Interview with Dr. Michael Ungar
What are the most important things to consider when you are confronted with troubled kids?
Both my research and clinical work has taught me that pathways to resilience can look very different in different situations. I always assume a child is coping as best he or she can with the resources they have available. So, when I’m meeting a troubled kid for the first time I’m always trying to see the world from their point of view. The good news is that if I change the circumstances around a child, all the evidence shows that children will respond and change their behaviors too. Maybe not instantly, but over time.
Of course relationships are a big part of this change, but there is far more we can do to help kids get away from troubling patterns of behaviour. That’s what my book, I Still Love You is all about. Showing parents how children respond to structure and consequences, lots of positive relationships (with them and other people), help finding a powerful identity, experiences of control and decision making, even a sense of belonging and one’s culture. All of these things together give children an expectable environment, a social world rich in opportunities. The more stressed a child, the bigger the impact these external things have on a child’s development.
In your keynote about resilience on the job one of the factors you mention is “The necessity of making workplaces physical and psychologically safe”. What can an employer do to support that?
Resilience is something we plan for. Much like an immunization prepares us for future exposure to disease. Workplaces that are already providing employees with a predictable environment, one which rewards effort but also supports employees as they take risks, that is the type of space one thrives in.
Add to that opportunities to use one’s talents, to have some say over some aspect of one’s work, fair compensation, and a workplace that is free of harassment, and suddenly you have a place where people are going to be much better able to withstand change. They’ll feel like they belong. They’ll share the mission of the business. They may even feel like their success at work tells others they are valuable.
It’s not one thing that makes us safe. It’s the cumulative effect of many things that employers do and the way the work environment is structured that makes the difference during tough times. That’s what resilience is: the capacity of individuals and their workplaces to cope when bad things happen.
Can you give three tips to individuals struggling with resilience in their private life?
- Before you blame yourself for your problems, look around and see if you can find the supports you need to change the things that are causing your life to be miserable. Being bullied? Find a friend to hang out with. Feeling unmotivated at work? Ask for help to make your work more interesting, or look outside the workplace for opportunities to use your talents.
- Insist on being treated fairly. Accommodating ourselves to an unjust world is a formula for disaster. We are more resilient when we are treated well and we have the allies to help us gain the respect we need from others.
- Embrace positive uncertainty. Look for opportunities to make your life more fulfilling.
What kinds of clients have you worked with in the past?
In my private practice I specialized in working with children and families where there has been serious problems like domestic violence, family breakdown, child abuse, and addictions. With organizations, my work has been much more about how to develop systems around people to meet their needs, especially during a crisis.
Whether it was looking at developing mental health services for children in schools, or studying the career pathways of young adults during their 20s, this work has always focused on helping people find environments where they can thrive. Where those environments don’t exist, I’ve worked with health care systems, school boards, and governments to develop coordinated approaches to services that help workers and clients reach their potential.
What types of unique experiences have you had as a result of your profession?
By far, the most interesting part of my work is the travel I do. I get to immerse myself in many different communities from the Arctic of Canada to rural Botswana. I get to see the many varied patterns of resilience in people’s lives and to ask them about the people and services that have made their success possible.
There is something humbling about seeing so many different ways of being resilient. I’m constantly challenging myself to bring what I learn into my own life and to share it with others. Many times I feel like a travelling troubadour, carrying stories of resilience from one community to another, hopefully inspiring new solutions to old problems.