The many faces of resilience

It's June 2019 and I've been checking the weather forecast since Monday. My teenage son and I are heading to Castle Donington on Friday to attend Download Festival, a three-day event hosting the cream of rock and heavy metal. The most ardent metal-heads arrive on the Wednesday, set up their tents and settle in before the crowds arrive towards the end of the week. They're mainly young, perhaps between their late teens and early twenties. It's been raining for three days straight and by the time the first wave of festival-goers arrive parts of the site are beginning to resemble a scene from a post-apocalyptic blockbuster. As the rain continues to fall, the ground becomes muddier, ankle deep in places.

By the time we arrive on Friday afternoon the weather has begun to improve but the devastation is still evident. A small number of the earlier arrivals have given up and gone home before a single band has played, yet the vast majority have stuck it out despite the appalling conditions. Tents have been reinforced with tarpaulin and walls have been built using empty cans and other assorted items in an attempt to keep the worst of the mud at bay. Strangers have helped each other out by sharing spare equipment and dry clothes, communicating around the site via social media, while the organisers have attempted, in vain, to soak up some of the mud by distributing bales of straw. Wellington boots and improvised waterproofs become the latest fashion essentials.

It would be difficult to propose that these young people in some way lacked resilience; indeed, their determination and refusal to give up despite the adverse conditions can only qualify them as particularly resilient. If young people are capable of such resilience why, then, do we adults keep insisting that this is one of the major qualities they lack? The answer is, of course, rather complex and is as much concerned with what we mean by resilience as it is about whether or not people lack it.

The grit and determination to battle through rain, mud and cold can certainly be attributed to resilience, but is this resilience the same as, say, coping with pockets of academic failure or remaining calm in the face of impending high-stakes exams? The general notion of resilience, therefore, is problematic to say the least and often there is a reluctance to fully define, describe and explain exactly what is meant by it. This growing interest in resilience has also been fuelled by a rise in young people seeking help for mental health problems, ranging from anxiety and depression to eating disorders and self-harm, so resilience can also be viewed as related to people's ability to psychologically cope. None of these are directly related to young people, however - all groups are affected by setbacks and poor mental health at some point in their lives and all individuals differ in their levels of resilience as well as the specific circumstances in which they display such tendencies.

The deficiency model of resilience

Views of resilience have changed over the years. Resilience today is seen as something that is lacking in certain people and in abundance in others. The lack thereof then becomes a deficiency within the individual; something defective and in need of fixing. Rarely do we ask from where resilience arises or the part played by wider society, community and culture in its nurturing. This is despite early research identifying both intrinsic and extrinsic explanations of why many young people raised in extreme circumstances flourish while others flounder. Even the very term resilience is interpreted in different ways, which makes it a rather messy word to use in general education parlance.

An added complication (illustrated in the example at the beginning of this chapter) is that individuals may well display resilience in some settings and not others. The teenager who refuses to be defeated by the rain and the mud for fear of missing their favourite band may cope less well in other circumstances. They might, for example, find academic failure extremely difficult to cope with or struggle with elements of their mental health. To this particular young person, the adverse conditions of a music festival are nothing compared to losing face in front of their peers, teachers and parents.

 
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