Do Young People Really Lack Resilience?

It’s June 2019 and I’ve been checking the weather forecast since Monday. We’re heading to Castle Donington on Friday to attend Download Festival, a three-day event hosting the cream of rock and heavy metal. The most ardent metal-heads arrive on Wednesday, set up their tents and settle in before the crowds arrive towards the end of the week. They’re mainly young, perhaps between their late teens and early twenties. It’s been raining for three days straight and by the time the first wave of festival-goers arrive, parts of the site are beginning to resemble a scene from a post-apocalyptic blockbuster. As the rain continues to fall, the ground becomes muddier, ankle-deep in places.

By the time we arrive on Friday afternoon, the weather has begun to improve but the devastation is still evident. A small number of the earlier arrivals have given up and gone home before a single band has played, yet the vast majority have stuck it out despite the appalling conditions. Tents have been reinforced with tarpaulin and walls have been built using empty cans and other assorted items in an attempt to keep the worst of the mud at bay. Strangers have helped each other out by sharing spare equipment and dry clothes, communicating around the huge site via social media, while the organisers have attempted in vain to soak up some of the mud by distributing bales of straw. Wellington boots and improvised waterproofs become the latest fashion essentials.

It would be difficult to propose that these young people in some way lacked resilience, indeed, their determination and refusal to give up despite the adverse conditions can only qualify them as some of the most resilient young people I have ever encountered. If young people are capable of such resilience why, then, do we adults keep insisting that this is one of the major qualities they lack? The answer is, of course, rather complex and is as much concerned with what we mean by resilience as it is about whether or not people lack it.

The grit and determination to battle through rain, mud and cold can certainly be attributed to resilience, but is this resilience the same as, say, coping with pockets of academic failure or remaining calm in the face of impending high-stakes exams? The general notion of resilience, therefore, is problematic, to say the least, and often there is a reluctance to fully define, describe and explain exactly what is meant by it. This growing interest in resilience has also been fuelled by a rise in young people seeking help for mental health problems, ranging from anxiety and depression to eating disorders and self-harm, so resilience can also be viewed as related to people’s ability to psychologically cope. None of these is directly related to young people, however – all groups are affected by setbacks and poor mental health at some point in their lives and all individuals differ in their levels of resilience as well as the specific circumstances in which they display such tendencies.  

In general terms, there is a propensity to use the term resilience to describe our ability to cope with the pressures of life, to adapt, bounce back and learn from setbacks. Resilience, itself, is one of a number of skills described as non-cognitive, that is, skills that aren’t specific to learning itself but can, nevertheless, enhance learning indirectly. In reality, few skills are truly non-cognitive, as they all require an amount of thought processing and decision making, but it’s a useful and practical distinction nonetheless. These non-cognitive skills don’t exist in isolation, indeed, many of them are facets of each other. Positive character traits such as self-control, patience and determination can enhance a person’s ability to get things done and to cope when things don’t go according to plan. Character traits interact with personality traits such as conscientiousness and openness to help motivate us, drive us towards our goals and encourage people to explore new ideas and concepts.

In 2014, the then UK Security of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, announced the allocation of nearly £5m to recruit ex-soldiers to help pupils build resilience and grit. The assumption was that soldiers were far more resilient than the average person due to the nature of their role. The proposals were all part of a wider character education initiative, the results of discovering somehow that young people lacked character and resilience, despite little evidence to support the claim. On the surface, it seemed like a workable idea but was based on the growing premise that resilience was some magical ability contained within the individual. A soldier’s level of resilience is deeply embedded within their training, training that is as much about the group as it is the individual. Soldiers operate within units of other soldiers and rarely in isolation. This might seem like a fairly insignificant point to make, but research into resilient young people has consistently discovered that those who thrive in the face of adversity, often do so in part because of the external support they receive from family, teachers and the wider community.

Morgan’s plans were shelved in 2017 by her successor Justine Greening and the funds re-directed elsewhere. It seemed, for a while at least, that the government had given up on resilience.

Then in May this year (2019), the Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, launched a call for evidence and set up a character education panel with the intention of developing character and resilience in young people.

As a result of this call for evidence, the British Psychological Society (BPS) responded in a suitably critical manner. As the learned and professional body for psychologists in the United Kingdom with more than 60,000 members (many of whom will have been involved in resilience research at one time or another) it could be assumed that any contribution they made would be worth taking note of. In their response, the BPS point to the wealth of evidence, something that is often overlooked when it come to the design and implementation of interventions.

Their response is lengthy, but one early paragraph sets the tone:

It is a grave error to conceptualise character and resilience as something that is purely situated within individual children and young people and that responds to individual interventions with children. The characteristics of the systems around young people are what determine how resilient they are and how resilient they become. (Hughes et al 2018). As Psychologists, we understand what is harmful to the psychological wellbeing of children and young people, and what affects their mental and physical health (p2).

Tellingly, perhaps, the BPS is not represented on the panel set up by the Secretary of State.

The Deficiency Model of Resilience

I’ve discussed what I call the deficiency model before. Resilience today tends to be seen as something that is lacking in certain people and in abundance in others. The lack thereof then becomes a deficiency within the individual; something defective and in need of fixing. Rarely do we ask from where resilience arises or the part played by wider society, community and culture in its nurturing. This is despite research identifying both intrinsic and extrinsic explanation of why many young people raised in extreme circumstances flourish while others flounder. Even the very term resilience is interpreted in different ways and for many different purposes.

An added complication (illustrated in the example at the beginning of this article) is that individuals may well display resilience in some settings and not others. The teenager who refuses to be defeated by the rain and the mud for fear of missing their favourite band may well cope less well in other circumstances. They might, for example, find academic failure extremely difficult to cope with or struggle with elements of their mental health. To this particular young person, the adverse conditions of a music festival are nothing compared to losing face in front of their peers, teachers and parents.

But where does this resilience come from? Ann Masten has been studying resilience for decades and has reached a rather dull conclusion – resilience is the way we adapt to changing circumstances, we all have it and it’s simply a part of the human condition. However, it’s not just internal, other people and the wider community also play an important role.

Emmy Werner, for example, conducted a 40 year-long study of all 698 children born on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in 1955 (Werner, 2005). This most resilient children not only displayed certain traits that appeared to protect them but also had strong family and community links. Similarly, Michael Rutter’s investigation into London schools in the 1970s highlighted mechanisms within the school culture that reinforced resilient tendencies.

More recently, Jackie Sanders and colleagues at Massey University in New Zealand identified factors that helped vulnerable young people stay on track. These included relational resources such as friends, family and community (Sanders, Munford, & Thimasarn-Anwar, 2015). Like Rutter’s findings, these are not skills to be taught, but rather factors that are embedded into the very fabric of the school or are part and parcel of the wider community. This is not to say that resilience can’t be explicitly taught, only that other factors must also be present to help nurture and maintain it, such as feelings of belonging to a community, being respected for who you are and knowing that support is available when things go wrong.

These findings are not new but are rarely taken into account when designing resilience programs. Indeed, systematic reviews of resilience interventions in schools have found that many have simply failed to identify what resilience is (for example, Hart & Heaver, 2013), while others have found outcomes to be mixed at best (Dray et al., 2017). This uncertainty isn’t confined to school-based interventions. Sadhbh Joyce and her colleagues from the University of New South Wales, Australia found considerable variability of resilience programs in workplace settings, confirming earlier indications of a lack of any agreed-upon theoretical framework for resilience interventions (Leppin et al., 2014). This leads to obvious problems of how resilience can be nurtured or taught, while still accepting that certain resilience interventions have merit.

It’s difficult to see where we go from here, especially if we continue to view resilience from a deficiency standpoint. Political interest has also waxed and waned, begging the question as whether government ministers have the will (or the resilience) to follow through with their intentions.

There certainly has to be a better understanding of how resilience interacts with wider character and personality traits. The evidence indicates that wider support mechanisms are just as important (and perhaps more so) than developing these elements within the individual. But we also need to ask very targeted questions, such as what do want to achieve? Is the purpose, for example, to increase wellbeing and reduce instances of psychological distress? Or do we want to concentrate on helping young people cope with the daily trials and tribulations of school life? Is the ultimate aim to raise achievement? At present, few who are leading the charge to raise resilience are capable of answering these basic questions adequately.

Dray, J., Bowman, J., Campbell, E., Freund, M., Wolfenden, L., Hodder, R. K., Wiggers, J. (2017). Systematic Review of Universal Resilience-Focused Interventions Targeting Child and Adolescent Mental Health in the School Setting. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 56(10), 813–824. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2017.07.780

Hart, A., & Heaver, B. (2013). Evaluating resilience-based programs for schools using a systematic consultative review . Journal of Child and Youth Development, 1(1), 27–53.

Leppin, A. L., Gionfriddo, M. R., Sood, A., Montori, V. M., Erwin, P. J., Zeballos-Palacios, C., … Tilburt, J. C. (2014). The efficacy of resilience training programs: A systematic review protocol. Systematic Reviews, 3(1), 1–5. https://doi.org/10.1186/2046-4053-3-20

Sanders, J., Munford, R., & Thimasarn-Anwar, T. (2015). Staying on-track despite the odds: Factors that assist young people facing adversity to continue with their education. British Educational Research Journal, 42(1), 56–73. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3202

Werner, E. E. (2005). Resilience and recovery: Findings from the Kauai longitudinal study. Research, Policy, and Practice in Children’s Mental Health, 19(1), 11–14.

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