to be labelled as bad instead of sad.
Eventually the systems close their doors and tell the child that they’re un-helpable…
Child is never shown / taught to do things differently.
Unsupported traumatised child grows up to be an unsupported traumatised adult.
We all know that we can’t expect to get different outcomes if we continue to use the same inputs… If a child is only ever told it’s bad, the child has no alternative story – they’re just bad, full stop.
Let’s nail it down, shall we? For the sake of ourselves and our children.
Children who have lived with / through trauma – whether first-hand or vicarious – are NOT resilient.
They are traumatised.
Children who live fairly ‘normal’ lives and experience the ‘normal’ trials and tribulations of life in a relatively safe and supportive environment will grow resilience.
If we know that their adults have had a tough time, we have no problem at all in naming them as traumatised or unwell; yet we still insist on calling the child resilient!
If we really do want our children to be resilient, we HAVE to make sure they have opportunities to fail and hurt, safely. Being a good parent / adult doesn’t mean removing risk and upset, it means providing a supportive and positive space for your children to work through those emotions.
Resilience comes from positive failure, not from surviving abuse. Adults who’ve survived abuse are labelled ‘heroic’ or ‘inspirational’ or ‘brave’… They’re rarely labelled ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’ or even ‘resilient’, yet these are exactly the sort of words we use to describe traumatised and damaged young people, simply because we don’t really know how to address the abuse / trauma they’ve suffered and, more importantly, we don’t really want to have to challenge that child’s adults…
That’s a bit uncomfortable, isn’t it?
So is living day in and day out with abuse, I expect…
How we speak to our children – whether they’re our own offspring or those we work professionally with - has a massive impact on them.
Our words will become their thoughts.
Those thoughts will become their beliefs.
Their beliefs will inform their behaviour
Their behaviour will become their character
And our words become the basis for their internal self-fulfilling prophecy…
It’s still always the child who has refused to engage though, isn’t it?!
Ask yourself: Would it be ok if someone spoke to me the way I’m about to speak to this child? How would I feel if someone described me as disobedient? Rude? Truculent? Disrespectful? Disruptive? Uncooperative? Challenging? Aggressive? Defiant? Resistant? Precocious?
Yet mostly we have no problem at all describing traumatised CHILDREN like this – after all, it’s character building, isn’t it?
Unhealed traumatised children grow up to be unhealed, traumatised adults who go on and have their own vicariously traumatised children. Calling those unhealed traumatised children ‘resilient’ doesn’t change the trauma they’ve endured, all it does is tells them that that trauma is unimportant to you – you’re not interested in WHY they’re behaving in a particular way, you’re just interested in whether they’re on the right or the wrong side of that behaviour being ‘acceptable’.
Before you decide unilaterally that a child is naughty or disruptive, ask yourself, could they be traumatised? The answer is probably yes.
Before you issue punitive punishments and make sweeping statements about how disrespectful and ungrateful a child is, ask yourself, are they REALLY going to get the message you intend or are you simply reinforcing their own learned opinion of themselves?
Before you describe a child as ‘resilient’ and intend that word to be complimentary, ask yourself, has this child developed real resilience through positive failure, or are they actually a victim of something beyond their control?
Before you decide to pull a parent in and treat them with the same disdain as you treat their child, ask yourself, am I intending to treat this adult as my equal or do I just need to project my feelings about their child? (HINT: This is NOT helpful…)
Before you speak a single word to ANY child about their ‘behaviour’, ask yourself, would it be ok if someone else spoke to me like that? If the answer is no, check yourself… Respect is earned, not given and your presumption that you hold the moral high ground is extremely precarious if you’ve made no effort to find out the context of that child’s whole world before making judgements.
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Undertaking our workshops will give you and your staff the knowledge and tools to improve outcomes for children and their families. You will learn what an ACE / trauma is, the therapeutic importance of trauma-awareness and non-verbal communication, how behaviour is used to communicate and why your own language and position are so important to a child's understanding.
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