Dr. Karen Villa Part 9 | Resilience and Fortitude

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Dr. Karen Villa, a developmental neuropsychologist, joins Sr. John Dominic, O.P. for a discussion on the importance of resilience for a child’s emotional and mental health. Together they explore the synergy between neurobiology and virtue education.

Dr. Karen Villa One of our problems is that we’ve been so enamored with innate talent and performance that we have so lost sight that effort and practice is what leads to success, not just innate talent.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. Welcome to Mind & Heart. We continue our discussion with Dr. Karen Villa about resilience and the connection that it has with the cardinal virtue of fortitude. And we would like to continue to really unpack all the studies that we see a more in-depth understanding that’s grown out of the decade of the mind and understanding this resilience. To begin our conversation we’ve talked about mindsight. Maybe you can define that and then tell us how that kind of effects resilience.

Dr. Karen Villa So, the mind is all the integrated parts working together to balance emotion and thinking.  So mindsight is this idea that emerged out of that that the mind is what regulates information and energy flow with the environment.   Mindsight ultimately is, I can see the mind of another person and have an empathic understanding of that. At this stage of resilience, mindsight is teaching children that they can save a piece of their own mind to regulate, monitor, and modify their own mind. So they can use their mind to regulate their mind. This is how you want to teach calm, this sense of security, and sitting at a distance and looking in on your own mind and seeing what you think about the environment, being responsive rather than reactive with it. So this compassionate communication that parents, through the virtue program, has a lot to do with building mindsight as a tool to engage with the world and deal with adversity.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. So that would be another way of saying, “I got to think about it” right? I gotta take a step back and think about it. Just pausing which is so important to do, which we’ll see when we talk about prudence –

Dr. Karen Villa Before the decade of the brain, we thought the brain was like this fixed entity – it was what it was – but what we discovered when we used all these ways of looking in on the brain is that it has a capacity to grow itself. And that’s the part where neurons that fire together, wire together. So these repeated ordinary experiences that you are giving children in everyday life is really what’s wiring their brain for health. This is something you can even teach your children, this idea of neuroplasticity, that the brain/the mind is really like a muscle and when you use it in certain ways, that’s the pathway that you’re laying down. So, kids can either lay down this strong pathway towards anxiety or they can lay down this strong pathway towards a yes brain.  And being able to stay in touch with thinking, problem-solving, regulating emotion – they’re just different neuronal pathways, and these repeated experiences determine those pathways.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. So what you’re saying is so fascinating because you know oftentimes we can say, “Well, I just can’t do something.”  And what I’m hearing you say is, even if you’re studying it’s something about studying something that’s difficult. I could think about myself the first time I picked up a reading of book Pope Benedict, and I read it and I was in graduate courses, I’m thinking, “I’m never going to be able to understand what he’s saying,” but I can remember struggling and keeping at it and eventually now I can pick up those same books and read it with ease.

Dr. Karen Villa And that is the very nature of it. One of our other scientist researchers, Angela Duckworth, wrote this book on grit – moving through the world with grit, like determination and strength – and she gives example after example of stories of people who just practice their way through things. So it really was about skill-building and this idea that the place I start is not the place that I’m going to finish.  One of our problems is that we’ve been so enamored with innate talent and performance that we have lost sight of that effort. and practice is what leads to success, not just innate talent. right?

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. I think that is such an important point because oftentimes you think, “Okay. Well, this is your talent and your talent doesn’t go beyond this.” Well, you may not be great at it.

Dr. Karen Villa Well that’s the idea of “pushin’ versus cushion,” that Dan Siegel talks about.  As a parent, if you’re in relationship with your child, you have kind of a sense of whether you need to push them or whether you need to cushion them and soothe them. 

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. You could approach it and say, “She’s never going. to be able to do it, so we’ll avoid it.” She may not be an expert and it may not be her talent but you saw that she needed to develop that part of her brain to help her have a more healthy, more integrated brain, right?  I think not that it needs to be every part of everyone’s life, but they need to look at it from that perspective as parents, and sometimes we can limit them – and I’ve seen this happen somewhat even in education, let’s not challenge them more, “They can’t write in cursive,  they’re never going to be able to write in cursive so they shouldn’t.” Well no, because when you write in cursive, actually you’re using a completely different part of your brain –

Dr. Karen Villa And it is a more integrated kind of writing.  So we can really, as parents, want our children to avoid struggle and do them such a disservice by avoiding struggle rather than helping them to lean in and have practice and have successes.  

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. I encourage you, really to look at that; there may be a certain talent which is great, but let’s find other ways so that they can be more integrated and more whole.

Dr. Karen Villa You know, we think that our children self-esteem comes from how much we love them and how much we shower them with praise when really it comes from this kind of resilience where you can practice and weather failure and see that you can be successful; a child feels really good about that on the other end and I would say the foundation of their self-esteem comes from that very thing.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. And even when you said that there reminds me of a study about the joy and that joy comes from the satisfaction of persevering and doing something well. That’s when we talk about this resilience that happens; it’s perseverance, it’s being industrious, it’s this completing that assignment all the way to the finish line.

Dr. Karen Villa So getting back to neuro interpersonal neurobiology, one point in resilience that Dr. Siegel and Dr. Bryson emphasize is that you see behavior as an opportunity to build skills and not as something you need to extinguish, or control, or avoid, or accommodate. So that’s the idea of mindful parenting with this goal of building resilience is that you enter into a difficulty with the idea that you’re going to help your child build skills for handling that difficulty. And he gives the example in his book, for instance, of a little boy who punches somebody when he’s angry. And you could come in and say, “You can’t do that. I’m going to punish you for that. You need to just stop it and knock it off.” Or you can enter it into first with the balanced connection, right? “I see that you’re angry and lets you and I think of some better ways that you can handle your anger.” And it’s a completely different pathway for parenting. One is Mindful and wise and one is just reactionary that has the goal of just surface-level appearance of good behavior, but you’re not getting into that substance of teaching them that they can navigate the world with skill.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. And I think that’s just that soothing them, or being secure, that they’re feeling safe, that even though they may have acted out in that way, you still love them.  And there’s still a conversation that needs to happen. And that’s really when I focus on working with teachers or schools and I want to encourage this language of virtue that to describe the behaviors and habits that we want them to form. I could either approach a situation by saying to the little boy that may hit somebody, “You’re the meanest kid that ever walked these halls,” or I can say, “What’s going on here and let’s find ways that you can be more respectful or more kind,” or “What’s behind that action? What’s behind it?”

Dr. Karen Villa What skills do we want to foster? And then knowing, having faith that that child is going to feel good about himself; and that will be the fruit of having mastered whatever his struggle is. So we have another individual who wrote a book a couple of years ago 2018. It was one of the best books of the year was called The Coddling of the American Mind. He gets into this resilience that we have lost sight of, and that because we are overprotective parents, because of this age of the internet that kids are being raised in, that we’ve promoted this idea of ‘safety-ism‘, that the most important thing is that our children feel safe all the time and that they never experience any kind of discomfort.  And, really what we’re finding is that this is undermining their social, emotional, and academic development and growth. So we have to be very thoughtful about, as he says, “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.” As parents, we want to clear the road for them and make sure that they feel comfortable but then when they need to go out and deal with the adversity of everyday life, they just feel ill equipped –

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. As you’re talking I’m reminded of those the scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird where they’re out playing it’s the wee hours of the night, and all the different situations they run into.   I could even think when I was growing up you just didn’t come inside till they told you it was time to come inside; you just stayed outside till it was dark and then you come in and and

Dr. Karen Villa And that’s nature when any living thing is exposed to the elements they’re going to strengthen and they’re going to have more of a stamina for dealing with the world. You know, as God designed it there are systems that you know, don’t work well if you don’t use them.  The immune system is one of them, our bones weaken if we don’t use them and children are the same way.  They weaken if they aren’t out facing the elements of daily life and feeling like they can handle them. So if we treat children like they should be afraid of the world and safety is the main goal, they are developing this exaggerated fear response. So that’s why we’re seeing these high levels of anxiety, which Dr. Siegel would think about as being in the Chaotic Zone.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. There’s another part of resilience that we would like to have a little bit more discussion on boredom.  But, is there anything on this, the mindsight, any other points that you’d like to touch on before we would continue on to that discussion?

Dr. Karen Villa Well parents feel like they can tell their children about how their own brains are growing that they foster this idea of neuroplasticity, that they have the expectation that children learn to handle these difficult situations with calm and a sense of agency. Like,  “I can handle this situation.” I think that that’s really important to emphasize.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. Thank you, and we’ll continue on with the next part of this which I know we both. Look forward to discussing it.