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!

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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!

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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? […]

Reply
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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‘Brave’ doesn’t always feel like certain, or strong, or ready. In fact, it rarely does. That what makes it brave.♥️
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #parentingtips
We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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#mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #parenting

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