You’ve likely heard someone say that “children are resilient.” Historically, parenting and child psychology books have touted that young people have the ability to overcome and “bounce back” from hardship and trauma. However, as someone who experienced childhood trauma, I believe that those working with children often fall back on the concept of resilience without fully understanding the scope of the battles some young people are facing on their own.
As a society, we may assume that children facing trauma is a rare occurrence; however, 61% of children before age 18 have experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as violence, abuse, neglect, substance use or mental health problems within the family unit. We may not always hear stories like mine due to the shame or stigma of attempting to conceal the deep pain and trauma. There is a vital need for trauma to be addressed with the utmost sensitivity and compassion.
Mentioning that children are resilient is often well-intentioned, but I believe that this idea, and its accompanying rhetoric, can be detrimental to a child's growth and development; in fact, it can invalidate their realities. Offering this “compliment” to compensate for a child's traumatic environment is something we must reevaluate. With the notable prevalence of ACEs, it matters for adults to know how to support children best.
I believe parents, counselors, educators, coaches, etc. can work collaboratively to meet children’s needs. What this can look like is ensuring the child is in a safe environment, offering emotional support while being mindful of any triggers and vulnerabilities and allowing time for children to heal.
My Experience As a “Resilient Child”
I’ve noticed that the adults in a child’s immediate life typically describe children as resilient when they learn of the battles we have faced — abuse, unsafe home environments, loss of loved ones and more. Having grown up in dysfunction and unpredictability, I have shared my trauma with teachers and counselors in the past — and, as a result, been on the receiving end of the “You are resilient” and “You are so brave” observations.
I initially glowed with joy as I was called “brave” and “resilient.” I relished the positive attention, as most of the attention I received at the time were words and actions fueled by anger and blame. In those rare moments of affirmation from others, I felt comforted — until I returned home and nothing else had changed about my trauma. I was not rescued; I was trapped. Without tangible support, I felt helpless — and my mental health deteriorated over time.
I felt a heavy pressure to continue being “the brave, resilient one” in moments I deserved to rest, recuperate and simply be a child. I would force myself to be strong. I spent years of my life tucking my pain into neat little boxes of resilience that inevitably tore open, with intense emotions spilling out in a great storm of needing to be seen.
While it is nice to commend children for “bouncing back” from an unsafe situation, children simply should not have to “bounce back.” They should always be given safety and stability. American psychologist Abraham Maslow famously developed a “Hierarchy of Needs” which lists safety as a key component to ensure one’s proper growth and development. Safety is comparable to water, food and shelter to us; we depend on these necessities to live.
A flotation device helps us not drown in the ocean for the time being, but we will not have a chance at survival without a lifeboat then pulling us in and returning us to shore. Sometimes I felt I was given floatation devices so I could keep my head above water, but then stranded in the deepest waters. The first step in helping children who are struggling is getting them out of the deepest waters and into safety.
Giving Emotional Support
Additionally, children need emotional support and validation for what they are experiencing. Some of my trauma involved life-altering issues being swept under the rug in my family unit. I spiraled because my dark reality was not acknowledged in the home — or outside of it.
My response is consistent with research on the topic; a 2018 study by Washington State University, found that, “Kids are good at picking up subtle cues from emotions. If they feel something negative has happened, and the parents are acting normal and not addressing it, that's confusing for them. Those are two conflicting messages being sent."
Changing our Language
It is more fitting for someone to recognize how I effectively coped with the after-effects of trauma rather than being called brave and resilient for surviving it; the language and implications matter significantly. Support that serves me better as an adult now is when my supports recognize my strengths and triumphs that I actively work hard on addressing every day — like when I have a “recovery win,” such as being able to sit with my discomfort and find clarity before reacting to an upsetting situation. I am strong in how I choose to heal, manage and grow. I grow leaps and bounds when my supports recognize the hard work I put in today.
As a child, I was not always willing to embrace change, so perhaps finding smaller goals to recognize along my path to recovery would have better served me, rather than facing the implication that survival is admirable — or even that I need to be grateful for my trauma. The truth is that some children face unjust and highly traumatic experiences — and not everything “happens for a reason.”
Allowing Time to Heal
I do not want to be validated for withstanding or surviving; I fell behind my peers and severely struggled growing up because I had no choice but to survive. Rather than being called brave, I want to be able to make mistakes and recover in my own time.
Through my recovery from trauma and mental illness, I have learned that I never had to be resilient; I do not owe anyone else resilience. If anything, I owe myself rest, self-love, compassion and understanding. I thrive when I receive compassion and understanding from others.
Meeting children who are struggling with the correct actions and the intention to resolve the issues at hand is imperative in getting them on a path toward healing. Many trauma survivors face punishment and silence when what they need is the follow-through of rescue and resolve.
Trauma survivors are more than what we survived. I am brave for overcoming, redefining and living life beyond my darkest moments.
Lexie Manion is a published writer, passionate artist, psychology and fine arts student and mental health advocate from New Jersey. She writes about mental illness and body acceptance topics while sharing her personal story of recovery. Lexie is currently studying to become an art therapist, and she strongly believes art and writing are pillars of healing. You can find more of her work at lexiemanion.com or follow her on Instagram.