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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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