“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.”
~ Dr. Ann Masten, University of Minnesota
Factors in Resilience
What enables young people to overcome trauma and adversity? Explanatory models of resilient outcomes are complex and multidimensional, involving a wide range of individual factors (e.g., neuroanatomy, mindsets, skillsets) and features of the social environment (e.g., relationships, family, support systems).
The myriad individual factors that contribute to psychosocial resilience can be grouped into three broad clusters: Emotion Regulation, Sense of Mastery, and Sense of Relatedness. These clusters represent basic psychological functions that are essential for positive youth development, yet that can also be disrupted by traumatic experiences. Accordingly, pre-building and re-building capacities in these three areas are key strategies for promoting resilience and post-traumatic growth.
Disruptive impact of trauma:
- Experiences of trauma heighten the sensitivity of the brain’s emotional neural circuits (amygdala) and simultaneously suppress the neural pathways involved in emotion regulation and self-control (prefrontal cortex).
- Psychologically, these trauma-induced neurological changes can manifest in increased emotional reactivity (even to minor events), difficulty letting go of strong emotions, a chronic state of hyperarousal, impulsivity and acting out, and seeking relief through substances and other self-destructive behaviours.
Emotion regulation can be enhanced by:
- Becoming more mindful of our emotions, allowing ourselves to experience all emotions (positive and negative) as they come, without passing judgment or trying to avoid or suppress them.
- Taking the time to monitor and analyze the situations that trigger our emotions, the automatic thoughts and assumptions that lead to our emotional reactions, as well as the effects our emotional reactions have on ourselves and the people around us.
- Expanding our repertoire of emotion regulation strategies and finding different ways of alleviating stress (e.g., meditation, exercise, arts, journaling, humour, nature, social activities).
Sense of Mastery
Disruptive impact of trauma:
- By its very nature, a traumatic experience is one that is unexpected – we cannot foresee, prevent, or prepare for it; uncontrollable – there is nothing we can do to stop or escape it; and overwhelming – it utterly surpasses our capacity to cope.
- As a result of such traumatic experiences, we may come to view ourselves as incompetent, incapable, or “not good enough”, lose our sense of agency over life outcomes, and in the case of repeated trauma – develop a sense of helplessness and hopelessness about the future.
Sense of mastery can be enhanced by:
- Challenging ourselves to seek out and persevere through stressful yet manageable experiences (e.g., learning a new skill), recognizing that just as uncontrollable stressors can erode our self-confidence, demanding situations that are successfully coped with can boost our sense of self-efficacy and inoculate against future stress.
- Reinforcing and cultivating our “islands of competence” – the things we are good at and that we enjoy doing.
- Developing and routinely practicing goal-setting, planning, and problem-solving skills.
- Rewarding ourselves for successful accomplishment of tasks and goals.
- Forgiving ourselves for mistakes and failures (after all, nobody is perfect, making mistakes is simply part of being human) and treating obstacles as opportunities for seeking support from others and for continued self-improvement.
Sense of Relatedness
Disruptive impact of trauma:
- Having close emotional bonds with others is such a fundamental human need that when our social connections are severed or violated we may literally get sick and die prematurely.
- Experiencing violence or neglect at the hands of a person who we trust and depend on, or witnessing violence in an environment where we ought to feel safe, can alter our core beliefs about the self and others. We may come to view ourselves as fundamentally unworthy and unlovable, and everyone else – as hostile, untrustworthy, or unavailable. These learned beliefs, in turn, shape the dynamics of all subsequent relationships, thus continuing the cycle of victimization, violence, and intergenerational trauma.
Sense of relatedness can be enhanced by:
- Helping or caring for others, volunteering, undertaking responsibilities and duties at home, school, and in the community, to reinforce our sense of self-worth.
- Seeking opportunities for meaningful involvement in social groups (e.g., clubs, teams, faith-based groups) to create feelings of belongingness.
- Cultivating and routinely practicing social skills (e.g., empathy, active listening, good communication, personal boundaries) to strengthen existing relationships and establish new connections.
- Seeking and accepting help and support from others, and expressing gratitude to those who offer a hand, to build our social support network in the times of need.
Even though anyone can become more resilient, nobody can do it alone. Our emotion regulation abilities, sense of mastery, and sense of belongingness all derive from the relationships, families, communities, neighbourhoods, and cultures that we are embedded in.
By far, the single most powerful determinant of resilience in young people is having at least one caring and supportive person in their life (within or outside the family) who is genuinely interested in their wellbeing and acts as a nurturer and a positive role model. Anyone can become a nurturer: parent, sibling, partner, extended family member, friend, neighbour, teacher, coach, counsellor, etc.
As nurturers, we can enhance personal resiliency of others in our life by:
- modeling and encouraging the use of various strategies listed above and providing positive feedback for doing so;
- accepting them for who they are, unconditionally and without any contingencies of worth;
- openly displaying love, warmth, and encouraging communication about needs and feelings;
- validating their experiences and being empathetic and responsive to their needs;
- respecting their dignity and sense of self, without belittling or patronizing;
- setting and upholding clear and fair rules and expectations and explaining the reasons behind them (while being flexible as needed);
- praising positive behaviours and reinforcing personal strengths, rather than just focusing on problem behaviours;
- encouraging them to engage in independent and collaborative decision-making, planning, and problem-solving.