In my previous post, I shared the concept and definition on resilience. Defined as the ability to recover quickly from setbacks and adversity, resilience is a powerful capability in the face of the challenges that life can throw at us. Review of current literature, though not exhaustive, highlighted three recurring factors that seem to set resilient children (and people) apart from others. Let’s take a look at them to understand why and how they respond when the "rubber hits the road".
Loving and nurturing relationships
Research showed that a resilient child has a healthy social support network where attachment with a supportive caregiver, parent, teacher, or other mentor-like figure helps facilitate a positive view of self and a stronger sense of confidence in one’s abilities and strengths. The neurobiology studies have consistently demonstrated that the quality of earliest relationships with primary caregivers play a fundamental role in shaping the child's very brain structure. Loving and nurturing parents are setting the physical brain infrastructure for the child's lifelong ability to relate to others and to cope with stress and difficulties. With the perception that she can trust the world, and that she is accepted and respected, the child grows up more secure, competent and confident. Because there are people who believe in her, she in turn builds the ability and confidence to believe in herself.
So what does a loving and nurturing relationship with your child looks like? Some parenting experts raised the importance of attachment focused kinds of parenting such as being patient, encouraging and positively supportive towards our children whilst opponents have emphasized the importance of discipline and tough love. How can we as parents balance between being nurturing and yet being tough? Amy Chua famously brought this debate into focus with her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In a Singapore Children’s Society study, researchers found that children enjoyed good relationships with their parents even agreeing that scolding and punishment by their parents are acceptable and just. This suggested that as Singaporean parents, we can strike a delicate balance between maintaining a loving relationship while providing the necessary structure and boundaries that a child needs for developing their self control and responsibilities.
As Singaporean parents, we can and must seek to strike a delicate balance between establishing a nurturing environment while providing adequate discipline.
In the 1960s, psychologist Martin Seligman and his team of researchers discovered that in difficult or challenging circumstances where people have no control over, they would eventually just accept it and not attempt to escape or change. What was more interesting was that about one-third of test subjects in their research never succumbed to this phenomenon, now known as “learned helplessness”.
Further studies revealed that these subjects, seemingly resilient against the challenging circumstances they were placed in, have an optimistic “explanatory style” which refers to the way they explain or understand failures. Basically, those who see setbacks as temporary, changeable and specific are less likely to give up. For example, if a child believes her struggle with schoolwork is short-term, that she can do something about it and that it is limited to a specific subject (“I’m weak in Maths but not English”) she’s not mired in a sense of hopelessness and helplessness that inhibits further effort. This sense of hope and optimism is more likely to motivate her to continue trying to work hard and practice in her weaker subjects.
Locus of Control
A positive explanatory style is often associated with internal locus of control, another characteristic of resilience. A strong internal locus of control referred to you having a stronger sense of being in control of a situation and feeling more empowered to take action to make a change in your circumstances. You are less likely to externalize your problems, less likely to feel like a victim, less likely to feel trapped and powerless against forces beyond your control. This empowerment can enable you to take responsibility for change, be creative and find new solutions to problems.
Linda Graham, in her book Bouncing Back, recounted a story: during a huge snowstorm one winter, several large trees fell and affected major roads in Toronto. A woman heading west to see her newborn granddaughter met another woman, driving in the opposite direction to see her dying father. Both stopped on opposite sides, blocked by the same fallen tree. As they shared their situations with each other, they decided to trade car keys, allowing each to drive the other’s car to the hospital to see their loved ones, exchanging cars again once the stormed passed and the road cleared. They didn’t give up when seemingly impossible setbacks and obstacles were in their way. Instead, they found a creative solution to their dilemma.
You are less likely to externalize your problems, less likely to feel like a victim, less likely to feel trapped and powerless against forces beyond your control.
Both explanatory styles and locus of control have implications for us in Singapore where kiasuism is almost seen as a proud national trait. Defined by the Singlish Dictionary as the “fear of losing out to someone else”, kiasuism is a double-edged cultural sword that has driven generations of children to great success through a relentless pursuit of excellence but also contributed to the cultivation of a deep national anxiety about failing. This can be seen in the nation’s obsession with tuition. The prevailing narrative of a school going child in Singapore is that academic success or failure would determine her future. With stakes this high, she simply cannot afford to fail. Both the child and her parents need to do everything possible to ensure academic success. Whilst some will thrive in this high-stakes, high-pressure environment, many will struggle. What’s more heartbreaking is their challenges to feel hopeful about their future when they believe their academic failures could mark them for life.
Thankfully, explanatory styles can be changed and locus of control strengthened. This gives us hope that we can try to inoculate our children from the ‘ills of kiasuism’ by intentionally changing their 'internal mental script' for describing or explaining setbacks into a greater sense of control and action for their future.
'Kiasuism’ is a double-edged cultural sword that has driven generations of children to great success through a relentless pursuit of excellence, but also contributed to the cultivation of a deep national anxiety about failing.
Resilience can begin to be built early in life and understanding the characteristics of resilience provide signposts to guide us to raise resilient children (I’ll discuss these in the next post). As they blossom into resilient adults, adapting and thriving in our fast-paced, challenging society, we find assurance knowing that we have prepare them for the 'curveballs' that life will throw at them, so that when the rubber hits the road, they will overcome.
Please contact Lee Sock Kuan (E: firstname.lastname@example.org) for references and questions for this article.
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About The Author
Lee Sock Kuan is a registered clinical member of the Singapore Association for Counselling as well as a Certified Practitioner in Therapeutic Play Skills with Play Therapy International. She works with children and their families on coping with stress, attachment, challenging behaviour and loss issues. She has received specialized training in play therapy, sandplay therapy, gestalt therapy, art facilitation, cognitive behavioural therapy, family therapy and emotional-focused therapy.
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