The Pathway to Resilience
Studies have identified seven aspects of children’s lives associated with resilience. All seven work in tension with one another. Improving one can have a dramatic effect on the other six. Youth who have been found to be resilient and do well in life despite a poor start are those who successfully navigate their way to the resources they need to experience all seven of these aspects of resilience. These include:
- Access to material resources: Availability of financial, educational, medical, and employment assistance and/or opportunities, as well as access to safety, food, clothing, and shelter.
- Relationships: Relationships with significant others, peers, and adults within one's family and community.
- Identity: A sense that one is liked for who one is; a personal and collective sense of purpose, self-appraisal of strengths and weaknesses, aspirations, beliefs and values, including spiritual and religious identification.
- Power and control: Experiences of caring for one's self and others; the ability to affect change in one's social and physical environment in order to access health resources.
- Cultural adherence: Adherence to one's local and/or global cultural practices, values, and beliefs.
- Social justice: Experiences related to being treated fairly in one’s community; finding a meaningful role for one’s self at home and at school; social equality.
- Cohesion: Balancing one's personal interests with a sense of responsibility to the greater good; feeling a part of something larger than one's self socially and spiritually.
Children are more likely to realize their strengths when the resources that help them experience all seven of these aspects of resilience are made available and accessible. The good news is that changing one aspect of resilience changes the others as well. For example, if your mentee is bullied at school, you can talk with her about how to protect herself and get support. She'll learn from you that no one deserves to be mistreated, and you'll also be helping her experience a positive relationship, a powerful identity, and safety at school. You’ll be conveying to her that she deserves to be treated fairly in her community, the foundation stone for social justice.
It is important to help your mentee experience these seven aspects of resilience in ways that match their personalities, their families’ values and beliefs, the demands placed on them by their communities, and their culturevi
(adapted from Counseling in Challenging Contexts, Dr. Michael Ungar):
Think back to a time when you successfully helped someone overcome a challenge in their life. The person you helped may have been someone with whom you worked, a friend, or a family member. Please reflect on the following sequence of questions:
- What was the problem challenging the person?
- What made you the right person to help?
- What did you believe about the person’s capacity to help him or herself?
- Where did you think a solution to the problem would be found?
- Did the solution require access to new resources?
- Did the solution require a new way of thinking about the problem?
- What do you think the person experienced when he or she was with you?
- Did you offer help in a way that fit with how you want to be known to others?
- Were there any moments while helping when you felt uncomfortable with your role?
Reflecting upon your answers to these questions, ask yourself what it was about you and your relationship with the person you were helping that made your efforts effective. It is that attitude of optimism and encouragement, focusing on the individual’s strengths, as well as a concentrated effort to help them navigate their way, that paves the path to resilience.
As a mentor you’ll have opportunity to help your mentee seek solutions to challenges posed by their environments. Your time with them can help them navigate toward solutions. Their ability to navigate successfully will be improved by the quality and quantity of the child’s relationships with their family, peers, and community. It’s important to remember that your mentee will only willingly participate in things that are meaningful to them. If you offer them a solution that doesn’t match their culture or context (i.e., it doesn’t fit with what they value and the way they and others around them live their lives), it will likely be rejected.
Consider these two approaches to a situation where your mentee is incredibly shy:
- Your mentee is an only child in a single-parent family. His mother works part-time and has wrestled with depression for years. He has spent most of his life amusing himself at home. When you take him to sporting events or an outdoor buskers festival, he becomes anxious and wants to go home quickly. You change the outings to bookstores (he loves to read) and an electronic gaming store that has weekly competitions. Your mentee is much more relaxed in these settings and is happier interacting with other children when there are fewer people around. You begin to understand that he is shy but also loves to have a mentor pay attention to him. He likes to interact with others socially, but in smaller, less chaotic settings.
- Your mentee is the third of five children. His parents tell you he is a very shy child. When you arrive, he runs to see you but doesn't speak much. You wonder if he is really shy, or if he's simply adapted to being invisible in a large family. You begin by taking him to parks and local basketball games. Slowly, you notice him beginning to talk and laugh a little more when he’s with you. As he comes out of his shell, you take him to other places where there are lots of opportunities for him to interact with other children, like a local playground. The more attention you give him, and the more children he meets, the more secure, talkative, and playful he becomes. Soon he is suggesting activities, many of which involve lots of play and interaction.
While both children appeared shy at first, the solutions to helping them feel comfortable outside their homes were quite different. If we think of helping children navigate to and negotiate for what they need in ways that make sense to them, we see that both their mentors were wonderful at matching the outings to their mentee. In each case, manageable amounts of stress were introduced, and the child’s reaction to the outings helped the mentor decide what to do next. In these examples, the mentors respected each child’s context and provided what each needed in ways that made sense to the child.
It’s important, therefore, that you help your mentee negotiate for the resources they need, and again, in a manner that is meaningful to them. Show sensitivity to their context and culture. Here is a situation where your mentee is being encouraged by peers to experiment with alcohol:Your 13-year-old mentee tells you that she has friends who are drinking and has had “a few sips of beer”. You suspect there's more going on, but you also know she has grown up in a family where both parents struggle with alcoholism and that she has seen the violence that goes along with it. Rather than immediately warning her not to drink, you instead ask her what she knows about how alcohol affects people. Then you ask her how she felt when she drank. She says she’s worried she’ll become just like her mother, but she also doesn’t want to be seen by her friends as different. Her friends’ families haven’t been affected by alcohol the way hers has been. Helping your mentee negotiate for positive relationships and an identity that she can be proud of, you ask her, “How could you be different from your friends, but still be a really powerful young woman who gets their respect?” She wants to make decisions for herself and decides to find a role for herself so she can spend time with this group of friends without drinking alcohol. A few weeks later, your mentee tells you she’s taken up dance classes at the community centre, and is focusing on staying really fit. Her friends laugh at her at first, but they also stop telling her to drink when she is with them. She's also decided that, when she's with her friends and they're drinking, she'll be the one who helps keep everyone safe. As her mentor, you tell her how proud you are of how she has found a great solution.
Navigating a situation such as this with a mentee can be tricky. The context and culture in which the child has grown up has reinforced underage drinking as acceptable. In this case, the mentor is helping her mentee step away from the home model and find another way of being proud of who she is.
Sometimes, what a young person needs is a culturally “embedded” identity, something that is especially relevant to a group of people who hold a particular set of values, beliefs, and history (cultural heritage). In those cases, it is often best to ask other people who are of that same culture lots of questions about what activities might be meaningful to your mentee. For example: Your Little Sister is from a Northern Cree community but is living in a large urban centre in Southern Canada. You're not Aboriginal yourself but are sensitive to the history of First Nations people and the issues they experience. You're aware that your Little Sister is sometimes called names at school or feels uncomfortable when she is in places where there are no other First Nations children or adults. You ask her mother to recommend appropriate activities. She likes the activities you choose, but suggests you also attend First Nations community events, such as the annual pow wow. You take your Little Sister to the pow wow, and because you're unfamiliar with the different activities at the event, you ask the organizers to show the two of you around. Together, you both learn about different Aboriginal traditions and have a fun day learning crafts and enjoying the singing, dancing, and food. At the end of the day, your Little Sister says, with a big smile, “It was nice to see people like me,” then runs inside to show her mother what she made in the craft tent.
Your mentee seeking who they are is essentially a process of navigation and negotiation for a powerful identity. As their mentor, you have a lot of influence over whether they find positive or negative role models, and what they think they see when they look in the mirror.