Building Resiliency

The word “resiliency” originated in the science of materials. Some objects, like a china cup, will shatter if hit with a hammer. Some objects, like a soft piece of wood, will be dented by a hammer blow. Some objects, like a rubber ball, will bounce back to its original shape if hit with a hammer. Researchers in human resiliency wanted to understand why some people bounce back when exposed to negative events that lead other people to be seriously traumatized. In the Youth Voice Project study, we found that many youth who reported repeated mistreatment told us they were not significantly traumatized. Others reported severe or very severe negative effects. A young person’s resiliency may well cause this difference in response to similar events.

The good news from decades of research is this: While a china cup will always be fragile, humans can become more resilient. How can we help all youth become more resilient? In my discussion of relationships, I talked about one important component of resiliency: having a web of positive relationships. On this page, I plan to talk about cognitive aspects of resiliency.

Researchers in psychology, including Martin Seligman and Carol Dweck, have documented that the way in which people think about events in their lives affects how those events affect them. I will summarize a range of cognitive processes and skills that we can teach young people to help them become more resilient.

Among the more successful self-actions reported by mistreated youth in the Youth Voice Project was: “I reminded myself that what they were doing was not my fault and that they were the ones who were wrong. .” Young people also often benefitted when others told them that the person who mistreated them had done something wrong. Some wrote that friends told them that the person was “acting immature,” and that this information was helpful.

How students think about mistreatment influences how they are affected by it. If they blame themselves for others’ mean behavior toward them or accept others’ negative judgments of them uncritically, mean behavior has more power to wound them. If they know that mean behavior teaches them about the person who mistreated them rather than about themselves, they are less likely to be hurt. If they choose not to believe others’ negative opinions of them, they are less likely to accept others’ negative judgments  of them. One parent described this process to me as “filtering.” She said that she had taught her lesbian daughter to filter what others told her about herself. When I was in schools in India, a student defined the word “filtering” as “removing impurities.” This definition captures the cognitive process of maintaining our own self-assessment rather than accepting others’ stated opinions about us uncritically.

NOTE: It may be that both students involved have each done something potentially harmful to the other. In that case, young people should be helped to take responsibility for their own actions, but not for the mean actions of the other person. Yet in most cases of peer aggression I have experienced, the aggression is one way, as is most spouse abuse. In parallel to spouse abuse, mistreated youth need us to help them refuse to take responsibility for others’ mean behavior toward them.

There are other cognitive processes that build resiliency besides refusing to accept responsibility for others’ mean behavior or filtering. Below you will find an outline of these interventions:

  • Alternate-solution or divergent thinking: that is, the ability to create many solutions to a problem and evaluate them before choosing a plan. For more information about teaching these skills, see the work of Dr. Myrna Shure.
  • Setting and observing progress toward personal goals: See Flow by Czikzentmihali for a summary of research about the healing effects of immersing oneself in a hobby or other chosen mastery activity.
  • Service to others: When youth know that their actions have made a positive impact on others’ lives, they are less likely to be negatively influenced by peers’ opinions of them.
  • Breathing and self-calming: See Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy materials for more information about using mindfulness in emotional healing.
  • Encouraging youth to write about negative events: See the work of Howard Pennebaker about the restorative power of writing.

In addition, Dr. Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset thinking shows us powerful cognitive strategies that we can activate to strengthen youth. To learn about Dweck’s work, click here.

Read more about the foundations of effective intervention by clicking on the links below:

For more information about what we learned about bullying, and about what adults and peers can do, see Youth Voice Project: Student Insights Into Bullying And Peer Harassment


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