Road to resilience

Dr. Michael Ungar helps children and families find healthy ways to cope in tough environments

By Suzanne Rent

Dr. Michael Ungar first started researching resilience when he was working with families and at-risk kids. He says the kids people expected to turn out badly would often adapt positively to their negative environments. “So I got intrigued by some of those patterns in children and initially wondered if you gave a child more control over their world and decisions that affected them if they would experience better mental health,” he says. 

The family therapist and professor of social work at Dalhousie University is now one of the world’s best-known writers and researchers on resilience. As the founder and co-director of The Resilience Research Centre in Halifax, he and his colleagues research resilience around the world and how it affects children and families. 

He’s written 14 books, including I Still Love You: Nine things Troubled Kids Need from their Parents, Too Safe for their Own Good, Youth Resilience and Culture, and We Generation. 

Our Children recently spoke with Ungar about his work. 

What were some of the patterns on resilience you noticed in your research?

We’ve been doing research all over the world in many, many countries… Some of the similarities you see are, of course, relationships are important to all children. But what those relationships look like can be very different. For instance, our conception of the parents being the primary source of attachment is really not the way it is around most of the world. And what we learn from kids around the world is extended family, neighbours, older peer groups and teachers can all be really just as effective in terms of creating positive relationships with kids. Sometimes we have to think more broadly about the resources we have at hand and who can support us when difficult times can occur. We found out other things in our research. Kids who survive better have a really positive identity, something positive they can say about themselves.

Is resilience genetic or a skill you can learn?

The research is definitely showing that it’s both. Basically, the way I understand it and what the research seems to show is the more challenging the world you’re living in, the more your survival and resilience depends on things outside of you. If you’re talking about a kid who is being bullied at school, but he has great family, great grandparents, he plays piano on the weekends and has a stable and secure life, then probably his ability to reflect on his life and cognitive skills and personality, that will count a lot. But imagine that same kid is living in dire poverty, is racially marginalized, his parents are struggling with unemployment, poverty and all these other things. Then, really what’s going to make a difference in the life of a kid like that, it’s not that individual factors aren’t important, it’s that you’re going to have to look broader. You’re going to need good schools, safe environments, maybe even good policing. A lot of external factors are going to tip the balance and make it possible for the kid to do well. 

We hear about kids being more anxious these days. Does that mean kids are less resilient now?

Yes, I think that’s what we are beginning to understand. What we have to understand is what is making kids more anxious. What I find interesting in my work internationally is the very things that make kids resilient, things like giving children opportunities to make real contributions to their families. You go around the world there’s a kid living in a really high-risk neighbourhood and what are some of the things you see this kid doing? They usually have really genuine responsibilities for themselves and others. They are often expected to exercise control over their world and make decisions for themselves. They have all these other things that parents intuitively give them to survive better in harsh environments. The funny thing is when you come back to very secure environments like Canada, we are literally doing the opposite. We are actually doing the very things that make children less resilient. By overprotecting them, by not letting them make decisions, by treating them as babies rather than people who can grow.

And taking away the ways experience that help them understand risk?

Exactly. And not giving them opportunities to make real contributions to the welfare of others. There is good evidence now that this is not just about opinion, but it’s good brain development. When adults facilitate genuine opportunities for manageable amounts of stress in kids’ lives, they seem to do better. 

Do you notice any difference in the way children deal with resilience compared to adults?

The themes are the same, but of course adults have a lot more resources. So they tend to be able to find resources in very different ways. But they also aren’t as buffered, so when stress happens there is a lot more on their shoulders more than kids. The same themes appear: how do you belong, positive identity, a sense of purpose, basic material resources in your life, positive relationships. These are all themes that appear if you’re a child having your environment mediated, facilitated by an adult or as an adult having to facilitate these things by yourself.

What about parenting styles? How do those affect resilience?

What the research says it depends on the risk in the environment. There’s this notion that somehow that one-size-fits all for parenting is a lovely, pop-psychology motivational speaking thought. It’s actually not true. Different models of parenting seem to work better in different cultures and in different contexts. So you really have to make sure there is a match. 

What are the differences across cultures?

There are big differences across cultures how a child should behave. But usually they can look very different on the outside, but on the inside there are the same themes. Children are still being given a sense of control, a positive identity and positive relationships. In some countries it’s impolite to compliment a child. This endless self-esteem stuff we do with our children in North America can be seen as not a positive way to parent a child. It’s seen as bringing bad luck to a child. It’s also seen as not making them ready for life. Talking about your feelings with your parents in some cultures is not promoted. But those cultures might also be more reliant on their children to be more adult-like. 

What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about resilience?

Probably that kids who have problem behaviours, sometimes those problem behaviours are their solution to problems they can’t solve any other way. So a kid will self-medicate with drugs. A kid will run away when they feel threatened or abused. Kids who are anxious will withdraw from school because of their anxiety level. And what I learned from that is sometimes these maladaptive behaviours are actually signs of coping when the child sees no other solution. The second big lesson I learned is that if you change the environment, and make it so that coping strategy is no longer necessary, but has access to other resources, ways of coping with the same problems, in general, they will choose a more socially desirable set of behaviours.

What are some very basic ways in which parents can help their children more resilient?

I would say add more relationships than just yourself. Bring other people into a child’s life and encourage those connections. When you take your child to the soccer practice, leave them there. Don’t stay. Because what you want is your child to fall down, skin their knee and have to turn to another adult for comfort. You want them to know other adults are there for them. It’s a terrific gift you can give your kid. 

So when you help your kids be more resilience you’re also teaching them to be more independent and trust their instinct about situations.

Definitely. That’s part of good decision-making. These aren’t things that happen magically when we are 16 or 18. We sometimes forget we get our kids ready for those moments of decision very early and incrementally. People often say, “Well, it’s too  late. I have a 15-year-old and I’ve done everything for him.” And the answer is, “earlier is better, but it’s never too late.”