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Overcoming four myths that prevent fostering resilience

Sylvia Rockwell

Resilient youth are capable of remarkable growth and achievement. We can support them best by learning to avoid four common pitfalls in our own thinking.

As a young child, I had a recurring dream that both frightened and comforted me. In it, a childhood friend named Ricky and I were picking dandelions in a large field near the elementary school. The sun was shining brightly. We could hear other children playing in the background. Mothers were tending to their babies in strollers on the sidewalk that surrounded the area. Fathers were going to and from business appointments on the streets nearby. We were happy. We were planning to present our bouquets to Ricky’s mom. (She took care of my brother and I when our mother was at work).

Suddenly, in the midst of this peaceful scene, clouds would form. Adults would begin screaming and grabbing their children. From far away in the distance, above all the screaming, a roar could be heard. Somewhere a dam had given way. A wall of mud as high as the trees was rushing down the street, smashing houses as if they were toys and suffocating allthe people in its path. Ricky and I stood frozen like little tin soldiers. We knew that there was nothing we could do. We knew that there was nothing the adults could do. Terror kept us from even speaking.

But as the wall of sludge roared toward us, a voice from above would say, “Don’t be afraid. I am here. You are safe.” A giant hand would gently lift us high into the clouds. We could never see anything other than this hand the size of a soccer field. When the flood had passed, the hand would set us back in the middle of the field, unharmed physically, but terrified and confused. Our world was gone. There were no more mothers with babies, houses, trees, fathers in cars, or other children to play with, but Ricky and I had been saved.

I always wondered as I stood in that gray, silt-covered world what I could have possibly been saved for. I was a child. Ricky was a child. I never wanted to die in that flood, but I didn’t know what two little children were supposed to do alone in the world. Each time I had that dream, I awakened too afraid to even call out for comfort. As my heart returned to a normal rate and my breathing slowed, I would begin to pray. I told God that I knew that his spirit was everywhere, but that I was a little girl, and that little girls needed a hand to hold. I asked God over and over again for a human hand.

The real world that I lived in during the day was becoming increasingly threatening and chaotic. And there were many times when I wondered if God had ignored my requests for a human hand to hold. But as I look back over my life, I realize there have been a series of answers to that prayer.

Providing a hand to hold
I was in my thirties before I told that dream to anyone. No one knew of its power in my life in spite of the fact that many people contributed over the years to supporting the positive meaning it held for me. We simply cannot know how children and youth take what we offer them. Our words of encouragement may appear to go unnoticed, but many resilient adults report that teachers and others touched their lives in sustaining ways with basic caring messages in words and actions.

There are many different ways we can provide a hand to hold. For example, making referrals to appropriate social service workers in response to students’ need and providing their families with information about community agencies are important steps to take (Srebnik, Cauce, & Baydar, 1996). Providing a well-ordered school environment with high standards for academic and behavioral performance is also a supportive protective factor (Rutter, 1987; Wang, Haertel, & Walberg, 1994). Higgins (1994) reports that “many of the resilient found school to be the only systematically safe place they encountered” (p. 331).

However, one of the most important and obvious ways that educators can extend a human hand to the students they serve is to establish positive relationships with them. Armed with knowledge of characteristics exhibited by resilient youth, educators can actively search for and find ways to enhance those factors in the students they teach. They can emphasize what is healthy, strong, and potentially resilient about youth, rather than concentrating on repairing what is wrong. If we are to have an impact on youth as role models and mentors, we must be aware of the power of our own thinking processes. As Higgins (1994) admonishes, “Stop hanging crepe.... It is essential to focus on how human beings self-right, not on their floundering” (p. 320).

Garmezy (1983,1994), Werner and Smith (1982), and Anthony (1987) were some of the first researchers involved in the studies of children at risk to identify the factors that contributed to their ability to “self-right:” Individual characteristics of resilient youth include:

Understanding these characteristics can give us, as educators and service providers, a new perspective from which to view the children and youth we serve. And such a perspective is desperately needed-our funding models and intervention strategies too often illuminate the broken pieces of children’s lives. The myths that often shape these adult responses to youth in crisis must be brought into clear focus and examined carefully.

The myth of irreparable damage
Higgins (1994) quotes a resilient individual named Shibvon as saying:

Not all of us are a mess, you know.... People often associate anyone who’s been abused with “There’s no hope for that child.”... Tell people we can do it. That you can survive all that and be a fully functioning member of the community. Don’t give up on that kid at age seven and say, “Oh, he’s been through so much; he’s never going to amount to anything.”... The abused are labeled. But you can change somebody around. (p. 318)

Many adults who have survived terrifying lives of abuse, neglect, and abandonment grow into adults with extraordinary talents, insight, and drive. Their lives are full and productive, as many articles in this issue demonstrate. No one who met them as adults would ever imagine the horrors that they knew as children and youth. Unfortunately, few who met them as young people ever imagined that they could actually overcome the “damage” that had been done to them through abuse, neglect, addiction, or failure.

For example, few would have predicted that 14-year-old Lauren Slater (1996), with bandages on her wrists, alone in a psychiatric hospital bed, would later be a Harvard graduate with awards for her writing and administrative duties as the director of a mental health facility. This young woman was hospitalized repeatedly for suicide attempts as a teenager. At the age of 14 she was given over as a ward of the state by a mother who had abused her and no longer wanted her. However, she credits the four years she spent in foster care with an unfailingly loving foster mother for her eventual decision to give herself a chance at health and happiness.

Those of us who work with youth at risk occasionally get the opportunity to talk with students like Lauren, who return to tell us how their lives have evolved and to prove to us again that there really is never “no hope for that damaged child.” Last year a young man returned to the center for students with severe emotional and behavioral disorders where I work to talk with the principal. Mike had last seen this young man as he dove head first through a window into the waiting arms of police officers. He had been on a rampage in the school and had locked himself in Mike’s office. Mike had wondered over the years where the youth had gone after his release from a juvenile justice program. Several years later, at age 23, the student returned to discuss the last incident he had had at the school and to express his gratitude to Mike for always taking time to listen. This young man just wanted Mike to know how much that had meant to him. He also told Mike that he was in college and doing well.

These stories illustrate the benefit of understanding that the self-righting potential of youth is not a static phenomenon, rather than using the research on resiliency to standardize a new type of “achievement.” Growth is a dynamic process. Lauren Slater and the young man who returned to talk with Mike would not have been considered resilient during early adolescence. But their accomplishments as young adults underscore how we can do ourselves and our youth great harm by deciding the parameters of their lives too early.

The myth of predetermination
Just as damaging as the myth that a child’s abuse will prove insurmountable is the myth that the child will not be able to escape the cycles of violence, poverty, or failure that have characterized the lives of parents, family members, or community members. Recently, I came face to face with this myth in my own classroom.

One of my students occasionally talked about his father, who was in prison. Family members and friends had told this child for years that he was just like his dad. These comments were usually directed at him after a tantrum. Over a period of months, he revealed to me in quiet moments while coloring or painting that he had been beaten with electrical cords in the past and did not like or trust most adults very much. My response was one of acceptance of his feelings and reassurance of his right to want safety and protection even when he had behaved inappropriately.

He continually questioned my decision not to hit children. While he openly expressed his relief in the knowledge that he was safe at school, he was trying to come to terms with the differences between experiences in school and elsewhere.

One day after a severe tantrum, he told me tearfully that he was afraid he would never be able to control his anger. He felt he was doomed to be a criminal because his father was one. At moments like that, it takes everything in me to stay under control. Knowing from previous conversations that this nine year old had great insight for one so young, I told him that no one could predict who he would be. I told him to look at me. When he did, I told him that no matter who says he is just like his dad, the real truth is that he decides who he will be.

On that day, he dried his eyes and returned to class. Since then, he has verbalized his belief that he can become his own man. His tantrums occur less frequently now. When he does become angry, he regains control more quickly. At every opportunity, I tell him that he is in charge of his decisions. He takes tremendous pride in his frequent successes. While he still has a great deal to overcome, he tells me he has decided that he will not be like his daddy. He does not want to go to prison. When others in his neighborhood hang out on the streets watching drug deals and engaging in petty vandalism, he goes to his Grandma’s house or to the recreation center near his home.

The early signs of a resilient self are emerging in this child. His sense of morality, willingness to distance himself from harm, ability to bond with others, and independence of thought are strengths that can potentially serve him well. The adults in his life can continue to help him identify and develop those resilient traits. Knowing what to look for makes all the difference in the world. And helping youth define who they are in positive terms-as independent from parents and family members-is essential. Even when these children throw the worst they have to give in our directions, we must reflect back to them the best that they can be and reassure them that nothing is predetermined. They can make their own decisions.

The myth of identity
The earlier quote by Shibvon states that the “the abused are labeled” (Higgins, 1994, p. 318). Indeed, the very identities of children who have been abused are too often linked inseparably with that abuse in the minds of those who work with them. But as Rubin (1996) so eloquently rebuts, “Abuse is what happened to me, not who I am” (p. 228). To fully benefit from the resilience model, adults must understand clearly that children and youth are not passive recipients to be defined by the treatment they have received, whether that treatment has taken the form of abuse, neglect, instruction, or therapy (Lazarus, 1991; Singer & Salovey, 1993).

Rather, adult survivors of abuse — such as Seita (1994), Slater (1996), Pelzer (1995, 1997), Higgins (1994), Rubin (1996), Blankstein, and Hysten — encourage those who work with youth to constantly be engaged in a talent search, defining the identities of those youth in terms of their strengths. Refraining (Rubin, 1996; Wolin & Wolin, 1993) the experiences these children have had as proof of their tenacity, intelligence, insight, creativity, morality, and courage not only helps practitioners to be more compassionate and effective, but it helps the youth to see themselves as heroes in their own struggles to self-right. A respect for who they are as people and for the choices they may have made in any situation is an essential message to send. Defining the identities of the youth in our care by their capacity for health rather than the odds that threaten to overwhelm them sends a powerful message of hope.

The myth that, ultimately, “It doesn’t matter.”
Even for practitioners who understand the fallacy of the three myths described above, it is often exhausting to try to find the resilience in children who show every sign of having suffered irreparable damage and are following the destructive precedents set by those around them. But to those who, from time to time, are susceptible to the fourth myth — that what we do for these struggling youth “doesn’t matter” in the long run — Shibvon offers this encouragement (Higgins, 1994):

For that teacher who might be thinking ... “I think this kid’s going through something terrible,” maybe [knowing that we succeeded] would give her that gumption [to keep helping others]. Or for the teacher who put out for that kid and wondered if it mattered: tell people that it mattered. (p. 318)

“Tell people that it mattered:” That one sentence is so powerful. What is done with, for, and to children and youth at risk matters. They carry the lessons of kindness, compassion, and simple acts of grace with them their whole lives. For “ultimately, it is not our treatments or our theories” that help these youth get better, but “the kindness lodged in a difficult world” (Slater, 1996, p. 198). 


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This feature: Rockwell, S. (1998). Overcoming Four Myths That Prevent Fostering Resilience. Reaching Today’s Youth, 2(3), pages 14-17