Our Kids Are Already Resilient

We don’t need to teach them hard lessons, they’re already learning them

“There is nobody more resilient than a child who has fought hard to function in a world not built for them.”

— Heidi Mavir

Resilience versus compliance

The definition of resiliency is, “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to adversity or change”.

The definition of compliance is, “a disposition to yield to others; the act or process of complying to a desire, demand, or coercion”.

Why the English lesson? We need to remember the difference.

Sometimes we use “resilience” to mean “this person should do what we want them to”, rather than helping them develop the skills needed to meet their own goals.

People in positions of authority often use “building resilience” as an excuse to force someone to do something they don’t want to. So instead of using the word resilience, I am going to substitute the concepts of building self-confidence and competency.

Last month I wrote an article, how parenting is like dog training, describing an instance where my son did not want to do something at school. In this particular situation, I supported his right to refuse, his right to autonomy over his own body.

I received mostly positive feedback on the overall content and message behind the article, however I did have a few commenters asking questions like, “How should a child be taught that sometimes life requires them to do something they don’t want to do?”

Interesting that people ask how we should — not why we should, or even if we should. Why is this a lesson children should learn?

As we’re all going to experience life kicking us in the pants at some point or another, why should the adults who are most important to the child be the ones to say “this is for your own good, kiddo” and infringe upon their autonomy?

“Building resilience is never about what is best for the kids… Rather, it’s about compliance, coercion, and control.”

— Heidi Mavir

The major differences between children and adults in these matters are adults have fully matured brains, and we tend to have a lot more control over what happens to us.

It’s a lot easier to hold your nose and endure something unpleasant when you had some control over whether you went through with it, and are neurologically capable of foreseeing how it may benefit you in the future.

Children, on the other hand, do not enjoy these same luxuries.

Created by author

Freedom of choice

Please understand, I am not suggesting we bubble wrap our children, preventing them from experiencing any type of adversity in their lives. My son plays lots of sports. Sometimes his team loses. Sometimes he gets a minor injury.

I congratulate him on his effort, comfort him when he’s feeling crappy, and encourage him to get right back out there because he has a lot of fun. I don’t withdraw him from the team because he got a ball to the face. I give him an ice pack, then cheer him on from the sidelines when he’s ready to go back in.

One difference is he has choices. He chose what sports he wanted to play, he tells us he likes them, and wants to sign up again each year. Another important difference is these challenges are developmentally appropriate for him. He feels ready and able to deal with these things himself.

When he was 5, if he got a ball to the face, he might have spent the rest of the game on the sidelines sitting in my lap. Now that he’s ten years old, he gets himself a drink of water, shakes it off, and gets right back out there (entirely of his own choosing). These are age-appropriate responses to developmentally-appropriate mishaps.

Although he no longer wants me to hug him in front of his teammates, you better believe we make eye contact and he gives me a subtle signal that he’s okay. He knows I’m looking out for him, he knows I care, and he is reassured by my quiet (mostly non-embarrassing) presence and support.

The myth of toughening up

When I was growing up there was a commonly held belief that getting your ass kicked a few times was good for you, it taught you some humility and toughened you up.

Unless it didn’t.

This type of thinking is still pervasive, the difference is that now we have plenty of evidence to explain how wrong-headed and harmful this approach can be.

People who push this mindset don’t understand the difference between tolerable stress which can be motivating — or at least minimally harmful — and chronic, toxic stress which can cause a myriad long-term physical and psychological health issues.

Created by author, based on work by Dr. Bruce Perry

While it likely wouldn’t have caused my son to experience toxic levels of stress had I forced him to do that stupid beep test in gym class, it would have sent the wrong message.

“…‘fitting in’ and not being an inconvenience to other people is more important than their mental or emotional well-being.” 

— Heidi Mavir

It would have conveyed that I don’t care about his feelings, his experiences, and his autonomy. If I have to force my child to do something he really doesn’t want to, I sure as hell better have a good reason.

In the mean time, I will build trust by showing him I respect and care about his feelings. When I make him get his inoculations and force him to endure a needle stick, he can at least trust that I have his best interests at heart, even if he’s still angry at me in the short-term.

Flooding versus skill-building

The last point people often miss is the difference between throwing a child in the lake and expecting him to swim, or taking him to swimming lessons, then encouraging him to practice.

Or for a different metaphor: scaffolding! — (image created by author)

When a child is completely overwhelmed by something, forcing them to white-knuckle their way through can backfire big time. Instead of teaching them that it wasn’t as bad as they thought, it may teach them several other lessons we didn’t want them to learn.

They may learn not to trust the most important adults in their lives. They may learn their cries for help will go ignored. They may learn not to trust their own perceptions and experiences because nobody believes them when they say it’s too much for them.

Instead of building “resilience”, we may end up increasing their anxiety, even traumatizing them, depending on the circumstances. Sounds a little high-stakes, especially when you look at the big picture.

Is this issue important enough to push, or can we prioritize the relationship, and work collaboratively instead? Or, if you’re feeling spicy, you could take Heidi Mavir’s approach:

“If someone tells you that your neurodivergent child just needs to “build resilience”, tell them to fuck right off.” 

— Heidi Mavir

I quite like it.

If we remember the real definition of resiliency and focus on competency and confidence-building in a way that respects autonomy, then we’ll be a lot closer to our goal of preparing our children for the “real world” (whatever the hell that means).

© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB

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Burke Harris, N. (2018). The Deepest Well: Healing the long-term effects of childhood adversity. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Franke H. A. (2014). Toxic Stress: Effects, Prevention and Treatment. Children, 1(3), 390–402. https://doi.org/10.3390/children1030390

Mavir, H. (2022). Your Child Is Not Broken: Parenting your neurodivergent child without losing your marbles. Authors & Co.

Perry, B. & Winfrey, O. (2021). What Happened To You? Conversations on trauma, resilience, and healing. Flatiron Books.

Updegraff, J.A., & Taylor, S.E. (2000). From Vulnerability to Growth: Positive and negative effects of stressful life events. In J. Harvey & E. Miller (Eds). Loss and Trauma: General and close relationship perspectives. Routledge.

Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps Score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.

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Published by Neurodiversity MB

Jillian has Child and Youth Work diploma as well as a BA in Psychology. Jillian worked on the front lines of Social Services agencies from 2003 - 2012. Jillian has taken numerous continuing education courses and has attended various workshops focused on supporting neurodiverse children, in particular children with ADHD.

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