I love children. I love stories. And as a young therapist, I was fortunate enough to have a gifted supervisor who encouraged the use of a therapeutic technique known as mutual storytelling. In the mutual storytelling technique, a child client and his or her therapist or counselor take turns storytelling. The child first tells a story, and the therapist, interpreting the issues the child is struggling with as indicated by the themes of the story, tells another story, using the same characters but perhaps introducing new themes and ways of resolving the conflicts inherent in the story. Storytelling becomes a means of communication through play, the emotional language most often used by children. In my favorite variation of this technique, client and counselor take turns adding to the same story, so that it becomes co-created. It is a fitting metaphor for counseling in general, I think.
In this particular instance the little boy I was working with was age 9. He was being raised by his grandparents in the inner city, and had a hard life by no stretch of the imagination. The main character in his story was none other than a cockroach–a mutant, superhero cockroach. It was a compelling story, and the symbolism of the clash between the worlds of poverty and fantasy–between sense of self as a worthy and powerful superhero versus a worthless, nonetheless tough and persistent, pest–was striking. My supervisor and I actually wrote and published a paper about it.
What struck me the most about this priceless little boy was his perseverance. He was strong, but his strength also seemed tenuous. Working with him, I could sense how he teetered on the edge between resilience and resignation.
Truth be told, many of us teeter on that edge. And the research on resilience is showing it. Whether we flourish or flounder under acute or chronic stress appears to be largely dependent on how we perceive and conceptualize ourselves and our experiences. Fortunately, these determining factors are not fixed traits so much as skills that can be taught. As a recent article by Maria Konnikova of The New Yorker concludes:
[Resilience] is now used everywhere, often in ways that drain it of meaning and link it to vague concepts like “character.” But resilience doesn’t have to be an empty or vague concept. In fact, decades of research have revealed a lot about how it works. This research shows that resilience is, ultimately, a set of skills that can be taught. In recent years, we’ve taken to using the term sloppily—but our sloppy usage doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been usefully and precisely defined. It’s time we invest the time and energy to understand what “resilience” really means.
Psychologist George Bonanno who has devoted his career to the study of grief, trauma, coping and resilience, has, in fact, found this:
People who cope well tend to have an indelible belief that things will somehow turn out OK. They also tend to be confident. They believe that they will be able to exert at least some control over the outcome of even the most difficult life events. This is not to say that optimistic people believe they can undo the past or stop certain things from happening. Sometimes, even the hardiest of individuals are initially stunned after a tragedy. Nonetheless, fueled by their deep-rooted sense that they can and should be able to move on, they manage to gather their strength, regroup, and work toward restoring the balance in their lives. Along with these optimistic, self-confident beliefs, people who cope well also have a broader repertoire of behaviors. Simply put, they seem to have more tools in their toolboxes. ― George A. Bonanno, The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss
At COMPASSion, we know that the best time to start adding tools to the toolbox is during childhood, and we are so excited to be able to offer a new class for children, S.U.P.E.R. Kids! This class uses materials from the Resilience Builder Program published by the Research Press of the American Psychological Association, and offers evidence-based, practical skill-building in a fun, supportive environment.
Offering our children extra opportunities to build skills related to coping and resilience is an investment in their future and ours.
I sometimes wonder about the rest of the story of my little co-author in Atlanta. I hope and pray that he was able to continue developing his own resilience skills, and that he remained connected to his sense of the hero that exists in all of us.
For more information on SUPER Kids, see this blog post, our Facebook page, or contact CC at 724-2325 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Greta Smith, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and board member for COMPASSion Counseling