The Resilience Doughnut: The Secret of Strong Kids

Quiz a handful of parents about the hopes and dreams they hold for their children, and scant few of their responses will have anything to do with a desire for a PhD or untold material wealth. 
 
Instead, most mums and dads will admit that first and foremost they hope their children grow up to be happy, compassionate people with the ability to bounce back from the many curve balls of modern life.
 
Such parents are not alone. Type ‘resilience’ into a search engine and be greeted by no fewer than 10.8 million results. But what is resilience and, more importantly, how do you instill it into your children?
 
One definition, which has been cited in international research, is: “Resilience is the universal capacity which allows a person, group or community to prevent, minimise or overcome the damaging effects of adversity.” Another Australian definition is: “Resilience is the happy knack of bungy jumping through the pitfalls of life.”
 
As a parent, it’s terrifying to think that if we fail to instill our kids with the quality of resilience they will struggle through life. As author Lyn Worsley says: “Much has been written about parenting in the last 50 years. There has been a growing emphasis on being the ‘perfect’ parent and raising children to their absolute potential. A lot of the writing and thinking over this time has put a lot of stress on parents and for this reason The Resilience Doughnut can be a bit of a saviour.” 
 
WHAT (it’s all about)
 
Lyn Worsley is a clinical psychologist with a background in nursing, youth work and teaching. She has a private practice in Sydney and is founding director of Alpha Counselling Services.
 
Her extensive experience with children and families in a variety of street settings: street youth work, schools, childcare, hospitals, prisons and local youth groups has helped her to created a model for the Resilience Doughnut, from which the book takes its name, to represent the external factors that build resilience in a person and protect him or her from stress and adversity. 
 
The Resilience Doughnut has two parts, namely: the hole in the middle represents the person as he or she builds the tools and resources needed to face the world. These tools are in the form of how one views oneself (who I am), and the degree of confidence in one’s own abilities (what I can do) and the abilities of those who support her or him (who I have).
 
The outer circle is divided into seven sections: the Parent Factor, the Skill Factor, the Family & Identity Factor, the Education Factor, the Peer Factor, the Community Factor and the Money Factor.
 
Each section, which has been shown to build resilience in an individual, represents an external factor that interacts with the person in order to build the tools and resources he or she has in the middle. These factors also form a ring around the person in the middle, and become protective factors from the inevitable stress and adversities that a person faces in a lifetime. Together, these form the Resilience Doughnut. 
 

WHY (you should read it)

 
Unlike strawberry-blonde locks or baby-blue eyes, resilience is not something with which we are born. And the good news for parents is, it can be cultivated.
 
Worsley cites fascinating research by the University of Pennsylvania which trained teachers and children from eight to 13 years in the use of cognitive skills that aid the development of a resilient approach to adversity. 
 
The researchers found thinking processes directly affect many critical abilities associated with resilience, including emotional regulation, impulse control, casual analysis, empathy, maintaining realistic optimism, self-efficacy and reaching out to others and taking opportunities.
 
“The implication of this body of research is compelling – it suggests that some of the important skills that help people develop resilience can be learned, and introduced to children at an early age,” writes Worsley. 
 
In a nutshell, Worsley says that in order to promote resilience in a developing young person, he or she needs to be exposed to experiences that support an optimistic way of thinking. As she admits, this can be a struggle for anyone who has experienced working with a pessimistic person.
 
“The challenge is to create environments that stimulate the brain into thinking more optimistically while avoiding the pessimist’s sabotage,” she writes. 
 
“Change is most likely to occur when the pessimist is provided with evidence from his or her surroundings that he or she hadn’t noticed. In this case the person is provided with evidence that there are some aspects of life that are ‘going okay’ or in fact working well. Because these facts were not noticed previously (or perhaps even intentionally disregarded), the new information creates an experience of internal conflict. There is the possibility of a change of mindset at this point.”
 
The book is divided into seven sections, at the end of which Worsley lists 10 characteristics that indicate a strong parent/skill/peer/etc factor. Parents are invited to rate their child from zero to 10 (zero meaning none of the factors are present and 10 meaning all are present). 
 
Worsley then lists a raft of very practical ideas to help strengthen that particular factor. Perhaps her most compelling piece of advice is: “If something is not working, do something different. If something is working, do it again.”

WELL…

 
For more pragmatically minded readers, a few of the reflections Worsley cites as food for thought might come across as a bit airy-fairy. This one, entitled Children and reprinted in The Resilience Doughnut with permission from author Brian Bell, might fall into that category. Personally I think it offers insight and neatly encapsulates the flavour of the book:
 
“Let not your children be a mere repetition of the story written in your past, rather allow each the freedom to be a fresh page in life’s book.
 
Pass your knowledge to them, but hide them not from other worlds of knowledge, and have the wisdom enough to see that he learns best who learns from his own experience.
 
Help them to set limits, taking care not to limit their spirit, for a broken spirit is as a mirror that is cracked, reflecting a distorted image instead of its truth.
 
Look not to your children to fill your dreams, but let them dream their own dreams, whatever nightmares you see therein.
 
And let not the twilight of your years be a brake on their day’s enjoyment, for restraint that clouds young minds can also strengthen life’s storms.
 
See your children then as fruit from your tree, and realise that nourishment of yourself will best ensure their proper growth. And let the fruit ripen slowly, taking time to see all the wonders of its unique sweetness, ever mindful that it is fruit from the seed of your own past, flavoured with your life’s aftertaste.
 
And keep in mind that the time must come for all fruit to detach from the tree that holds it, that if held too loosely it can suffer shock as it drops unripe, and that if held too tightly it never finds its own place of all the places in the Sun.”
 
 

Here's an excerpt of a particularly profound part of the book

“Monitoring is where parents are aware of their young people’s activities most of the time, and are available to them. Controlling parents are those who show authority and take the responsibility of making decisions for the family and children. The strength literature is interesting and opens a new debate on the issue of control in parenting. It seems that parents who are more controlling, but have an open communication style, seem to do better with children in preparing them for the future.

 
From the strength-based research, some of the resilient young people noted that they respected their parents’ decisions even though they may not always agree with them. Furthermore, the young people who have gone against their parents’ wishes noted that they had to earn trust and respect back again. For example: “I was glad when my parents grounded me. I lost their trust and had to get it back.”
 
Alternatively, those who experienced little discipline, control and parental monitoring noted that they did not feel loved or cared for and that a parent’s controlling and monitoring was seen as an indication they cared. For example: ‘I want Mum to care and be interested but not over the top. I also don’t want a Mum who couldn’t care where you were.’
 
Interestingly, the young people who thrived through difficult situations also had parents who loved and showed warmth to them. These young people were able to show affection, feel accepted and had a sense of belonging. They also noted that their parents were interested in them and actively sought out their opinions. 
 
So it seems that there is a combination of control and warmth. I would go so far to say they are equally important and make a nice mixture for a child to gather I HAVE, I AM and I CAN messages from their parents.
 
Resilient young people also reported they had open communication with their parents, where both parents and children shared their difficulties and dilemmas. When this occurs, it is possible a young person may not only be exposed to the conflicts, difficulties and dilemmas that parents face but also the way their parents solve problems. This may give a child experiences that allow them to assess for themselves the benefits of their parents’ values and attitudes.
 
When children are able to work collaboratively with their parents in solving problems, there can be a process of learning skills for the future. There are many issues that are just a part of normal living, such as employment choices, budgeting and finance choices, friendship and social dilemmas as well as birth and deaths. 
 
These experiences can become a valuable learning ground for passing on family values and attitudes. Sometimes they can be gifts of opportunity for moral growth and development in a child.
 
Sometimes there can be very painful experiences that a child may be exposed to. However, it has been shown that these are times when parents and families can grow stronger and family values can become evident. Pioneering research conducted by Newcastle University to investigate what makes families strong found that two of the eight significant factors of strong families were having gone through a difficult and painful experience together, and talking openly about this experience.
 
When there is straightforward and open communication, a forum can be developed where the young person’s independence and self-control is valued. This forum may allow the children to start to take control of their own life in the safety of their parents’ care. On the other hand, young people who experience little communication with their parents may feel their opinions and independence are not valued, and as a consequence go behind their parent’s back and exhibit ‘acting out’ behaviour. 
 
So it is not surprising to find that when interviewing young people about their parents, those young people who appear to be more resilient and optimistic report a more straightforward, direct, open and honest communication style. This open communication appears to enable a developing young person to work out his or her own views of the world.
 
Open communication between parents was also shown to be a common parenting characteristic for resilient young people. This characteristic was particularly evident for young people whose parents were separated. It appears those who do well have parents who are more likely to be cooperative and harmonious (whether the parents are together or not), and form a parenting alliance by working together for the good of the children. A cooperative parenting alliance allows the developing young person to feel secure with one parent while in the presence of another.”


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