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Purple flowers building resilience in grass near melting snow.
Building resilience - are we really helping?

The following article is written by happiness expert and psychologist Dr Melissa Weinberg from Deakin University’s School of Psychology.

Everybody wants to be resilient or is working on building resilience these days. Resilience certainly has all the key features of a great buzzword: it’s phonetically satisfying, aesthetically pleasing, and vague enough that it loses all meaning when said or heard too often.

The classic definition of resilience is to bounce back from adversity. Some researchers propose resilience is an outcome, apparent when people experience trauma or adversity and respond with positive adaptation. Others propose that building resilience is a continuous process, and still others say it is both a dynamic process and an outcome. These complex, multifaceted definitions aren’t particularly helpful in promoting a clear understanding of the word.

Those who say resilience is the capacity to withstand adversity, even go so far as to say resilient children are ‘invulnerable’. These perspectives portray resilient people as psychological ‘superheroes’; able to withstand any challenge that comes their way. But it’s important to remember that superheroes can perform tasks that are not typically human. It would be unrealistic to define resilience in a way that doesn’t allow for natural human responses to adversity.

We need an understanding of resilience that both captures the capacity to regulate emotions appropriately, and to recover well in response to challenges.

As a psychologist, when I speak to schools, parents, sports clubs and community groups, I remind them that of all the definitions of resilience, one feature is constant: exposure to challenge or adversity.

By no means am I suggesting we purposely expose children to trauma. But constant attempts to shield healthily developing young children from anything that might evoke a negative emotion – be it with a participation ribbon, or a no red-pen policy when grading assignments – denies them the opportunity to experience vulnerability, and subsequently denies them the opportunity to develop resilience.

'We need an understanding of resilience that both captures the capacity to regulate emotions appropriately, and to recover well in response to challenges.'

Dr Melissa Weinberg,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

What are resilience programs all about?

Many resilience programs in today’s schools have been informed or inspired by Martin Seligman’s Penn Resilience Program (PRP), an initiative that emerged in the early 1990s to introduce positive psychology into classrooms.

The programs typically promote positive-thinking styles, encouraging a sense of hope and optimism, and nurturing character strengths. Despite the best of intentions, however, any success the program can claim is based more on Seligman’s eminence, than it is based on evidence.

As wondrous as it all may sound – particularly for schools with vulnerable students looking to combat rising rates of adolescent mental illness – an independent meta-analysis of PRP interventions has revealed they have a negligible effect. Not that Seligman seems to care, for he claims that the changes produced ‘transcend statistics’. Research tip #384: that’s not good science.

The program was (prematurely) modified for military personnel, a group considered at-risk and vulnerable to mental health issues due to exposure to trauma. Following a series of evaluative reports, the Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Program has received widespread criticism for having had no effect on mental health outcomes in its target population, despite huge government expenditure. Instead, rates of depression, distress, PTSD and suicide remain on the rise, and yet we are seeing parts of this program being adopted in the Australian defence forces as well.

The problem with building resilience

The problem with our culture is that we demand resilience but we deny vulnerability. When we limit the extent to which young people can be emotionally vulnerable, we deny them the opportunity to develop the coping skills and emotional regulation strategies that define resilience.

Quite simply, we’re doing it backwards.

The precursor to building resilience is vulnerability. And so, rather than teaching children how to be resilient, we must instead teach them how to be vulnerable. We must encourage emotional expression, articulation and understanding, and provide safe spaces and secure support networks to facilitate the effective management and regulation of all emotions.

Resilience is not found in the sharing or expressing of gratitude, or in the endless encouragement of the pursuit of positive emotions. These practices engender narcissism, self-interest, and antisocial behaviours. A person who robotically produces positive statements in the face of negative events is not resilient, they’re emotionally impotent.

We must encourage emotional expression, articulation and understanding, and provide safe spaces and secure support networks to facilitate the effective management and regulation of all emotions.

The key to fostering resilience in schools, families and workplaces, is to cultivate environments where people can express vulnerability and be received with care. It is about being able to share your deepest fears, problems and mistakes, and be treated without disdain or condemnation, but with respect and sensitivity.

Allowing a person to experience vulnerability in a safe space is a hallmark of early attachment theory, and forms the basis for trusting relationships and cooperative behaviours going forward. If we stop promoting the avoidance of negative emotions, and instead work towards acknowledging and understanding them, we’ll see the development of a generation who can regulate their emotions, cope effectively with stress and anxiety, and not be afraid to seek help when in need.

Interested in human emotions and thought processes? Consider studying psychology at Deakin University. 

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Dr Melissa Weinberg
Dr Melissa Weinberg

School of Psychology, Deakin University

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