Hello Everyone! I hope this Newsletter finds you a little closer to BETTER this month!
This Month’s Issue:
For Everyone: What is Resilience: An Interview with Dr. Michael Ungar – Part I
Getting to Better™ Kindness Partners and Friends
MYRIAD Update: Happy Holiday Season! Cheers to Better in 2014!
I would like to send a BIG thank you out to friend and colleague, Dr. Michael Ungar for providing his time, energy and great knowledge so that we may give the children in our families and communities the greatest opportunity for growth and optimal development.
Michael’s interview provided such a wealth of knowledge, including practical tips for adults; I decided to offer our discussion in two parts! Check out the prelude to Part II, provided at the end of the interview below – If your goal is to provide the best chance for children and youth, you are not going to want to miss it!
What is Resilience? An Interview with Dr. Michael Ungar. Part I
Steve: You have been practicing as a social worker and family therapist for more than 25 years; what was it that brought your attention to resilience and the importance of resilience?
Michael: I noticed that many kids with whom I was working – those who had come though a variety of great adversities such as physical or sexual abuse, mental health problems, and parents with mental health problems, issues with poverty or, many that had been stigmatized due to different things –these were kids with complex problems. What often surprised me was that there were kids in these groups who seemed to be doing well. Many of these kids, once you got to know them, would tell you incredible stories; that they were actually doing quite well despite all the adversities that thy were experiencing.
This got me quite curious, because if we are going to intervene in the lives of vulnerable children, we should use the expertise they held to help us find what we could do or where we should go to find the answers to what works well or, what works best to be the most effective with these kids. So, if I were going to invest a million dollars into a program, my expert panel would be these kids who have lived through all of these incredible challenges and still did quite well.
Steve: So these were the things that stood out for you in your practice, as quite meaningful and significant to consider?
Michael: Absolutely. I think also on a personal level, I had to leave home quite early myself and I think that in the back of my mind I was curious about what were the protective factors in my own life and in the lives of the people I admired; what were the things that contributed to people doing quite well, despite a rough beginning.
Steve: You mentioned protective factors. When you mention protective factors, can you tell us what it is you are referring to exactly?
Michael: What I’m referring to is that there are different aspects of peoples lives, that when present, seem to help them cope better in environments that may not be providing them with what they need. When I think of a protective factor, I think of it almost as if it reads the future – it says, even though we expect you to go one way in life, to dip or do rather poorly, protective factors are those things that are going on in your life that actually keep you up; to be able to avoid or deal with all of the perils and pitfalls that would potentially lay in your path.
Steve: Resilience is a word that is used quite often in the field of social services. From your perspective Michael, what is resilience?
Michael: In my experience, resilience is our ability to navigate and negotiate. I use these terms as a simple idea. The better we are at navigating our way to whatever we need – for example, we want to feel self-esteem, so we surround ourselves with things and people that reinforce that we are worth something. If we need to be safe on the street so we’re not in danger when we leave our home, it may be a priority to have communities and policies to make sure that these places are fair, equitable and not stigmatizing. I think of resilience as our ability to navigate, which also means that the onus is on those around us to help with those navigations, to help put those things in front of us, so that we can access and reach the things that we need.
Resilience is also about our ability to negotiate what we need, so that what we are given is meaningful; that the resource we need makes sense for us. There are so many kids with learning disabilities who are stuck in classrooms. Now they may have resources available to those children, but what is also very important is that those resources must make sense and be meaningful to those children. It is this navigation and negotiation that helps us meet our individual needs to bounce back, our psychological needs to feel empowered, our material needs to feel safe, clothed and well loved. All those things make us much more resilient. So, I think of resilience as a process of doing those navigations and negotiations and, it’s not just an individual thing; of course I am navigating and negotiating my process, but of course my family, my community and my school are engaged with me helping me navigate and negotiate well.
When I meet a kid who is referred due to behavioral problems and, his parents are barely hanging on in their ability to cope, but somehow they’re holding it all together. What I usually see is a family that has been able to navigate to the supports they need and negotiate with those people who are providing those supports in ways that make sense and are meaningful to them.
Steve: Is it that ability or process of navigating and negotiating that helps people deal more effectively with future challenges or obstacles?
Michael: Yes. There seems to be an inoculation effect and that early on, the more success we have with navigation and negotiation the better capable we are; we have a greater skill set; we know how to speak up for ourselves and; we know where to go to get help when we need it. It’s almost like an immune system, meaning we have a network of social supports with teachers, family and community members; the adults in our lives who we interact and do things with. So, when we have stresses or serious threats to our well being and, we are able to draw on available resources in a way that has value and fits for us, we become much more skilled at this process of navigation and negotiation.
Steve: You do a great deal of research, writing and speaking on the topic of resilience. What is it that you think parents and caregivers need to know about resilience?
Michael: The first thing is for parents and caregivers to know that we matter to our kids. A consistent message I get from kids is they really want adults to give a darn about them. They do want adults to care enough to set some limits and boundaries for them early on. Adults really, really matter.
The second thing I’ve learned is that it is never too late. Of course it is great if we can intervene early with a 3 or 5 year old, to support them and change their trajectory in life. The fact is that even a 16 or 17 year old if provided with resources in ways that they value, they will respond positively. If you’ve got a 17 year old involved in some type of delinquency and you find a way to provide that young person with another way to find a powerful identity, like through a work placement, maybe through a program at school or, they shine in the eyes of an adult in their life – I’m amazed at how quickly those young people migrate to different pathways to cope with what they are going through. It’s really never too late.
The third thing I’ve learned is the different impacts we can have depending on the risk that young people experience. The more challenged a child is, the more we matter. For instance, if you have a kid who is from a relatively stable family with lots of supports, who is in school and involved in the community and he has mentor (another adult who pays attention to him outside of his family); that’s a wonderful thing. It’s nice. Now, because of the many resources in place, the formal mentor is going to be nice, but not essential. Take a child who is coming out of more difficult circumstances with much less supports and resources, a mentor like a “Big Brother” or “Big Sister” is going to have a much more profound impact for this child and can actually change the trajectory of that life, because they actually don’t have all of those other smaller pieces. For instance, one drop of blue in a bucket of clear water can change the hue of the water; there is a substantial difference. Where as, when there is a bucket of blue water or a whole bunch of other stuff in there, there will be less of an impact when we place that blue drop in.
Steve: What are some of the factors that contribute to building resilience in children? Are there key things you consider that would be helpful for others to know?
Michael: The work that I have been doing over the last 10 years has been highlighting a set of 7 factors that continue to appear in our work all around the world and in communities across Canada. They are:
Relationships: Kids need all kinds of relationships; not just with caregivers, but also with peers, community members, educators; a matrix of people that they can connect with. I see it as an intricate woven map of interconnected relationships.
Identity: Kids talk often about having some sort of identity that they like. When they look in the mirror and they like what they see, there is something powerful and good that they see and feel about themselves.
You can begin to see how these factors overlap; the more relationships you have in your life shining back at you that value you and you value, the better able you will be at developing identity.
Power and Control: Here it is a type of efficacy, meaning that when I get up in the morning I can influence things and decisions that are made about my life and I have some sort of control over what happens in my life.
Social Justice: Many of the kids we work with have been kind of “pushed aside” due to a number of different factors; it may be because they look or act different or they have mental health challenges, developmental challenges or maybe they live in a community where they represent a racial, cultural or even sexual minority. Whatever the situation, what we find is that when kids say, “I feel that I am valued and that I am treated fairly in my school, my community, my family”, they do much, much better.
Access to Material Resources: This is about basic needs – food; clothing that doesn’t make you feel awkward at school; good education in which you can learn; safety on the street; food at dinnertime. These kinds of things help kids do well.
Social Cohesion: This is essentially about having a sense of belonging. It is the idea that my life is connected to others and there is a sense of a greater or higher purpose. When I get out of bed in the morning, I can do something that will make a contribution somewhere in the world.
Culture and Background: This is about having a connection to the past and continuity through the present to the future; I see myself in a wider set of traditions that ultimately makes me feel that I matter as well. When we can connect to a culture that affirms us and provides some type of continuity over time as to who we are; this gives us more of a sense of belonging and purpose.
These factors interact with each other. It’s kind of like juggling these seven balls in the air; each of the balls representing one of the seven factors. If a child is able to juggle some or all of the balls, keeping them in the air, he/she is much more likely to report being resilient; better able to cope with higher levels of stress and adversity versus other kids who do not have some or all of those balls.
Steve: These factors are important, definitely. How important are parents and caregivers for building resilience in children and youth?
Michael: Relationship is an important factor. It is also an interesting factor. It shows up in all of the research and the work that we do with individuals and families around the world. It always comes up amongst the top factors; however, I will say this, going back to that idea (earlier) about differential impact, or the different impact that different factors have. Kids who are more stressed and really challenged, the parent/caregiver relationship factor actually decreases, as these kids are often looking elsewhere. There is sometimes this bias that exists; this idea that the relationship has to be the parent or the guardian. In fact, what we see is that kids who are very marginalized, kids who have lots of challenges in their life is that, the relationship could be a child and youth care worker, a social worker, a teacher, an extended member of their kin group or even a neighbor. An interesting thing that keeps a appearing in my clinical work is the importance of the relationship of the parent of a boyfriend or girlfriend. All of these other adults are not necessarily the formal or mandated caregiver; often they have a profound impact on children. Relationships can be with people in the community. Especially when other resources are lacking. I have heard some children say the relationship that is most significant in their life is the one with the police officer who keeps arresting them. I meet kids that value the 15-20 minutes everyday with the bus driver. As superficial as that sounds, when you have nobody else, those small acts of kindness and connections, become immensely valuable.
Steve: So, what I hear you saying is that relationships matter and, that there are a number of different people that exist as possible resources within a community or culture that can serve as valuable connections for kids. Have you noticed any qualities or ingredients that characterize these different relationships, whether it is with a parent, neighbor, community member or elder?
Michael: Yes. If we go back to the seven factors that I referred to before; usually the relationship becomes a way of linking to the other six. For instance, if and when an adult looks at a child and reflects that the child is important, that child feels valuable. And also, in that relationship their identity or an aspect of their identity may also be confirmed. And maybe through that relationship they are being empowered to make good decisions for themselves. Or maybe, they are being advocated for by that person in the relationship, to be treated more fairly. Or, that person is also helping them link to their cultural heritage, etc., etc., So, if you think about the relationship as a factor to assist kids to access and get what they need from those other six factors, then you quickly see why relationships are so important.
To think of this practically – if you want to be helpful and make yourself relevant to a kid, you help them find those other six things.
For instance, consider that I am working with a very troubled youth, who may initially not want to work with me. The moment I make myself useful to him in terms of my ability to convey that he is valuable; that he has some control over things and is powerful; that he is going to be treated fairly; that I support him in getting his material needs met in a way that has meaning to him; that I give him a sense of belonging and convey that he is important which may provide hopefulness to the future and; I try to connect him to his culture in some way. If I do this, it is highly unlikely that this kid, or others like him, would fire me. Because in a sense, I become an all you can eat buffet – I’m a cornucopia of great things that kids need and want to grow, heal and thrive and I am facilitating access to this great buffet dinner.
*** End Part I of the Interview ***
I can not help but comment on the profound point that Michael makes at the end of this part of the interview. Relationships are important yes! But kids need much more than Relationships. They require access to the additional six factors. I agree with Michael, kids want to have their needs met and goals achieved. We can make ourselves more relevant and useful to the kids in our lives by helping them navigate and negotiate those important resources in a way that has value and makes sense to them.
Join us in the New Year when Getting to BetterÔ will feature, “What is Resilience? An Interview with Dr. Michael Ungar. – Part II
Michael will offer many more insights and provide tips for helping adults develop resilience with the kids in their lives. Some of the topics covered are:
- How to inoculate kids against future stress
- The advantage of the “risk-taker”
- What we can learn from the “class clown” and the “bully”
- Practical prescriptions for developing resilience in kids
Michael Ungar, Ph.D., is both a family therapist and a Professor of Social Work at Dalhousie University where he co-directs the Resilience Research Centre that coordinates more than five million dollars in funded research in over a dozen countries. In recent years he has designed research and evaluation projects in collaboration with organizations as diverse as The World Bank, SOS Children’s Villages, Big Brothers Big Sisters, The Red Cross, the National Crime Prevention Centre, northern Aboriginal communities and national public health agencies. His research is focused on resilience among children, youth and families and how they together survive adversity in culturally diverse ways. He has published over 100 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on this topic and is the author of 11 books including The Social Worker, his first novel. Among his books for professionals are; The Social Ecology of Resilience: A Handbook for Theory and Practice and Strengths-based Counseling with At-risk Youth. He also writes for parents and educators. Among his most recent works are We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Children and Teens and Too Safe For Their Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive.
In addition to his research and writing, Michael maintains a small family therapy practice in association with Phoenix Youth Programs, a prevention program for street youth and their families, and was the recipient of the 2012 Canadian Association of Social Workers National Distinguished Service Award. His work has been featured in numerous magazines (Reader’s Digest, Body and Soul, Today’s Parent) and newspapers (Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, USA Today) around the world, and he has been recognized as the most cited Social Work writer in Canada. Among his many contributions to his community has been his role as Co-Chair of the Nova Scotia Mental Health and Addictions Strategy Advisory Committee, executive board member of the American Family Therapy Academy, and Scientific Director of the Children and Youth in Challenging Contexts Network.
In the past ten years Michael has made over 350 invited and peer-reviewed presentations to mental health professionals, parents and policymakers across North America, Europe, Africa, South America and Asia, including numerous keynotes for organizations like the International Family Therapy Association, The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and The International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect. His blog, Nurturing Resilience, can be read on Psychology Today’s website.
Getting to Better™ – Kindness Partners and Friends
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Dr. Michael Ungar
Thank you again to Michael for his invaluable contribution to the Getting to Better™ community!
Michael writes a great blog, “Nurturing Resilience”, for Psychology Today. Tis the Season to teach our kids how to be responsible and considerate towards others. Check out this wonderful piece, his latest submission: A Christmas Day Story for Parents
MYRIAD Update – Happy Holiday Season! Cheers to Better in 2014!
Thank you again to everyone who has supported and continues to support Getting to Better™, Life Vest Inside™ and See Beautiful™. We’re in it this thing called LIFE together.
Wishing you and all those you care for a wonderful Holiday Season and health and happiness on your Journey to Better!