Sometimes, feelings have to be felt.
‘Resilience’ is a buzzword at the moment. If we all build up our resilience, if we teach children and young people to be resilient, then – hey presto! – we will be able to deal with life’s irritations, difficulties and catastrophes, using our strategies and skills. We will be able to bounce back to business as usual, almost seamlessly.
There is, of course, a certain amount of truth in this. The bedrock of my counselling is in the work of Carl Rogers, the founder of person-centred counselling. Built on that foundation is a conviction of the usefulness of the principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Transactional Analysis and Positive Psychology: hence, I very often work to enable my clients to find habits and patterns of thinking that will help them. These, I feel sure are part of becoming resilient.
I also think, however, that we have to be very careful not to big up ‘Resilience’ so that ‘having it’ seems like a universal panacea. It would be even worse if, what we were really doing was telling people to ‘pull themselves together’, ‘man up’ or keep the proverbial ‘stiff upper lip’ but in a more politically correct way. Maybe my strategy to develop resilience is regular cold showers, in the style of the Ice Man, Wim Hof, or maybe it’s to go for a run every day or to do a workout? Or all three? How is that so very different from the historical regimes for developing ‘manliness’ of some British Public Schools? I’m not knocking exercise or indeed, cold water! I often swim in a local river and I do a good brisk walk or run every day. I’m sure these help my wellbeing, build my resilience and are great habits that I want to maintain.
Nonetheless, when one of my dearest and most respected friends took his own life, I was in bits. For a while, I was rudderless, completely at sea. I was functioning, but my sense of hope had gone. I was still exercising, I was still swimming, I was still doing all that I do to keep myself sane. It took several months before I felt safe - that depression and anxiety wasn’t going to suffocate me, and I had been let loose to enjoy life again.
What helped? Weeping did. Reading did. I was led to a wonderful book called ‘Learning to Walk in the Dark’ by Barbara Brown Taylor and I read it, little by little, every day. Talking to and being listened to by an old Quaker friend, who had experienced her own, much greater tragedy helped. And finally, of course, confidential counselling helped. I spent weeks working with a counsellor whom I knew and trusted, until I felt ready to stop.
The feelings had to be felt. They still rise from time to time. This grief is part of my life story and always will be. Resilience got me to work each day. It couldn’t stop my pain, and what would I have been if it had? A robot, I think. Major life tragedy. Engage Resilience. Dealt with. On we go.
So…what about resilience for teenagers, with all their mood swings, heartbreaks and anxiety? Does it have a place? Yes, of course, within reason. It is genuinely helpful to encourage good habits for wellbeing – enough sleep, sensible amounts of exercise, healthy diet, time spent on a spiritual practice, time to play and have fun and plenty of time to hang out with friends of both sexes and a range of age groups. Effective parenting is also vital – clear boundaries and firm consequences for breaking them, modelling the behaviour and the healthy thinking patterns we want our children to learn and a willingness to be open to discussion about absolutely anything, even if we feel uncertain or embarrassed. Such balance will give our children resilience when things get tough because they will be healthy, both mentally and physically – and the mind and body are intimately connected.
We must remember, however, that adolescence is a time of massive transformation and the road is often like a roller-coaster. There will be times for many a teenager when he or she is in an absolute pit of gloom or will be utterly furious or scared stiff – or all three! Yes, of course, talk to your child about things that might help. Share your own experiences and how you managed things. Engraved on my heart is my mother’s voice telling me that ‘Thirty years from now, this will all be water under the bridge’ and ‘Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own’. But there will be times when no amount of resilience and no strategies will avail. The feelings will have to be felt and your role is to support and to listen. Helpless though you may feel it is the best help you can provide – to be the supportive, respectful, trustworthy listener - for as long as it takes.