Today’s post may be a little controversial in that I think it is a trap most of us have fallen into at one point or another, but I hope it at least offers a perspective that’ll make us pause the next time we mindlessly utter the phrase “kids are so resilient.”
One of my biggest pet peeves that has developed over the last two years is adults calling kids resilient. Probably sounds strange given just how resilient my kids have actually been during that time. So let me explain.
Resilient means “able to withstand or recover quickly, from difficult conditions.” Resilience is something that can be built upon too. We can grow and develop in ways that make us more resilient. It makes it easier to manage stress, process trauma, engage in confrontation, etc. I would argue that resilience is an important quality to develop in both kids and adults, and that it is something that can be transformative in relationships, community, society, etc. I am all for resilience.
But, here’s my beef. The number of times I have heard adults shrug off a child’s pain or trauma in the name of resilience is infuriating. Here’s an example. A while ago I was talking to another adult about how Molly was handling her port access. She had hit a rough stretch and each one seemed to be progressively getting worse and more stressful. They had asked how it was going, I gave an honest answer. I made a comment about how I hated that it was so traumatic for her each time to which they responded, “luckily, kids are resilient.” There was something about the comment that just didn’t sit well. As if the fact that she is resilient somehow lessens the pain in the present moment. It felt a lot like a good old “everything happens for a reason” which almost always feels like bypassing. Like they didn’t know what else to say so they filled the void with a catchphrase. But that’s all it was.
I realize I’m extra sensitive to this right now given my reality the last two years. But hear me out. Kids are resilient. Yes, of course, they are. But do they have any other choice? Resilience feels like it has gotten intertwined with mental toughness or independent processing. Adults expect kids to figure it out, to bounce back, to function. Calling them resilient gives us an out. We don’t have to deal with the emotions right in front of us because they’re building mental toughness for later. It’s our hall pass to dealing with the hard thing. It has become too easy for adults to shrug off kids in the moment in the name of a future resilience.
I guess I wish the conversation centered more around what allows us, especially kids, to be able to withstand difficult conditions. While kids may be, by nature, more prone to this than adults, I firmly believe we could equip them even more. What if we taught them about feelings, what if we gave them language for those feelings, what if we created environments that allowed for sharing and community, what if we prioritized curiosity and creativity and healing? I’m all for pushing our kids and breathing life into their brave and encouraging them to withstand hardship. But I’m also all for being a soft landing spot. Bring on all the tears. Let’s hear all the worries and frustrations. Then let’s come up with a plan to move forward. As a whole human being with a spectrum of emotions and experiences, let’s recognize our reality for what it is and then move through it. Exercising those muscles is much more in alignment with how I view resilience.
But that kind of process and support from adults for kids requires us as adults to do our own work. If we aren’t modeling those things then kids assume they’re in this alone. Resilience really does get watered down to toughness if we aren’t willing to be vulnerable. If we refuse to show weakness, if we choose not to wade into the darkness with them, if we go it alone then we teach them that’s the expectation. I don’t want that for my kids. Shoot, I don’t want that for myself.
The next time you’re tempted to revert to “kids are resilient,” I’m asking you to pause. Is there something else more helpful you can offer? Sometimes we don’t need to focus on the future outcome. It’s ok to acknowledge the pain in the present. A simple, “wow, that must be so hard for her” would’ve gone much further. The next time you think to yourself “thank goodness kids are resilient” think about whether you’re using it to bypass something you don’t feel ready to dive into with them. Is there a way you can better support your child? And whatever you do, please do not downplay someone’s struggle in the name of resilience. “Well at least after all this you know she’ll be resilient.” That’s some BS. I will not be grateful for a cancer diagnosis in the name of character building, and please don’t make me feel like I should.
Resilience without actual support is just toughness and I have no interest in that.
Be brave. Be you. Be human.
With so much love and gratitude,
*Originally published May 2022 and republished July 2023