Building Resilience: a learned competency

Resilience at its core means the ability to successfully engage with the challenges and opportunities that life brings and through that engagement, develop the competencies necessary to take on future and more complex existential confrontations. While there is a genetic component, (some individuals are by nature more resilient than others) resilience arises out of an individual’s engagement with life and all its “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.

The development of resilience is a life-long activity and involves the complex interplay of environment, genetics and epigenetic processes. In young people it is a necessary component of normal development, in particular the growth of independence. 

What has emerged from the now robust literature on resilience is that active engagement with both the challenges and opportunities that life presents is foundational for its development. Resilience does not mean that individuals do not suffer emotional and cognitive distress when faced with life circumstances, it means that they are both able to apply competencies they have learned to deal with those circumstances and that they are able to develop new skills as a result of dealing with those circumstances – skills that they will apply in future situations. Having supportive personal relationships, good problem solving skills, the ability to manage emotions and knowing when, where and from whom to obtain needed help are some of the competencies that contribute to the building of resilience.

In addition to development of those skills, young people also need to develop other competencies, perhaps equally necessary for the building of resilience. One of these competencies is learning (yes, this has to be learned) how to apply critical reasoning to everyday challenges and opportunities. The adolescent years are characterized by neurodevelopment that gradually enables the pre-frontal cortex to supervise and direct more affect driven decision-making. This is the ascendancy of reason over impulse, of thinking over feeling. Or, as the Nobel Prize winning economist David Kahneman so nicely put it – learning to think slow instead of thinking fast!

Another component of resilience is the development of competencies needed to help drive success in both the civil and vocational spheres of life. These include both basic and advanced facility with language (reading and writing), mathematics and general knowledge. These also include learning how to think critically, to manipulate complex concepts and to use data and scientific analytics to inform decision-making. These skills do not come easily to many and require, in addition to explicit instruction, various degrees of plodding, poking, prodding, practice and persistence. Or as my father used to say: “success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration”.

So, knowing this about how resilience is naturally created, what kinds of interventions could school counselors consider to help young people develop the complex competencies that when taken together better prepare them to address the challenges and opportunities of life? A few things to consider:

Primum nil nocere

First – do no harm, is a good place to start. Overprotection of young people from the normal and usual vicissitudes of life interferes with their development of the competencies that they need to learn from engaging with those challenges and opportunities. So is solving the problem for them instead of supporting them to solve the problem themselves. When educators engage in Socratic dialogue with students they can encourage the development of problem solving skills.  So, how could that be better deployed school-wide?  How can you make that happen in your setting?

Think critically about what you mean when you or the school uses concepts such as “safe-spaces”. Does that mean that all other spaces are sites for danger? Does that support or retard the development of responsible independence? Could spaces be seen as inviting, welcoming and respectful instead of safe? This is something to think about and discuss with school administration.

Another way is to provide young people with clear and concise information that can help them better understand their own stress response and the role it has in building their resilience. For example, share this freely available resource material: teenmentalhealth.org/learn/understanding-stress/. Students don’t need to be protected from everyday stress but learn to use their own stress response to help them be successful in addressing the challenges and opportunities of life.

Principatus Affectus

The adolescent years are characterized by intense emotional experiences. This has been well recognized in literature and neuroscience alike. However, it is likely not until the last 30 years or so that emotional ascendency as the preferred vehicle for evaluation of “truth” or the basis for understanding of social interaction has emerged as a common cultural construct in the Western world. Unfortunately, the primacy of affective decision-making promotes the thinking fast over the thinking slow capacity. The negative developmental impact of this might be considerable, as argued by Lukianoff and Haidt in their recent challenging book: The Coddling of the American Mind. 

If this is the case, and it well might be, how can a school counselor nudge young people towards a more pre-frontal and less amygdala driven problem-solving process. One way is to encourage young people to consider options – not just what the options are, but what are the pros and cons of each option – to common challenges and opportunities. Applying commonly used constructs from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy such as challenging cognitive distortions and helping young people work out which actions are likely to be more adaptively successful are two good places to start.

Another way is to encourage the open and respectful exchange of diverse opinions and viewpoints. It is important for young people to learn that someone can still be likeable and human without necessarily agreeing with them. Similarly, the experience of negative emotional states is a necessary and normal part of growing up. Their presence does not mean that a person is unwell or ill. Just because someone feels uncomfortable does not mean that they are suffering from a mental health problem or a mental illness. One useful approach to addressing this issue is through the exposure of students to the evidence-based mental health literacy resource – freely available for use from www.teenmentalhealth.org/curriculum and now with an available online professional educational course (through the University of British Columbia) for teachers to engage with so as to be able to implement the resource in their own classrooms (http://pdce.educ.ubc.ca/mentalhealth/).

The bottom line is, that young people build resilience naturally – it’s like breathing!  They need to be given the opportunity to skin their knees and to learn how to fall and to figure out how to get up themselves. They need to learn that failure is the foundation that success is built on and that in addition, there are skills and competencies that they can learn to better enhance their chances of success. As a counselor you can find hundreds of so called “resilience building” programs – some that you can purchase at considerable cost. Most have little or no evidence that they are much better than supportive exposure to the exigencies of life. Alternatively you can work with students, teachers and administrators to help create a school environment, informed by the local realities of the community in which the school is situated, to create your own resilience building approach, based on the issues identified above. After all – usus est magister optimus.

By: Dr. Stan Kutcher
Sun Life Chair in Adolescent Mental Health
Dalhousie University Halifax, NS

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