Building Resiliency: Lessons from the Strong Resiliency program – Part 1

Posted on 05/07/11 by erynwicker

From a series I wrote for The Chilliwack Progress some time ago…

A Primer on the Strong Resiliency Groups: lessons we could all relearn

 Resiliency. Resilience. Resilient. Resile. The ability to withstand and rebound from disruptive life changes without being overwhelmed. The capacity to successfully adapt in the face of significant adversity. The capability to respond to life with a sense of control, and to tolerate unexpected life events. “Bounce-back power”. This may sound familiar to those who read our column regularly – it’s true, I did borrow this from my article on resiliency last December, except that this time it isn’t in preparation for the Christmas season but about a curriculum I use in my role as Group-Coordinator at Chilliwack Child and Youth Mental Health (CYMH).

The Strong Resiliency Groups were created by Dr. Merrell and his research team through the University of Oregon’s School Psychology Program’s Resiliency Project with the underlying goal of improving social and emotional learning and resiliency in children and adolescents. So what does increasing social and emotional resiliency actually mean? Well, the “Big Ideas” of the Strong Resiliency groups are the general concepts that all of the curriculums are based upon. These guiding principles form the foundation of the curriculum and fuel the learning:

–       prevent and reduce depression, anxiety, and other internalizing social-emotional problems in children and adolescents

–       promote awareness of moods, symptoms of depression, anxiety, and social-emotional problems of students

–       teach children and youth to understand their own and other people’s feelings

–       teach children and youth to understand the link between thoughts and emotions, and to learn to appropriately monitor and regulate them

–       Help children and adolescents identify maladaptive thoughts and irrational beliefs that may perpetuate mental health problems, and to actively strive to dispute these thoughts and beliefs, replacing them with more appropriate and adaptive ones

–       Help children and youth learn to approach their challenges in life with a sense of realistic optimism

–       Help students learn cognitive and behavioural techniques to relax and remain calm in the face of stress

–       Teach children and adolescents problem-solving skills and effective communication skills (listening, being assertive)

–       Teach children and youth to set appropriate and realistic goals based on their own values, and to monitor their behaviour in order to reach their goals

There are three curriculums that span Grades K through 12, including Strong Start (Grades K-3), Strong Kids (Grades 4-6), and Strong Teens (which I divided into groups of Grades 7-9 and Grades 10-12). Each group that we offer at CYMH is 12 weeks long, 1 hour per week, with a pre-test and post-test, and a 2-hour follow-up one month after the group is done. The Strong groups use a structured curriculum where the use of overheads, handouts, worksheets, and role-plays help the participants learn the material and tailor it to their individual lives. The weekly lessons include but are not limited to:

–       Understanding your own emotions

–       Learning appropriate outlets for your emotions

–       Understanding your anger

–       Learning to understand others’ feelings

–       Clear Thinking

–       The power of positive thinking

–       Solving people problems

–       Understanding stress and relaxation

–       Setting goals

For the next five articles, including today’s, I will introduce a Strong group topic to the public in hopes of reminding us all of some very important lessons that aren’t just for the children and adolescents who attend my groups:

–                  Empathy – how to identify and understand others’ emotions and how to see things from their perspective

–                  Anger – helping us to understand anger and manage aggression using a 6-step anger model

–                  Clear Thinking – understanding how our emotions affect our negative thought patterns, including learning how to identify and refute thought errors

–                  Positive Thinking – how to change negative thoughts and beliefs by using a model of learned optimism

–                  Solving People Problems – helping us to solve conflicts with other people, including introducing alternatives to conflict

 

So why introduce you the readers to lessons from a children’s group on social and emotional resiliency? Because even though human beings have an innate capacity for resiliency, it must be nurtured and fostered or it won’t be as effective. Additionally, there is potential for developing resiliency across the life span despite a troubled childhood or adolescence; and although not easily taught, it can be learned by cultivating our own unique combinations of inborn abilities.

 

The first topic from the curriculum that I will introduce today is Empathy. The ability to understand and better identify other individual’s emotions and to see things from their perspective is invaluable. It can make us better friends, better parents, better partners, better colleagues, and I might even hazard a guess and say, better people. If we were to examine the key words this lesson is based upon we would find:

            Emotion – a feeling, a reaction to a situation

            Empathy – understanding another’s emotions

            Perspective – each person’s point of view in an experience

            Cues – signals or sings you can see that tell you something about another

                         person

These words provide a jumping off point for the remainder of the lesson. It is possible to tell someone’s emotional state by looking for visual cues. Nonverbal indicators, such as body language are essential in recognizing how someone else is feeling, doing, being. For example, if I was smiling, walking tall with my head held high you might say I was proud or happy and you’d be correct. Now, if I had pursed lips, clenched fists, my arms crossed, and was throwing dagger eyes and you said “Wow, that girl looks content” you would be wrong but if you said I looked angry then you would see where I am going with this. In our busy world of asking people how they are doing without actually stopping to hear their answer we might sometimes overlook the visual cues that people are sending our way. They are called clues for a reason, because they clue us in to how people are feeling without us having to ask “are you mad, happy, sad, etc?” However, we have to allow for the possibility that not everyone shows emotions in the same way, in fact, some people have become very adept at hiding or masking their emotions. In these cases when there are no nonverbal indicators we have to rely on our judgment and relationship with the person to be honest and caring enough to ask – and to be okay with the answer we are given.

Another key piece in building empathy is understanding that not everyone has to share the same perspective in the same situation. Now I know some of you might find this difficult to hear, but it’s true, not everyone thinks like you. In fact, not everyone even wants to think like you or can think like you. And if we don’t all think alike then there is a good chance that we don’t all feel alike either. It’s all right if I don’t get mad if someone cuts me off in traffic even if it upsets you. And it’s all right that you don’t get frustrated when you don’t know what to wear the next day. But, we have to respect each others’ perspective and try to understand it even if we don’t experience it for ourselves.

 

So to summarize empathy for the Strong Adults class of The Chilliwack Progress readers I would say this:

The first part of empathy is finding out how someone else is feeling. Now we can ask them, but we can also look for cues that they are giving. These cues might allow us to guess what someone is experiencing. Now we have the opportunity and the insight to try and see things from the other person’s perspective, remembering that people might experience the same situation differently. And if we can find their perspective and clue into their emotional state then we are steps ahead in understanding them better – and in actuality, understanding ourselves better too. And that’s all we really want isn’t it – to be understood, to be heard, to be validated, without someone taking on our emotion or trying to change it or fix it, but to just let it be.