There are fashions in academic and professional disciplines, just as there are in clothing, music and holiday destinations, and there comes a time in life when you find them coming round again: endorsed and advocated enthusiastically by those who are encountering them for the first time. So I well remember when I first heard the term “resilience” in the field of child care. I think it was in the 1970s, and had been imported on that occasion from Poland, although my memory may be at fault. It came as a bit of a surprise at a time when social work in the UK was focussed on casework, drawing on psychotherapeutic models. The idea that some children were more resilient than others (that is that they could withstand set-backs and bounce back, whether the characteristic was innate or learned) was a bit of a shock to those who assumed that it was resourceful professional adults and associated services that were the key to helping children who had suffered trauma and deprivation.
Over time, and with reflection, it became apparent to any who were involved professionally with children who had been on the receiving end of more than their fair share of separation, loss, neglect and even abuse, that these children did not all react in the same way. In short, some were more resilient than others. And now, some forty or more years since I first heard the term, I would like to explore resilience in the context of another concept: that of being held in a healthy mind. How, I wonder, is it that some children can survive, though not being held in this way, or to put it more starkly, when some are even being held in an unhealthy mind?
As usual I am drawing from close contact with, and observation of, children I have come to know through Mill Grove, and as always the material is deliberately anonymised. As we all know, many of today’s parents suffered at the hands of their own parents or their substitutes in their own childhoods, and so it is no surprise that they lack some of the most basic of insights and skills which make for “good-enough parenting”. Watching at close quarters the lack of attunement of these parents to their children can be painful, even distressing. The needs of children routinely go unnoticed; they are nearly always unanticipated; and when a child resorts to crying or acting-out behaviour, the currency of their cries for help has become devalued to the point where they become used to being marginalised or invisible. The parents in question are of course trying to cope with their own needs, feelings and impulses, and it is no surprise that these tend to override the needs of their children.
When children do gain the attention of a parent by whatever means, then the response can range hugely along an axis from over-indulgence to outright neglect and even cruelty. The one thing completely absent is consistency in the form of predictability, insight and empathy. This sounds pretty soul-destroying stuff, and for some children it undoubtedly is, but I have observed young children at the receiving end of all this who are so resilient that they are not only surviving emotionally, but even able to show empathy and understanding to other siblings, who are for the most part rivals for the attention of their parents and scarce resources. They are growing, developing and becoming more resourceful.
The question I have been pondering is to do with the source and the replenishing of the inner resources of these resilient children. One possible explanation is related to what might be called “being held in a healthy group mind”. Please bear with me as I share with you a tentative sketch of what I mean by this. We all know that corporate memory is increasingly short (think of your bank, your GP’s surgery, a supermarket, a social services department, and so on). This means that they do not, and indeed cannot hold you as a customer or client safely and consistently in a healthy organisational mind, because such a mind does not exist. What I now wonder, conversely, is whether in families, particularly those that are in many respects patently dysfunctional, there is a reservoir of healthy thinking between the members, somewhere in the relational dynamics, that can be drawn upon by a resourceful (resilient) child. Now clearly there are some families, sadly, where there is no such reservoir, but I come to suspect that if only we have ears to hear and eyes to see what is really going on, in many such families there is a residue, a fund of healthy thinking, care, concern, call it what you will, although it may be hard to believe, and possibly harder to identify.
What leads me to suggest this (and I would really appreciate responses from readers of TTCJ) is that I have witnessed children thriving, in some respects at least, in the most unlikely of families, and I suspect explanations that posit the idea that some children are born naturally resilient. That seems too easy, even simplistic. Even saints need to draw from current resources at some stage: they cannot give out forever without appropriate emotional input. As I write this I have in mind the work of the psychiatrist, Dr Frank Lake, and specifically his “dynamic cycle” as described in Clinical Theology – A Theological and Psychiatric Basis for Clinical Pastoral Care (Lexington, KY: Emeth Press, 2007), where he charts emotional and psychological well-being around “input” and “output”. So whence do these children draw emotional nourishment, if their parent or parent are ill-tuned to their needs?
Through observation I began to see that beneath the obvious struggles for help, attention, approval and companionship, there was what might be could an underlying or residual vein or stratum of understanding and care. When another sibling was in a genuinely distressing situation then a child would at times lay aside his or her needs and priorities, and become, however temporarily and partially, a care-giver. I mentioned this to someone who knows the children in question rather well, and she was surprised, to say the least. Her view until that point was that they were the ones who needed help, and were largely incapable of offering it. And I was able to agree with her that this was how I had framed things until I saw resilience in action.
Where there has been empathy in a family, however irregularly, does such a child draw and learn from it? Does this become reinforced by experiences with extended family, teachers and friends? Is there perhaps a collective unconscious as proposed by Carl Jung, I wonder? I honestly don’t know, but the remarkably encouraging truth is that I have witnessed resilience in practice, not only in those relatively near to hand, but in children in different parts of the world, sometimes called “street children”. I am not claiming that they are consistently and maturely caring, but that deep down they are able to feel the distress of another and respond with a measure of appropriateness.
As for the implications of this? I guess that it would do us all well to be alert to these positive instances and dynamics, and to support and encourage them when we can. Also to try to see children in the context of systems (family/peer/school) rather than as discrete and labelled individuals. And, perhaps most important, to feed into their lives models and examples of attuned behaviour. If I am on the right lines at all, resilient children have an uncanny way of recognising and drawing from the slightest of positive emotional experiences.
I leave you with the picture that has been in my mind from the start of this piece. A little girl with untidy, dishevelled hair is sitting holding her baby sister who has been crying. She holds her tightly enough so that she is safe, and seeks to comfort her in the most motherly way she knows. She is not doing it to display virtue or to gain attention, but simply as a human response to a need that only she seems to have noticed. If you knew her background, you would be as moved as I was. All I have been trying to do, is to begin to fathom how and why this act of tenderness and love might have been possible.