A Closer look

Jesse Oakes | Jun 1, 2010

We all have our Tommys.

I met Tommy early in his sophomore year, and found out quickly what others already knew: the kid was electric. Think of a Ferris Bueller who also doubled as a good student and a star athlete. No exaggeration. He didn’t have an easy life – his parents went through a painful divorce, his siblings had substance abuse problems, his friends were dangerous, and he faced incredible pressure to perform – but he sure made life look easy.

I remember when he first came to our youth group. Hungry for something more than the party crowd, he dove in head-first: a fixture on Wednesdays and Sundays, the first to sign up for retreats and service trips, the heart of the student leadership team, constantly bringing friends to church, you name it. His graduation marked the culmination of a wonderful high school experience. Tommy was resilience incarnate: he had rolled with the punches, bounced back, and came out on top. Next stop, bright future.

Let’s fast forward a few years since his graduation: Tommy has been in and out of an intensive rehabilitation program for the last year, and is showing promise. As it turns out, a potent addiction had taken root early in high school, and the college dorm was the perfect storm of autonomy without accountability, sending him into a scary downward spiral. I thank God Tommy found help before it was too late.

How did we miss this?

That question has haunted many of us for a while now. His teachers and coaches, his youth pastor, even his parents – none of us had a clue. It is certainly possible that we were collectively blind, but in fairness, we didn’t even know to look. Hadn’t he bounced back from adversity? Surely all the success pointed to recovery? Wasn’t he resilient?

How was he flying so high and yet falling so hard at the same time?

Resilience Unraveled

Tommy’s story sent me on a journey through the study of resilience. I found an exciting field which has woven itself into a logjam of semantics, and these days the study of resilience may seem as much art as science. [[A few definitions of the term: “Although there is controversy as to whether resilience is a characteristic, a process, or an outcome, the construct has been characterized by many researchers as a dynamic process among factors that may mediate between an individual, his or her environment, and an outcome.” Nancy R. Ahern and Jacqueline Byers, “Resilience and Coping Strategies in Adolescents,” Paediatric Nursing 20, no. 10 (December 2008): 32.

“Psychological resilience refers to effective coping and adaptation although faced with loss, hardship, or adversity… Psychological resilience has been characterized by the ability to bounce back from negative emotional experiences and by flexible adaptation to the changing demands of stressful experiences.” Michael M. Tugade and Barbara L. Frederickson, “Resilient Individuals Use Positive Emotions to Bounce Back from Negative Emotional Experiences,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 86, no. 2 (2004): 320.

“Resilience refers to a dynamic process encompassing positive adaptation within the context of significant adversity. Implicit within this notion are two critical conditions: (1) exposure to significant threat or severe adversity; and (2) the achievement of positive adaptation despite major assaults on the developmental process.” Suniya Luther, Dante Cicchetti, & Bronwyn Becker, “The Construct of Resilience: A Critical Evaluation and Guidelines for Future Work,” Child Development 71, no. 3 (May/June 2000): 543.]]

However, as frustrated as I became, and as temped as I was to ditch the whole thing and pursue something else, a nagging question kept me coming back: What if it’s real?

If we can understand and duplicate resilience, then it just might be one of the most effective developmental tools a youth worker could ever use.

It All Started in Hawaii…

… Kauai, to be exact. In 1955, social psychologist Emmy E. Werner set out to study the entire birth cohort of the small, isolated island. As one might expect, she collected enough data to support volumes of publication in many fields, but Werner focused on a select group of subjects who, against all expectations, seemed happy, healthy and functioning despite severe levels of hurt. Her landmark book Vulnerable But Invincible [[Emmy E. Werner & Ruth Smith, Vulnerable But Invincible: A Longitudinal Study of Resilient Children and Youth (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982).]] was published in 1982.

Up until then, resilience was a niche field, an accidental byproduct of broader psychological studies intended to discover considerations for intervention and treatment with at-risk children. Researchers had coined the term “invulnerable” [[E. James Anthony, “The Syndrome of the Psychologically Invulnerable Child,” in E. James Anthony & C. Koupernik eds., The Child and His family: Children at Psychiatric Risk (New York: Wiley, 1974), 529-545.]] to describe patients like Tommy whose “resiliency” enabled them to (seemingly!) thrive despite significant risk factors. Werner did nothing short of inaugurate a brand new day when she did away with “resiliency” as an innate gifting, and established “resilience” as a delicate interplay between internal and external factors. Little did she know she was also setting the agenda – even predicting the trajectory – for nearly all subsequent study in her field.

Over the better part of the next twenty years, researchers followed Werner’s lead and explored resilience from a dizzying number of angles: morbidity and/or assets; genetic propensity; environmental factors; family systems; social systems; school systems; correlated to IQ, social competence, intelligence, disposition and personality; the list goes on. [[For an excellent, concise literature review, please see Marie Earvolino-Ramirez, “Resilience: A Concept Analysis” Nursing Forum 42, no. 2 (April-June, 2007): 73-82.]] The field accumulated a wealth of diversified information, but suffered from wildly inconsistent usage of key terms. [[Suniya Luthar et al., “The Construct of Resilience”; Ann S. Masten, “Ordinary Magic: Resilience Processes in Development,” American Pscyhologist 56, no 3. (March 2001): 227-238.]] By the end of the millenium, some called for a standardization of vocabulary, while others called for an end to the field altogether; [[P. T. Tolan, “How Resilient is the Concept of Resilience?” The Community Psychologist 29 (1996): 12-15.]] both calls went unheeded, and the field survived. Today, resilience study continues in the quest to ascertain the ideal mix of internal and external factors, and has recently expanded to include research perspectives from around the globe. [[Michael Ungar, “A Constructionist Discourse on Resilience: Multiple Contexts, Multiple Realities Among At-Risk Children and Youth,” Youth and Society 35 (March 2004): 341-365; and Michael Ungar et al., “Unique Pathways to Resilience Across Cultures,” Adolescence 42, no. 166 (Summer 2007): 287-310.]]

Meanwhile, back at the youth group…

So, what does this have to do with youth work? Or, more specifically, how can our various ministries and organizations be enriched by resilience research? Two important points merit consideration:

1. Resilience can be a powerful tool for the journey through adolescence. Not even our best efforts can preclude the realities of bullying, divorce, abuse, excessive stress, and addictions from entering into students’ lives. But if students are resilient, they are powerfully equipped to navigate these storms in ways that preserve and foster overall health.

2. What (and who) defines “health?” For instance, if a student maintains good grades but develops an eating disorder, few might classify that student as “healthy,” despite his/her high academic performance. Similarly, if a student manages to prevent bullying from affecting their spiritual disciplines, but begins to slander the bully’s culture or ethnicity, they have not “recovered” or “bounced back.” Resilience can profit students in some ways, but leave them bankrupt where it counts.

A compelling article in this vein was published in 2001 by Anita Hunter. [[Anita Hunter, “A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Resilience in Adolescents,” Journal of Pediatric Nursing 16, no. 3 (June 2001): 172-179.]] Analysis of focus group data gathered from teenagers in the United States and Africa revealed that young people often overcome adversity by internalizing their pain, rationalizing it by denying their self-worth, isolating themselves physically, and insulating themselves internally from their feelings. [[Hunter, “Comparison,” 176.]] In essence, the students made “survival” their primary (and perhaps, their singular) goal. “Resilience” for them was the process of borrowing against their emotional future in order to keep themselves together in the present.

Fortunately, this dangerous brand of resilience is not the only one Hunter found. There is a way for students to “use resilience right,” so to speak, and for youth workers to nurture, and even participate in, that process.

So how do we get there?

Resilience and Redemption

In order to utilize resilience properly, we must first do away with the idea that it is a “destination,” i.e. once students have resilience, they have all they need to triumph over all past/present/future hurts. We need to widen our view: the larger trajectory on which God has each of us – students included – is that of redemption. God is steadily guiding each one of us toward places of healing not limited strictly to academic achievement, job performance, or social skills; God instead means to heal our entire lives, our entire persons. [[A helpful place for guidance here is the Hebrew word ‏שלם (shalom). Often translated simply “peace,” it means not merely the absence of war but completeness, wholeness, harmonious relationships within community and fulfillment in one’s undertakings. “In nearly two-thirds of its OT occurrences, shalom describes the state of fulfillment which is the result of God’s presence.” G. Lloyd Carr, “shalem” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 2, R. Laird Harris ed., Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 931.]]

Simply put, resilience as it is often defined protects our performance. The student who is resilient, while still feeling the full weight of trauma, is often nevertheless able to maintain their grades and extracurriculars and various relationships. As such, they have the opportunity to receive the redemptive help they need – from family, teachers, youth workers, etc. – without their other opportunities falling too far off course.

It is essential to remember, though, that resilience may protect our performance and little else. It is the student who experiences resilience but not redemption who ends up in a place of isolation and secret pain. Resilience must be located at the beginning of the process of redemption, rather than at the end of a process dedicated to itself. And the process of redemption is led not by our own resources, but God’s.

For example, Monika is a girl in a local youth group who has recently experienced something tragic. Because she is resilient, she’s managed to make most rehearsals for the school play – her main passion – and her grades are still good enough to get into college. Monika’s deeper need is for holistic redemption – and toward that end, she receives frequent counseling, as well as prayer, mentoring, and support from a chorus of caring adults and peers.

The Bottom Line

From Werner until now, a definitive “resilience recipe” has eluded the grasp of researchers and practitioners alike. Nevertheless, there are still some things we can do to help students “bounce back” from trauma toward a place of holistic health.

1. Play the Odds. If there is a student – or an adult, for that matter – who does not have a specific area or two in need of redemption, I have yet to meet her or him. God calls us to love the students under our care because those students need – not “could generally use,” or “might derive some benefits from” – that love. It is not a question of “if” those areas exist in students lives, but simply “where.”

What are the places of need in Mason’s life? In Kate’s? In Angeline’s?

2. Keep the File Open. As youth workers, the temptation is to accumulate information about a student until we feel we know him or her pretty well, and then hit cruise control. Given this, I have found it useful to view every conversation, every interaction we witness or hear about, every picture or status update they post, every performance they allow us to see (sports, drama, debate, etc.) as a fresh indicator of what may be going on in their lives. We must constantly seek information, and should we get some results, we must be both diligent in following up and honest as we interpret results.

Adrian seemed a little quieter than usual at youth group tonight and snapped at his teammates the other day; it’s probably nothing, but I’ll text him later, or maybe chat with his parent/small group leader/teacher this week.

3. It’s Tool Time. There is no magic bullet for youth work, but developing a few tools and using them consistently can go a long way. [[On the FYI site, see Maria Drews’ article, “Bouncing Back: Increasing Resilience for Hurting Kids,” Fuller Youth Institute E-Journal 5, no. 8 (August 2009), /2009/08/bouncing-back/]] For instance, something like Search Institute’s 40 Developmental Assets can be a wonderful resource for establishing some baseline psychosocial information on how things are going for a particular student. Next, we might supplement the Assets framework by adding some other benchmarks for holistic health (e.g. “can articulate the Gospel and how it came into one’s life,” “able to forgive,” or “is part of the life of a church.” This can be a fantastic team exercise!). The goal is to create a simple framework that, when applied, starts to yield specific areas for follow-up with each student in our care.

Kelly has a 3.8 and starts on varsity soccer, but has a new best friend every month and a new boyfriend every week; what are opportunities to build some assets that can help her feel a sense of identity and purpose outside of the social scene?

If I knew then what I know now, would Tommy’s story have gone differently?
I’d like to think so, but that is the sort of question I know I need to avoid. It is not my hand that writes Tommy’s story. Moving forward, my prayer is that the lessons I’ve learned about resilience provide a few things which may help students to receive support, but even more so the redemption God has already offered.

Action Points

  • As Jesse has done above, think about specific students in your own ministry and some of their specific needs, challenges, and traumas. How are you and your team positioned to recognize and address some of these hurts? What hurts need outside resourcing, and what kind of structure do you have in place to seek those resources?
  • Review some other resources related to assets-based approaches to ministry. In light of what you learn, what is one action step you want to make in the next week toward building greater resilience and leading toward redemption in a teenager’s life?

Photo by Ed Stone

Jesse Oakes

Since 2004 Jesse Oakes has served in the High School Ministries of Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena, CA. He completed his MDiv with a concentration in Youth, Family, and Culture from Fuller Theological Seminary in 2010. He received a BA from UC San Diego in Communication in 2003, and worked in the music industry prior to vocational ministry. Jesse and his wife Megan live in Pasadena.

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