Be You [i], a new children’s mental health initiative from beyondblue, was launched late in 2018. Designed to equip teachers and early childhood educators with a range of knowledge and skills, the concept of resilience features heavily throughout the program materials.
The first time I heard the term resilience being used by teachers and educators was 17 years ago. Back then, I was working in a community with extremely high rates of drug use, unemployment, poverty and child abuse and neglect.
Even then, the term ‘resilience’ to describe a learning or developmental outcome was something that didn’t quite fit. Resilience was described to us as a behaviour – the act of ‘bouncing back’ when things got hard. Our team attended professional development with a well-known Australian psychologist and things fell in place. In that workshop, resilience was used to talk about children, who by the time they were teenagers, pursued perfectionism at all costs. For these children, even the idea of achieving less-than-perfection provoked debilitating anxiety.
These were not the children I worked with.
The children I worked with lived in overcrowded housing and went for days without food. They had spent their infancy and early childhoods watching their mothers, and their friend’s mothers, being beaten and their fathers in and out of jail. Some primary school teachers complained to me that the children were too tired to learn because they were ‘wandering the streets all night’. They found it difficult to understand that this was a safer option for some children than staying at home.
There is, arguably, nothing wrong with the concept of ‘resilience’ generally. Indeed, much work with vulnerable young children and their families hinges on the precept that it is possible to change outcomes for children, even when complex and difficult circumstances cannot be removed.
So, 17 years on from the first time I heard ‘resilience’ in education settings, how have we – as a sector – internalised the messages of resilience? In 2018, these were just some of the examples of ‘teaching resilience’ I personally saw in schools and pre-schools:
It should be said that most of the staff in these scenarios (with one exception) were highly competent, skilled and good people. I’ve shared these in this article not to illustrate some sort of inherrent ‘badness’, but to illustrate the extent to which resilience has become confused with the notion of being (or at least appearing to others to be) happy at all costs.
However, looking closely at the messages children receive in these interactions, we can hardly be surprised when we end up with a generation of teenagers and young adults who are obsessed with generating the image of a happy, perfect life on social media.
We cannot claim to be surprised when our teenagers don’t confide in us, and don’t know how to confide in us about their problems.
We can hardly be surprised at current rates of suicide by young adults who find themselves so isolated, alone and unable to ask for help.
When we talk about resilience as a desirable ‘characteristic’ for children, we ignore the evidence that:
a relationship with a trusted adult has been suggested as the strongest component in resilience development. Such relationships have been described as converting toxic stress from ACEs into tolerable stress by providing both mechanism and opportunity for stress response systems to return to their normal baselines. This protects brain and other body systems development from disruption while supporting growth in the coping skills of the child[ii].
In other words, resilience is not something that describes children (or adults, for that matter) as individuals. It is an outcome – a reflection – of the quality of relationships we have with the people around us. Children develop coping skills in relationships with adults with whom they can confide, talk, be comforted and feel safe. Resilience is evident when children receive the message that they are acceptable and worthy and loved – no matter what challenges they face, or emotions they experience.
This is a confronting discussion to have. It raises concerns and anxieties about children not learning how to deal with problems. In popular culture, we glorify the ‘she’ll be right’ attitude. This, perhaps, goes some way to explain social anxieties about emotional weakness – and the ‘attractiveness’ of ideas about resilience.
This ideal is nowhere more apparent than in the ANZAC archetype of the Aussie Digger. We idolise people like Curtis McGrath, a young veteran Army Combat Engineer who returned from Afghanistan having lost both legs in a landmine explosion. In the epitome of resilience, McGrath went on to be become a gold-medal winning Paralympian athlete and is now a fierce advocate living a life of purpose and contribution, profoundly shaped by his trauma.
The irony is, that in seeking to ‘toughen up’ our children to have the resilience of people like McGrath, we teach them to do the very things that will undermine the very resilience that underpinned McGrath’s recovery. What made McGrath resilient? In his own words:
In my own life, I can see the circles of care around me like ripples from a stone dropped in a pond. Family, friends, doctors, nurses, physios, Defence, RSL, Coaches, and team mates. The list is long. Through the peaks and troughs, they connect, making me stronger at the centre, restoring my physical health, my self-worth, and my sense of a future. Self-reliance matters, but it’s not nearly enough.
War hasn’t always returned us well. In the aftermath of so many conflicts, men and women came home to a silent, private suffering borne alone…It has taken a terrible toll and, for some, it’s far from over
~ Sapper Curtis McGrath, 2017 [iii].
McGrath then goes on to talk about the his resilience did not come from inside himself. Rather, his resilience came from the Ethic of Care within his community and relationships. In other words, resilience, even for soldiers, is relational and a reflection of the care others have for us.
Is it true that treating children with gentleness and warmth will lead to a society of weak adults? Ironically, no.
There is strong evidence suggesting high quality relationships in childhood are an essential foundation for our life-long social and emotional strength: childhood trauma and relational stress is a greater predictor of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in soldiers than combat and war-related trauma itself [iv].
If we are going to glorify things like ‘toughness’ and the ‘ANZAC Spirit’, then let’s at least glorify the actual things that create these qualities: caring and warm relationships throughout early childhood…and beyond. If we understand this about highly trained soldiers, then how might we think more fully and deeply about resilience in our relationships and work with young children?
Resilience arises not out of children, but out of us. Resilience occurs when we utter the words to a child:
Every problem has a solution. Even if the solution is only to cry and grieve and be sad. Even if the solution is only to retreat and reflect for a time. Even if the solution is to let someone else take over for a little while. No matter what the problem – or the solution – I will help you work it through. Strength in tough times comes from being together.
The new ‘Be You’ materials, go some way to changing the ‘toughen-up’ view of resilience. The input of early childhood specialists in the materials is evident in, for example, ideas for encouraging children to name and talk about feelings – rather than trying to distract them with ‘happy thoughts’. I have hope that this is another step toward an understanding that children are not inherently resilient – but rather deeply responsive to the relationships we build with, and around them.
[ii] Mark A. Bellis et al., “Does Continuous Trusted Adult Support in Childhood Impart Life-Course Resilience against Adverse Childhood Experiences: A Retrospective Study on Adult Health-Harming Behaviours and Mental Well-Being,” BMC Psychiatry 17, no. 1 (2017): 9, https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-017-1260-z.
[iii] Curtis McGrath, “Anzac Day 2017: Dawn Service Commemorative Address,” Australian War Memorial, 2017, 1, https://www.awm.gov.au/commemoration/speeches/anzac-day-dawn-2017.
[iv] Berntsen, Dorthe, Kim B. Johannessen, Yvonne D. Thomsen, Mette Bertelsen, Rick H. Hoyle, and David C. Rubin. “Peace and War: Trajectories of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms before, during, and after Military Deployment in Afghanistan.” Psychological Science 23, no. 12 (2012): 1557–65. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612457389.