Becoming psychologically resilient

Man Jumping.previewA current buzz word in educational circles is “mindfulness,” being mindful of one’s own well-being and that of others. A strong component of well-being is psychological resilience. I would like to share a small piece of a workshop I attended on the theme of resilience.

The workshop referred to research that had taken place in South Africa, initially amongst Middle School adolescents who were dropping out of school, depressed or addicted. The aim of the research was to identify common domains for students following such pathways and to find effective intervention strategies. The research found that the problems that manifested themselves in the Middle School students were also demonstrated in Elementary School students. Further research suggested that early intervention correlated with children developing into resilient adults.

The research was then moved on and applied to the world of international schools, where students and their families can find themselves in quite unfamiliar territory and vulnerable situations. There are a variety of reasons that can contribute to this and include
separation from the wider family circle and the support it provides, social challenges due to language barriers or cultural differences, Becoming psychologically additional work pressures for parents and new school systems for students, etc.

The research identified two common domains for student depression, addiction and dropout as being:
1. Pressure to achieve in school, both from without and within.
2. Isolation from parents.

The findings are not in any way meant to apportion blame to one party but to offer a realistic lens through which to view the potential impact of change in our lives.

Let’s unpack what pressure from within school can look like. It could look like an assessment, an exam to revise for, a presentation to prepare, a sports tournament to win or a drama to perform. Students typically want to achieve the best they can, and schools that encourage personal excellence in all areas of development need to be mindful
of the pressure this can create and ensure there is support and encouragement at hand and that a sense of balance is taught.

Pressure from without can be a natural spin off from parents genuinely interested in their
children’s education and futures and who have heavily invested in this area. Of course we all want our children to enjoy success, remembering that success is individual and reveals
itself in various forms. The quandary occurs when children internalize the desires from
others for them to be successful as “I must not fail!”

Now let’s consider the second point. Isolation from a parent can be on a physical or an emotional level. Physical isolation may be a result of regular travel away from the family, connected to work. The family unit may change over time and one parent may not be
present. Emotional isolation can develop if a parent is personally struggling with the challenges of the new location.

However, the good news, concluded by the long term research, is that many children despite circumstances develop into resilient adults when common factors are present in their lives. These being:
1. A sense of humor – I think we can all appreciate this in all aspects of life. Humor
helps reduce stress and helps a person to move beyond a specific or intense problem
preventing unnecessary escalation. If fact, there is an official percentage quoted
as to how much time we should be having fun that indicates our psychological
hardiness. So, what percentage of your life do you spend being happy and having fun? Official answer later …
2. A sense of detachment – parents and children need the ability to detach themselves
from a situation and view it from an objective perspective resilient (e.g., it is not my fault if my Mommy and Daddy have to work late, or it is not my fault if my child is struggling to learn French). Detachment allows for personal well-being and helps us to move into a place of strength where we are able to reach out to others in need of help and support.
3. The presence of a healthy adult – this is an important finding for parents and teachers
alike. It is where school and home partnerships can be extremely effective in providing
role models, guidance and support. The healthy adult is described as someone with the
ability to nurture, the capacity to mirror feelings and attitudes and to explain boundaries in a way that is understood.

These notes are think tanks and reminders of how important our own well-being is if we desire to be a positive influence in the lives of others, especially our loved ones.

“International” living can be an amazing experience, but it does come with the risk of exposing ourselves to some elements of vulnerability which we are  advised to pay attention to.

By the way, 40% of happiness in life is the official indicator of psychological hardiness! Did you make it?

Be healthy and be happy!

Susan Anderson, Elementary School principal, St. John’s International School