Resilience vs. Resignation

As a word, I like it: “Resilience.”  The dictionaries define it as:

“the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.”

       Oxford Dictionaries online

 “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change”

           Merriam-Webster online

This piece is based purely on practitioners’ understanding & use of the word “resilience” working with children who are vulnerable.  Despite the fact I like the word, when discussing children & resilience in a professional context I increasingly find myself saying to colleagues “Resilience.  I don’t like that word.”  Actually, it is not the word or what it means that I find troubling, but rather when it is used or perhaps misused.  Misattribution of the word “resilience” in relation to a child could potentially have a significant effect on outcomes.

Professionals from partner agencies may describe children they work with as “resilient.”  At times, the presence of perceived “resilience” enables professionals to make decisions for/about the child.  Ultimately, declaring a child resilient can disempower that child by silencing their voice – professionals involved begin relying on the “resilience” and may then neglect to seek the child’s perspective, feeling safe in the belief she or he is “resilient,” come what may. Referring to a child as resilient may create barriers to change as professionals subliminally expect the child to adapt to situations instead. Referring to a child as resilient may imply they will “get over it.”  This could increase the risk of unmet needs.

Labelling children as resilient could also inhibit emotional welfare being addressed and behaviours consistent with trauma, fear or isolation being incorrectly ascribed to other things.  Children may be referred to in reports as “resilient” & “seems to be doing fine.”  Once this has been recorded, professionals involved may be less likely to consider the child as needing any input with emotional well-being, processing difficult transitions and addressing any residual trauma they may carry as time goes by.  As well, it could inhibit this from being re-visited.

As professionals, we desperately want to believe children are resilient, perhaps feeling less concerned, safer and more hopeful when a child is labelled as such.  If a teacher refers to a child as “resilient”, the professionals involved may view it as a protective factor.  In reality, there is no way to test it out.   A child who “gets on with it” can so easily be mistaken for a “resilient” child, when in reality they have merely resigned themselves to their circumstances.  In reality, I think in some cases what people define as resilience in a child is simply that child resigning themselves to acceptance of the hand they have been dealt.  These children are perhaps all too aware of two choices; drown or keep their head above water – the latter not to be confused with swimming….or inherent resilience.

As a quality it would be wonderful if all children developed true resilience which comes from within, underpinned by a framework of fundamental resources including attachment, perhaps signified by a loving and stable relationship with a key adult. Children with this type of resilience can usually find ways to navigate through and recover from the challenges they may face.

So the next time you or a colleague refers to a child as resilient, explore it; make sure the description fits and there is shared meaning about the use of the word.  Is the child truly resilient – developing the ability to bounce back and respond to challenges with strength, drawing on resources available, supported by a thriving network of reliable adults in their life, with whom they share meaningful relationships?  Or are they just getting on with it? Because arguably, that’s not resilience, it’s just survival.

1 comment to Resilience vs. Resignation

  • Tony Warne

    A great blog, provocative and pertinent! You work in very ‘turbulent’ waters and its good to reminded of those who have to chose to sink or swim.