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Keys to Resilience

We often hear that people are “resilient.” They manage to not only get through tough times but end up actually stronger than they were before their troubles began. While it may sound a little trite, research actually has found that individuals and families can indeed be resilient. When confronting stressful challenges, many do have the capacity to rebound and grow in a way to be better able to meet future challenges.

Family therapist Froma Walsh identified nine ways to build resiliency. She observed that families who were able to thrive despite the adversity they faced had common strengths. They found ways to effectively deal with their stressful situations.

Walsh offers nine keys to resilience (Walsh, F. 2006 Strengthening Family Resilience. New York: The Guilford Press.)

Learn More About Each Key to Resilience

Make Meaning of Crisis and Challenge
Value Transcendence and Spirituality
Be Flexible
Be Connected to Others
Find Support Through Social and Economic Resources
Share Clear, Consistent Messages
Openly Express Emotions
Use Collaborative Problem Solving
Maintain a Positive Outlook

Make Meaning of Crisis and Challenge

Experts say:
Resilient families view crisis as a shared challenge, instead of having each person be a “tough, rugged individual” getting through hard times. Relationships are extremely important in these families. They believe that by joining together with family members and others who are important to the family they can strengthen their ability to meet challenges. Resilient families see hardship as manageable and meaningful, something that contributes to growth and change across the life cycle of the family. (Walsh, F. 2006 Strengthening Family Resilience. New York: The Guilford Press)

In other words:
Many of us have heard of the “ink blot test.” In this activity you look at an ink blot and explain what it looks like to you. Some psychologists use this method to learn more about a person’s emotional state and personality characteristics. When you’re faced with a crisis you can look at the situation and see lots of different things. You might see defeat or helplessness. Perhaps you see fear. Maybe you see an opportunity to strengthen bonds with others as you work through the crisis together. You might see yourself as a stronger person on “the other side” of the crisis. There’s a lot you may not be able to control about a crisis that is taking place. One thing you can control is the way that you choose to see the crisis. The choice you make will make a big difference in how you come through the hard times.

What you can do:
Take time to think about how you are viewing the crisis or challenge. Write down the first words that come to your mind when you think about the situation. Then take a look at what you’ve written. Is your view of the crisis one that will move you forward or is it a view that will keep you “stuck” where you’re at? What other words could you use to think about the situation that would help you move forward? What are the positive things that could come out this challenging situation? You may have to think awhile about this, but see if you can change your perspective just a bit. Write those positive words (even if they are only slightly positive!) on a notepad. Keep the notepad in a place where you’ll see it every day to remind yourself that some good can come out of this very tough time.

Value Transcendence and Spirituality

Experts say:
Resilient families find meaning, purpose and connection to something beyond themselves, their members and their immediate problems. This may be defined as the family’s moral and spiritual values that are their source of strength. Many families find strength, comfort and guidance in adversity through their connections with cultural and religious traditions. Families may also find spiritual nourishment through such things as a deep connection with nature, music, or art. By seeing themselves as part of something greater than themselves, families are able to take a larger view of the crisis that they are experiencing, which can lead to a heightened sense of purpose in their lives. (Walsh, F. 2006 Strengthening Family Resilience. New York: The Guilford Press)

In other words:
Believing in a higher power and acting on a value system can increase our sense of purpose and change how we look at every day events. Some stress is a part of everyday living, but as it piles up it may seem like too much to overcome. Sometimes stress hits us over the head and we wonder how we will cope, what steps we should take next. Our thought patterns are overrun with the “what-if’s” of life. Being able to stop and reflect on the situation helps. Sometimes connecting with art, music or other cultural experiences helps our brains see the situation in a new light. Religious rituals can also help us solve problems or look for solutions that might have otherwise been overlooked. Looking at what you can change and what you can’t change is a first step. Think about what you truly value as you consider your next steps.

What you can do:
Take time to reconnect with things that you and/or your family enjoy in nature, music or art. Find time to enjoy your surroundings. When was the last time you took a walk in your neighborhood or a favorite nature preserve? Is there some music that soothes your soul and relaxes you? Take time to enjoy the music. If you usually listen to the news on the drive to and from work – substitute the news with some music – for at least one trip! If it is the right time of year, look to the stars – see what constellation you can pick out. Breathe in, breathe out. Center yourself so your brain’s creative juices can flow.

Be Flexible

Experts say:
Resilient families have a flexible structure that they can modify to fit their needs and challenges over time, rather than holding a rigid conception of family roles and rules. This allows the family to adapt to changes which may come about through crisis or adversity. While people often refer to “bouncing back” after a crisis, resilience might be seen as “bouncing forward.” Resilient families rebound and reorganize in the face of challenge, rather than returning to the way things were before the crisis. Strong leadership with a focus on security and some sense of predictability is needed within the family to help guide vulnerable family members through changes in the family. (Walsh, F. 2006 Strengthening Family Resilience. New York: The Guilford Press)

In other words:
“Gifted are the flexible for they shall not be bent out of shape.” If we can see the bigger picture of what the important issues are and then bend with the tide, we can be ready for some of the changes that are thrown our way. Balancing our usual roles and traditions with the need to be flexible can really help us cope with challenges. Maybe we need to change the rules and share in the decision making. Are there some things that you always do that maybe could change? We often get in a rut of thinking there is only one way to accomplish our goals – and then we find that someone else has come up with a new solution to something that has taken hours for you to do. Be open to new ideas and new ways of thinking.

What you can do:
Think out of the box! Have you ever had breakfast for dinner? Thinking of different ways to approach a situation can help you realize there is more than one way to find solutions to an opportunity. Traditions are important in our life, but we may need to create new traditions to meet the changing needs in our family. Do the same people always do the same chores at home? Swap chores with someone else to gain mutual appreciation for what the other person does. If you haven’t done laundry in years – offer to do it! Folding laundry can be very therapeutic – you experience a sense of accomplishment and can do some problem solving while you accomplish a task. Or add a little twist to the routine chores, like mowing the lawn in a different pattern. Being flexible can make it easier for everyone to cope.

Be Connected to Others

Experts say:
Resilient families know they can count on each other during times of crisis. At the same time, family resiliency is strengthened when members respect each others’ individual differences, separateness, and boundaries. Resilient families are able to balance connectedness and separateness among family members in order to respond to changing situations within the family. (Walsh, F. 2006 Strengthening Family Resilience. New York: The Guilford Press)

In other words:
Stress can affect our interpersonal relationships. Just when we need each other the most, worry and fear leaves us feeling like we’re facing the situation all by ourselves. To be resilient we need to draw upon our family and friends. We need to give people “refrigerator rights,” meaning permission to enter our lives and take part of what’s inside. Don’t shut them out. On the other hand, know that closeness needs to be balanced with space and boundaries. Take steps to care for your relationships so that your support network is strong.

What you can do:
Nurture your relationships. Don’t wait around for your family and friends to make the first move. Reach out to them. Spend time with your family members doing something fun like going for a walk, dancing to music or playing a video game. Send an e-mail or a text to someone you care about just to let them know you are thinking of them. Call a friend and make specific plans to spend time together.

Find Support Through Social and Economic Resources

Experts Say:
Resilient families have a network of people (family, friends, neighbors) and organizations that can serve as their lifelines during challenging times. This network provides practical assistance (information, concrete services), emotional support, and connection to the larger community. Resilient families are able to recognize when they need help and make use of their network to get the help they need. (Walsh, F. 2006 Strengthening Family Resilience. New York: The Guilford Press)

In other words:
Living in a society that places a high value on self-sufficiency can make it difficult to ask for help when we need it. In reality, the ability to ask for help is a strength and the inability to do so can lead to many negative consequences. As poet John Donne (1572-1631) wrote “No man is an island.” We need others to thrive.

What you can do:
Strong family relationships often provide the foundation for strong social support. If you find your family support is weak, encourage family members to communicate their joys, needs, and sorrows and to express appreciation for each other. Spending quality time together also can help strengthen your family support. Want to enrich your life through social supports? You can start today by extending your friendship and support. Call a lonely neighbor. Have coffee with a friend. Accept your child’s offer to help. Remember, strong social support networks are built when you are willing to give as well as receive. In need of economic support? Check out the financial resources on the Financial Education website. Learn about other resources in your community by making a call to 2-1-1, which provides free, confidential community information, referrals and crisis line service 24 hours a day. Keep your eye out for community resource guides or postings in your local newspaper.

Share Clear, Consistent Messages

Experts say:
Resilient families “say what they mean and mean what they say.” Communication that is direct, clear, specific, consistent and honest helps all family members understand the crisis that the family is facing and encourages them to share their feelings and opinions with one another. This type of communication also sets the stage for a shared process of decision making about how the family will go forward in the face of crisis. (Walsh, F. 2006 Strengthening Family Resilience. New York: The Guilford Press)

In other words:
When a family faces a challenge in life, individual family members often have different perspectives. Open, clear communication is a key in helping everyone get through the situation. However, good communications and common understandings don’t just happen; it takes work. It is important to give careful attention to both content and feelings as information is shared and challenges faced. Start by clearly identifying the situation, and then work towards a common understanding of the challenge affecting the family. For example, is the challenge facing your family the loss of income, the change in lifestyle, the dreams put on hold, a combination of these things or something else? Sift through the facts and the hearsay – those bits and pieces of information that family members have gathered on the issue. Listen “between the lines”, ask questions and summarize the conversation from time to time. Use the common understanding as the launching point for making decisions about the future. Your family’s resiliency will be stronger through openly discussing and working together to address challenges.

What you can do:
Have a family meeting to discuss the situation – a time for everyone to be present to learn about the challenge being faced. Share the facts and the feelings – anger, fear, joy, sadness, and affection. Practice active listening skills, listening carefully, asking questions, and restating in your own words what you understand. Be careful of judging, questioning, arguing or evaluating. You may want to consider taking a break if discussions become heated. Remember that young children often hear more than you think they do. They may have many misconceptions in their heads and don’t ask questions to clarify what they have heard. Be sure they too have basic, age-appropriate facts.

Openly Express Emotions

Experts say:
Resilient families are characterized by a climate of mutual trust and encourage their members to share a range of feelings, practice empathy, and comfort one another. Resilient families look for opportunities to enjoy humor and pleasurable interactions that can serve as respite during challenging times. Encouraging family members to laugh with one another or to enjoy a pleasurable activity together can revitalize families who are under stress. (Walsh, F. 2006 Strengthening Family Resilience. New York: The Guilford Press)

In other words:
Try doing a website search on “movies that make you cry” and be prepared for about 17,700,000 hits! Sometimes, a good cry helps us shake off our own blues and releases built-up tension. Now, search for “movies that make you happy” — about 91,300,000 hits! Sharing a range of emotions as well as hopes and fears helps foster a balanced mental state. Just as important is remembering to take ownership for your feelings and actions and not blame others for your reactions to stress. The ability to express emotions in appropriate ways is a key characteristic of resilient people. And when you’re feeling overwhelmed, be sure you still find time to laugh. Laughing can lower stress hormone levels, increase levels of some antibodies and lower blood pressure.

What you can do:
Be kind to yourself and your family. Money concerns bring out all kinds of feelings-it’s okay to cry or to be angry. It’s important to share your feelings so have a conversation with a good friend or write it all down in your journal. Let your family members be honest with their emotions as well. Acknowledge that this is a tough time and that it’s frustrating when we don’t have enough money to do what we’d like to do. Then intentionally balance out those negative feelings with activities that bring out positive emotions. What makes you smile? A comedy on television? A funny e-mail making the rounds? Your children’s goofy comments? Some people keep a collection of jokes and pictures that make them laugh and pull them out when they are feeling down in the dumps. They may even post them on the refrigerator to make other people smile. Find something that makes you chuckle!

Use Collaborative Problem Solving

Experts say:
Resilient families identify problems and the options available to deal with them and then make decisions as a team. Family members use creative brainstorming to discover new possibilities for meeting challenges. Ideas of all members are respected and valued. Resilient families focus on achievable goals and specific steps they can take to achieve those goals. Families build on their success as they pursue their goals. They learn from things that don’t work and try something else. Through this process, families learn skills that can help them be more prepared for future challenges. (Walsh, F. 2006 Strengthening Family Resilience. New York: The Guilford Press)

In other words:
Sometimes the financial challenges we face seem so big that we don’t know what to do. Having a family meeting is a good way to get everyone involved in a discussion about family financial health. Be honest with your children but don’t tell them more than they need to know. It’s best to stay with a brief explanation. Be careful not to overload them with worries that might scare them.

Solving problems as a family can help all family members recognize their value as a family member. For example, if there is less income due to a cut in hours on the job, it’s okay to talk about this. You can then work together to think of options for the family. You might decide to borrow movies from the library instead of renting them in order to save money. You might decide that you’re going to have a family night with pizza and games once a week instead of going out to eat. Small actions will help family members feel more in control and help relieve anxiety.

What you can do:
Make sure you are calm before you open any discussions with your family about money. You may want to rehearse what you’ll say and ease your own worries beforehand by talking with the other parent or a friend. Try to focus the discussion on how each member can be a helper in saving money. It might be helpful to make a list of ideas as they come up. One member might want to be the “coupon clipper” while others might identify rarely-used toys or clothing that could be sold in a garage sale. The family could agree to drink water from a pitcher in the refrigerator rather than buying expensive sports drinks or bottled water. You might also want to have regularly scheduled family meetings so you can talk about which ideas are working and which are not. This would be a chance to decide on other things that the family wants to do.

Maintain a Positive Outlook

Resilient families hold an optimistic view of life. By affirming family strengths and potential in the midst of crisis, families encourage their members and reinforce a sense of confidence and a “can do” spirit. Resilient families “master the art of the possible,” taking stock of the crisis situation and focusing the family’s energies on making the best of available options. This also implies acceptance of things that are beyond the family’s control.

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