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.

Reply
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.

Reply
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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When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.
Sometimes we all just need space to talk to someone who will listen without giving advice, or problem solving, or lecturing. Someone who will let us talk, and who can handle our experiences and words and feelings without having to smooth out the wrinkles or tidy the frayed edges. 

Our kids need this too, but as their important adults, it can be hard to hush without needing to fix things, or gather up their experience and bundle it into a learning that will grow them. We do this because we love them, but it can also mean that they choose not to let us in for the wrong reasons. 

We can’t help them if we don’t know what’s happening in their world, and entry will be on their terms - even more as they get older. As they grow, they won’t trust us with the big things if we don’t give them the opportunity to learn that we can handle the little things (which might feel seismic to them). They won’t let us in to their world unless we make it safe for them to.

When my own kids were small, we had a rule that when I picked them up from school they could tell me anything, and when we drove into the driveway, the conversation would be finished if they wanted it to be. They only put this rule into play a few times, but it was enough for them to learn that it was safe to talk about anything, and for me to hear what was happening in that part of their world that happened without me. My gosh though, there were times that the end of the conversation would be jarring and breathtaking and so unfinished for me, but every time they would come back when they were ready and we would finish the chat. As it turned out, I had to trust them as much as I wanted them to trust me. But that’s how parenting is really isn’t it.

Of course there will always be lessons in their experiences we will want to hear straight up, but we also need them to learn that we are safe to come to.  We need them to know that there isn’t anything about them or their life we can’t handle, and when the world feels hard or uncertain, it’s safe here. By building safety, we build our connection and influence. It’s just how it seems to work.♥️
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#parenting #parenthood #mindfulparenting
Words can be hard sometimes. The right words can be orbital and unconquerable and hard to grab hold of. Feelings though - they’ll always make themselves known, with or without the ‘why’. 

Kids and teens are no different to the rest of us. Their feelings can feel bigger than words - unfathomable and messy and too much to be lassoed into language. If we tap into our own experience, we can sometimes (not all the time) get an idea of what they might need. 

It’s completely understandable that new things or hard things (such as going back to school) might drive thoughts of falls and fails and missteps. When this happens, it’s not so much the hard thing or the new thing that drives avoidance, but thoughts of failing or not being good enough. The more meaningful the ‘thing’ is, the more this is likely to happen. If you can look behind the words, and through to the intention - to avoid failure more than the new or difficult experience, it can be easier to give them what they need. 

Often, ‘I can’t’ means, ‘What if I can’t?’ or, ‘Do you think I can?’, or, ‘Will you still think I’m brave, strong, and capable of I fail?’ They need to know that the outcome won’t make any difference at all to how much you adore them, and how capable and exceptional you think they are. By focusing on process, (the courage to give it a go), we clear the runway so they can feel safer to crawl, then walk, then run, then fly. 

It takes time to reach full flight in anything, but in the meantime the stumbling can make even the strongest of hearts feel vulnerable. The more we focus on process over outcome (their courage to try over the result), and who they are over what they do (their courage, tenacity, curiosity over the outcome), the safer they will feel to try new things or hard things. We know they can do hard things, and the beauty and expansion comes first in the willingness to try. 
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparent
Never in the history of forever has there been such a  lavish opportunity for a year to be better than the last. Not to be grabby, but you know what I’d love this year? Less opportunities that come in the name of ‘resilience’. I’m ready for joy, or adventure, or connection, or gratitude, or courage - anything else but resilience really. Opportunities for resilience have a place, but 2020 has been relentless with its servings, and it’s time for an out breath. Here’s hoping 2021 will be a year that wraps its loving arms around us. I’m ready for that. x
The holidays are a wonderland of everything that can lead to hyped up, exhausted, cranky, excited, happy kids (and adults). Sometimes they’ll cycle through all of these within ten minutes. Sugar will constantly pry their little mouths wide open and jump inside, routines will laugh at you from a distance, there will be gatherings and parties, and everything will feel a little bit different to usual. And a bit like magic. 

Know that whatever happens, it’s all part of what the holidays are meant to look like. They aren’t meant to be pristine and orderly and exactly as planned. They were never meant to be that. Christmas is about people, your favourite ones, not tasks. If focusing on the people means some of the tasks fall down, let that be okay, because that’s what Christmas is. It’s about you and your people. It’s not about proving your parenting stamina, or that you’ve raised perfectly well-behaved humans, or that your family can polish up like the catalog ones any day of the week, or that you can create restaurant quality meals and decorate the table like you were born doing it. Christmas is messy and ridiculous and exhausting and there will be plenty of frayed edges. And plenty of magic. The magic will happen the way it always happens. Not with the decorations or the trimmings or the food or the polish, but by being with the ones you love, and the ones who love you right back.

When it all starts to feel too important, too necessary and too ‘un-let-go-able’, be guided by the bigger truth, which is that more than anything, you will all remember how you all felt – as in how happy they felt, how loved they felt were, how noticed they felt. They won’t care about the instagram-worthy meals on the table, the cleanliness of the floors, how many relatives they visited, or how impressed other grown-ups were with their clean faces and darling smiles. It’s easy to forget sometimes, that what matters most at Christmas isn’t the tasks, but the people – the ones who would give up pretty much anything just to have the day with you.

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