The Proven Way to Build Resilience

Adolescence and childhood can be fraught with social adversity. Relationships are tested, sometimes lost and then there is the challenge of making new ones.

Being seen in a positive light socially often trumps other challenges as the most critical to master.

Some call on aggression or exclusion as a way of firming up their social status. Some become a target of it.

For some, the pain of this can be relentless and can have consequences that spill over into adulthood. Others navigate through the challenge with less scarring, even developing qualities of strength and resilience that serve them well during later years. 

What makes the difference?

A recent study lead by David Yeager, an expert in the field of mindset, has shed light on the issue and, more importantly, found a simple and effective way to protect young people from the harm that can descend from social difficulties.

A growing body of research is consistently demonstrating that what we believe about the potential for people to change, or not, has important consequences for behavior, feelings, thoughts, motivation and resilience.

For example, those who believe that intelligence is not fixed but can be improved, perform better academically. Similarly shy people who believe that their shyness can be managed perform better socially than those who believe that their shyness is fixed and out of their control.


First, The Evidence …

Study 1 – What They Did

Researchers recruited 158 year 9 high school students to participate in the study.

At the start of the school year, students were measured on the degree to which they believed people could change. They were asked to rate, on a 6 point scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 6 (strongly agree), the extent to which they agreed with the following statements:

  • ‘Bullies and victims are types of people who really can’t be changed’;
  • ‘There are two kinds of people: Bullies and their victims’;
  • ‘You can’t change people who are jerks in schools,’; and
  • ‘Some people are just jerks, and not much can be done to change them’.

They were also measured for general psychological stress, physical health, academic achievement and how good or bad they felt about themselves in response to an online game that had the potential to elicit feelings of social exclusion. (Extreme care was taken to ensure any feelings of exclusion that arose because of the study were ultimately neutralised.)

What They Found

Results clearly showed that adolescents who believed that personalities (theirs and others) were fixed and could not be changed reported higher stress, poorer physical health, lower grades and were more likely to react to adverse social situations with negative self feelings and self blame (‘I’m just not likeable’).

On the other hand, adolescents who believed more strongly that people could change were better positioned to cope with social adversity. They reported less stress and anxiety, better feelings about themselves in response to social exclusion, and better physical health.


Can those who believe that people can’t change, change their mindset?
Yes. Absolutely. 


Study 2 – What They Did

Yeager and colleagues performed a second study in a similar school.

Measures of negative reactions to social exclusion (stress, anxiety, negative feelings about self), global psychological stress and physical health were taken at the start of the school year.

Researchers told students about something called the ‘Growth Mindset’ that they were hoping to teach to next year’s students. Students were told they could help by understanding some of the science behind the growth mindset and then writing a note that could be used to teach next year’s students how the growth mindset might help them.

Students were then given information explaining how the brain changes and learns. 

One of this was mentioned again and at the end of the school year, students were followed up.

What They Found

Students who had received the information about people’s capacity to change showed a better response to immediate social difficulties, better physical health and reduced stress, eight months on.

Social and academic processes are related and affect each other during challenging periods. Students who are at-risk academically tend to show a steep decline in performance during socially difficult periods.

In the months following the intervention, those who received the intervention slowed the decline and maintained their grades over the year.

The intervention showed lasting effects, even without further mention or reinforcement or after students first received the information.

Now For The How …

Protecting Against Harm from Social Adversity – How to Develop A ‘Growth Mindset’

The following process was developed by David Yeager to teach children about mindset. The steps as detailed below have been successfully used in various studies by Yeager and colleagues and the same principles can be used in conversations at home or school.

Any  conversation that will expose children to the idea that people can change will make a difference. Talk about it and keep talking about it. 

Step 1

Explain that, ‘people have the potential to change and that:

  • if you are excluded or victimized, it is not due to a fixed, personal deficiency on your part, and
  • people who exclude or victimise you are not fixed, bad people but instead have complicated motivations that are subject to change.’
Step 2

Explain the science underlying the ‘Growth Mindset’, specifically that people’s behaviours are controlled by ‘thoughts and feelings in their brains’ and that these pathways can be changed. The following is an excerpt used by David Yeager and colleagues in their various studies:

‘People’s personalities live in their brains, and the brain can be changed. I first read the research of Dr. Daniel Lawrence from Stanford University. I learned that people don’t do things because of some label that people use to describe them. They do things because of the thoughts and feelings that they have—thoughts and feelings that live in the brain, and that can be changed. When you have a thought or a feeling, the pathways of neurons in your brain send signals to other parts of your brain that lead you to do a behavior. By changing these pathways, you can actually change and improve how you behave after challenges and setbacks. Everyone’s brain is a “work in progress!’

Explain that there are plenty of real life studies done by scientists that have shown this works.

Step 3

Students in the Yeager studies were then asked to read three pieces from previous students in which they discussed a time they felt excluded and how during that time they remembered that people can change – both themselves and the people hurting them.

In your conversation about mindset, share the times you’ve had to deal with people being mean. Talk about realising that the way others treated you was more likely to be a reflection of what they were going through themselves, or the sad way they feel about themselves. Explain that people do things because of their own thoughts and feelings, not because of something in them that makes them good or bad. The important part is that thoughts and feelings change all the time, so someone who is mean now, won’t necessarily always be that way.

Step 4

Ask your child what they would tell other children, given what they know about mindset. This draws on extensive research on persuasion that confirms the ‘saying-is-believing’ persuasion technique. Research in this area has found that even short contact with a novel message can result in long-term changes in important behaviours.

What Do We Take Away?

The findings of Yeager and colleagues and indeed the work of many in this growing area, testify to the power of a growth mindset to lower stress, improve health and academic performance, and facilitate a more positive self-image. More importantly, the research has shown that children and adolescents are capable of learning this mindset.

The framework through which adolescents understand adversity, themselves and others can protect them during challenging periods or undermine them. Those effects can be long-lasting, carrying over into into adulthood.

Researcher David Yeager explains, ‘When they (adolescents) believe that people have the potential for change—both they themselves and the people who treat them badly—then victimization seems less like a diagnosis of their future, and more like something that will pass. Hence, it becomes less stressful and less threatening.’

These findings add to a growing body of important research demonstrating that people can change.

The belief that people can change is valuable armour against people who, in the struggle for social standing, lack the capacity to act with intelligence, grace and humanity. The idea that ‘it’s not you, it’s them – but they won’t always be like that, and you won’t always feel like this,’ will foster within our children a healthy mindset that will strengthen and protect them well into adulthood.

11 Comments

Heather Askew

This and your other articles are so helpful! I co-founded an NGO in Thailand that will be working with kids transitioning from orphanages into foster homes. After reading this, we will for sure be working with the kids and families on how to use these techniques!

Reply
Mary Griffith

I really connect with what you say and how you say it! Your articles have given me a different protective on my daughter’s severe anxiety and helped me communicate so much better with her. I love this article and want to share it with my sister and mom through email. Is that possible? I only see social media links, but could totally be missing it, too! Thanks again!

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Mary, I’m so pleased this article has helped. Yes there is absolutely a way to share by email but the way to do that is to copy the link and include it in an email to your sister and your mom. Just ask them to click on the link and they’ll go straight to the page. Let me know if you have trouble finding the links and I’ll send them to you.

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Clare

Delighted to read your article on Growth Mindset and resilience! My daughters’ infant school implemented a Growth Mindset culture after my first daughter left, but just as my second daughter was arriving. The difference in their resilience, attitude to learning and social skills is enormous. I am now desperately playing ‘catch-up’ with my eldest (12yrs), who finds school and friendships much more of a challenge. Keep sharing this stuff!

Reply
heysigmund

Thank you for your encouragement! I’m such a fan of growth mindset. It just makes so much sense doesn’t it and the results are incredible. It’s so good to see that the schools are coming on board. It’s great that you are guiding your eldest daughter through – you’ll make an enormous difference.

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Friday Wrap Up | Katie Cashin Therapy

[…] “Those who believe that intelligence is not fixed but can be improved, perform better academically. Similarly shy people who believe that their shyness can be managed perform better socially than those who believe that their shyness is fixed and out of their control.” Resilience, how can we build it? […]

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Lia

Thank you! A friend sent me your article on Anxiety which we are. experiencing now with both of our boys. It was excellent. Then, I came across this article. I have always been curious as to why some people are more resilient then others….and this shed some light.

Looking forward to getting the weekly newsletter.

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heysigmund

You’re so welcome. I’m such a huge fan of the growth mindset work. It just works! I’m so pleased the article found it’s way to you.

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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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