Mastering the art of resilience

How can young adults stay more resilient through the storms of life? Joanna Lee speaks to a Kiwi husband and wife team based in Malaysia who have trained and mentored disadvantaged youths about their experiences as parents with insights for young adults

Two recent suicides and personal health issues among startup founders, especially in South East Asia has had Khailee Ng, the managing partner of investment firm 500 Startups raise this question “How many of us have the lasting power?”

Resilience is key

The American Psychological Association defines resilience as being able to adapt well in the face of adversities and various types of life stresses.

For Robert Emerson, an education advisor with LeapEd who supervises co-curricular activities in 17 Malaysian schools across 5 states, teaching kids resilience is about conditioning. “How can we condition our kids to cope with stress better? What systems can we put in place to help them cope?”

His wife, Jacqui also works at LeapEd, helping teachers with pedagogy, practice and professional development along with facilitating leadership decision making. Both are based in Pahang.

Robert and Jacqui have been through various personal adversities while growing up under challenging financial limitations. Robert had been chased out of his family home when he was a rebellious teenager and was told to never come back.

Celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary a few years ago, they’ve always worked together to facilitate parenting workshops and have taken turns to work and study for their postgraduate degrees.

Today, they have found their niche as passionate educators, counsellors and mentors to many people. They are proud parents to Jessica, 28 and Joshua, 25 and beaming grandparents to three-year-old Boston.

A mental prison break

Resilience is essentially being able to fail, to lose yet being able to rise up again. “Even in the prison, we found that the kids saw themselves as losers. They absolutely hated losing and they don’t have coping mechanisms to lose”.

Jacqui quips in. “The children there came from backgrounds where their fathers and grandfathers were also in prison. So when Robert asks them, “what are you going to do?” They’ll say “oh, I wanna go to big boys’ prison next.”

Resilience is about breaking out of your own prison of negative cycles.

Creating a safe space for learning resilience

“How do we create a culture of toughness but one that is created in an environment of learning that allows them to fail and safely fail so that they can use that failure to develop a new psyche and a new thinking?”

They refrained from telling their children what they could become. “We were more interested in developing their soft skills, their ability to relate to people. So, we did it through sports and interests,” Robert says.

“It’s about learning to compete, learning what failure looks like – when I give my best, and it just isn’t enough. How do I deal with it? Sports and competition in general is great for developing that psyche that is transferable,” says Robert who observes that Malaysian parents overemphasise on academic to an extent the arts and rich culture is devalued.

So failures come. “Are you going to continue investing in whatever you can to become a winner – or reset your goals as to what winning actually looks like? What have you learned that you could never have learned from winning?” Robert asks.

Another thing that Jacqui shares, “As our children got older, we would give them, “a little bit of rope”. It’s giving them a little bit of trust here, some responsibility there,” she said.

“If they do okay, you give them a little bit more “rope” and that helps build up resilience”.

Robert adds that parents would have to model resilience to their kids. “If you want your children to become a specific type of person, it will have to be shown”.

“We’ve modelled our relationship to show what is life, commitment and a good marriage. But there’s no guarantee our children won’t fail,” Robert shares.

Creating that safe environment also involves providing “well-lit path” for the children to come back to parents when they’ve made mistakes in life.

On the contrary, sometimes “don’t come back” from a parent’s closed door has also made them resilient, just as in Robert’s younger years when his dad told him never to come back.

Jacqui related a time when Jessica became too reliant on them for financial help. Jacqui prepared herself for the tough conversation and braved through her daughter’s tearful words – “But mom, I thought you said we could always come back to you”. Jacqui responded reassuringly but insisted her daughter lived within her means. Jessica is now managing her finances better.

“Most people don’t learn from their mistake because they don’t think about their mistakes,” Jacqui says. “If there’s no place or opportunity to discuss your failures and think of ways to overcome them, then how is it that any learning is to be gained?” Robert adds.

Please land your helicopters, parents

“Don’t try to solve all your children’s problems but ask them, “what can you do to own this problem and fix it?” Jacqui firmly posed this question to her son, Joshua who came to her about his financial challenges. It forced him to think of ideas like selling things and quitting his smoking habit.

Like water, parents must bend in their roles

As children get older, parents should shift into a coaching role. You say, “I could have all the answers, but that may not be appropriate for you because what worked for me may not work for you. You approach it as “maybe you don’t know the questions to ask yourself, so let me be the person who asks you those questions,” Robert says.

Jacqui also encourages parents to look out for mentors or other trusted adults to guide their children. “You don’t have the answers to everything,” she says.

“Parents should upskill themselves. It’s a lifelong thing,” she says.

Building resilience when you’re a grown up

What about young adults who feel they’re currently not as resilient as they would like to be?

Robert observes, “One particular area is to learn to quickly understand who you are and feel good in your own skin”.

Robert says that for young adults to know who they are, staying at home would make it difficult. “Where people have tried to put you in a box that they understand, moving away helps you find yourself,” he says.

“No one can understand someone else’s calling. Because of this, others will try to get you to conform to their understanding as to what it (your calling) is. Finding the self and believing in it when others can’t or don’t is critical for future success,” Robert adds.

“Resilience is really about sowing hope,” he concludes. And that’s the ‘staying power’ you can have while navigating the future. Come what may.

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