The Psychology of Wisdom:

The Psychology of Wisdom:

How does being wise relate to resilience?

By: Lyn Worsley
Clinical Psychologist and Director of The Resilience Centre

The connection between wisdom and resilience

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

The study of psychology is the study of patterns in human behaviour and the practice of psychology is about how to change thoughts and behaviour. The statement of the serenity prayer reminds us that psychology is not a fixed science with exact answers for every behaviour.
However over the past 50 years or so the practice of psychology has become broader and has encompassed a number of different dimensions of the human condition. Psychotherapy has moved towards the passing on of insight, helping people to stop and pause with their behaviour and to gain insight in order to change or analyse.
So today there are many psychotherapists who would say they are employed as wise consultants for families businesses and individuals.

The Definition of wisdom:
I can’t define wisdom and I can’t define what it takes to make a person wise, but I know when I hear wise words and I know when I meet a wise person.

There are three dimensions that are referred to in the wisdom literature. Firstly, psychology has studied intelligence and has measured and measured millions of people to establish measures that determine if a person has high, low or average intelligence. These measures track knowledge, problem solving strategies, memory, processing speed and a number of other processes in the brain to get a whole measure of intelligence. But are intelligent people wise?

Secondly there is the ability to have insight. Many people have insight and understanding of others, which is a valuable thing to be compassionate and empathetic, but it can also go towards their ability to manipulate others for their own gain. So are insightful people wise?

The third dimension notes that wise people can empathise with others and show kindness when it is needed. So does wisdom mean being kind and empathetic? However there are many people who are kind in the wrong places, which make many problems worse. Such as, sharing sweet foods with children who develop cavities and obesity in later life. So are kind people wise?

We can see there are a number of dimensions that lead us to think through the term wisdom. Recently in the study of positive psychology wisdom is referred as positive deviance. (Lavine 2011)

Positive Deviance:
Positive deviance is based on the observation that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviors and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, while having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges. (Lavine 2011)
Positive deviance focuses attention on the extreme end of the positive spectrum. And it brings in the notion that there is a process in place towards the end, and that the aim is to move along towards a better future gradually.
Wisdom is a bit like this. The wise person seems to know what actions, thoughts and behaviour move towards a better outcome.
So to do this we do need knowledge, as well as insight as well as kindness and empathy otherwise we would not read the situation well to know how to deviate in a positive direction.

Wisdom and resilience:
Wise people are also socially savvy and can activate their resources around them to make the choices that lead to a more positive outcome. This is how wisdom relates to resilience, as resilience has been defined as having social navigation and negotiation skills (Ungar, 2010).
In the practice of psychotherapy there is the study of humans and there is also the study of the interaction between people. When we relate to another we not only take in the perspective of our own thoughts and feelings but also those of the other person in front of us. This means we take in information, we assess, analyze, and understand.
We learn this through our everyday interactions and the more positive these interactions are, the more likely we are to learn the positive deviance skills to help us to make socially savvy and wise choices. The Resilience Doughnut ((Worsley, 2006) shows the development of resilience is through the interaction of positive intentional contexts in a persons life. Within these positive contexts, skills develop, which in turn enable a person to activate the most useful resources during tough times throughout life.

Using positive deviance and resilience tools in therapy.
When practicing wisdom in psychotherapy, understanding another person involves more than knowing theories, having a kind heart and insight. It involves understanding the person’s different contexts and the reactions of others around them to really understand them and to see the positive direction for them.
When we think about things from our own being we are merely applying knowledge and the psychology skills. But when we think about things from the others perspective and really totally get into their space we are then able to understand and relate at a different level. This leads us to a place that increases our potential for wise reflection. Because when we are in the space of another we can see what they need to understand next in order to make the next step towards a more positive future.
A lot of psychology is looking for the right words and saying the right things and directing the right way for clients. But to apply wise counsel involves being in the others space and seeing what are the right actions to take for them, and being able to give them this information when they are ready to take it in.

To paraphrase Carl Jung 

“The right insight at the wrong time is the wrong insight.”

As a therapist I can tell someone that this relationship is terrible for him or her, or their alcohol addiction is ruining their life but until they are ready to hear this insight, it is the wrong insight. A more helpful insight is understanding their place in the relationship, and their experience of the alcohol use. When I experience another’s perspective I then have a better understanding of when to say things and when to not.

Using wisdom and resilience skills at Christmas time:

Christmas involves catching up with relatives and friends who we often find difficult. It also may involve sharing stories or our own difficulties throughout the year. Being wise at Christmas time may involve listening to stories and seeking to understand another without judgment or giving advice. Listening and reflecting for more understanding can help each of us to gain further insight into life, not for our own gain but for interest in another.

Being socially savvy at Christmas time may also be an opportunity to be deviant in a positive direction, helping others, caring for others and reaching out to those who may be worse off than ourselves.
So this Christmas, lets be wise, lets be resilient and lets all practice positive deviance.


Lavine, M. (2011). Positive Deviance. In K. Cameron & G. Spreitzer (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. Oxford University Press.

Ungar, M. (2010). What is resilience across cultures and contexts? Advances to the theory of positive development among individuals and families under stress. Journal of Family Psychotherapy, 21(1), 1-16. doi:

Worsley, L. (2006). The Resilience Doughnut. The secret of strong kids. Sydney: Wild and Woolley publications.

What to Expect When Your Child Starts School – A Parent’s Guide

by Hazel McKenzie
Registered Psychologist
Alpha Psychology and The Resilience Centre

I am an emotional mother. There we are, I’ve said it. I own it. I am a mother first and a psychologist second when it comes to my family and children. I could write for hours about pregnancy, birth, sleep deprivation, infancy and developmental milestones but unless you have lived through it you will be looking through frosted glass. And it’s usually rose coloured. A first child’s, first day at school is one of those frosted glass moments that I never really understood until I was there. We all spend so much time on how to prepare our children for school, what about the parents?

When you are handed your squirming bundle of awesomeness, obstetricians and midwives often point out there is no manual. I disagree. I was given a myriad of manuals on how my unborn was developing and growing –weekly updates were insufficient for me, I wanted daily and they were available at my fingertips. After the safe arrival of both my children I read up on how they were supposed to behave, sleep, feed – I was disappointed that they didn’t tell me that two babies could be DIFFERENT. I had human ‘manuals’ offering me advice everywhere I turned, during every ‘phase’ that I ruminated over and sleepless night that I had.

So when my first born started school, I expected that I would be furnished with advice and a ‘What To Expect When Your Child Starts School’ manual from mothers who had walked the walk before me. Instead I got uncertainty.

I have worked in schools and with children and their parents for over 15 years. I have worked with thousands of children and comforted parents and children alike on those first tentative days of Kindergarten or at a new school when it feels like they are about to be thrown to the lions. My advice to parents has not changed much over the years:
–          emotionally prepare yourself for the day
–          say goodbye quickly
–          don’t show your child that you’re feeling anxious
–          smile lots
–          reassure them that they are going to have a fabulous day
–          DO NOT let them see you cry

All sounds pretty straightforward? Yes, that’s what I thought too.

The emotional rollercoaster can start early at the school induction, an essential part of the process for children AND parents. The little Kindergartens sing a song about mateship and how great a school they have. Tears. The Principal talks about the opportunities and exciting things that your child is about to experience. Tears. The band plays out of tune. Tears. The thought of the first day and letting go of a hand. Tears.

Buying the school uniform can be the most emotional shopping trip since buying the pram. Get ready for how emotional you may feel when your child emerges from the change room drowning in stripy material two sizes too big. The colour will be bold, strong, independent…maybe the opposite from how you see your child. Tears. School shoes one size too big. Tears. Ads on TV for back to school stationery? Surely that couldn’t tug a heart string?

Many schools advise a countdown for new Kindergarteners and this can be helpful for you too. Visit the school frequently so that you all feel comfortable there. Look at the school website for information on procedures, before and after care if you need that, P & F meetings, canteen menus. Each day do something practical that will make you and your child more comfortable about the whole experience. Don’t bury your head in the sand. Your job as a parent is to support the development of your children to independence. That needs to be your long term aim; that these small significant steps are all paving the way to the well balanced independent adult that does not miraculously emerge if they have been sheltered in a parental cocoon for 18 years.

When the BIG day arrives some mindful meditation before you wake your child will help you to steady your own anxiety. Pack lunch together, take lots of photographs. DO NOT arrive too early at school if you think you’ll be emotional. Better to take them for a milkshake or special breakfast first rather than standing around wringing your hands. Do not be late either though. This will cause your child anxiety. Make sure you’ve adequate time to park the car if you’re driving. Arrive there without rushing so that a relaxed mood is set.

Meeting your child’s first teacher is very special. It is good not to overwhelm them with information about your child when they may have up to 30 others in varying states of emotion to tend to. The children have to come first for the teacher at this time, your needs are secondary. If you have special information – learning needs, allergies –  that should all be passed on BEFORE the first day. Success and positivity is the teacher’s goal for the first day. Your child will idolise this person and remember them always. Even if you are unhappy with them do not speak about them in a negative way in front of your child. This sends the wrong message about how we resolve issues.

Kindergarten classrooms are magical. Full of colour, enthusiasm, innocence and potential. Parents, myself included, can be transported back to their own first day at school in a flash and this can take you by surprise. Be ready. You could have shared this experience during the last day or so with your child. If the experience wasn’t positive for you, talking it through with a friend or partner can help you to work through this. To avoid a trend occurring you should not project your own anxieties or negative experiences onto your child.

As you stare across a sea of fresh faced enthusiastic anticipation and realise people are leaving it is time to go. Practice beforehand. When you say goodbye at preschool pretend it’s the first day. Visualise some possible scenarios beforehand. This can be a very difficult moment and parents hang around wanting to reassure themselves that their child is okay. They will be and if they are not you will make it worse by prolonging your departure. I know this is easier said than done. Tell them how proud you are, that you love them and you’ll be back soon. And go. If you are crying, or about to, do not look back and do not let it go until you are out of sight. Let yourself have a moment, it’s big day for you too.

Other parents can be judgemental, supportive or apathetic. Friendships formed at the school gate can be lifelong and generally last longer than the children’s passing infatuations with one another. Try and offer your support to others and share stories. Keep busy, have things to do. Do not go home to an ‘empty nest’. Reach out to others and make friends. Before you know it you’ll be back to collect your child and guess what, they are still the same! They still love you, need you, hug you.

We’re not all ‘naturals’ at everything. Some children simply thrive at school, some don’t. Some parents find this easy, some don’t. Being emotional at my child starting school doesn’t make me a failure as a mother. Empathy and emotions are two of my best strengths. I wasn’t ready to let go of my baby, and yet somehow I’d done a good enough job that she WAS ready. I’d like to think things will be easier with my second, but I know they’ll probably be worse. That’s OK. I’m a work in progress. We all are. My new bestseller ‘What to Expect When You Don’t Expect To Be Emotional ’ will be on bookshelves soon. Catchy title, eh?


Preparing Parents for Teenagers

by Stephanie Schwarz
Registered Psychologist
Alpha Psychology and The Resilience Centre

A lot of my thinking about teenagers has been about how to prepare young children for the big issues that they are likely to face in their teenage years. We can help our children to navigate and be role models in the midst of concerning trends in our culture.

I am not advocating to have the sex talk at the age of 2, but rather that parents set the tone of a relaxed approach to key life issues, so that these conversations continue to be approachable as they grow.

Also we can help kids to think more critically early on to help them for when they encounter the challenges ahead of them. We don’t have to find the solutions for them, rather we can equip them to find good solutions.

Imagine that in the middle of the playground, your 3 year old pipes up with “Daddy, where do babies come from?” If you’re clear in your own thinking about what you want for your little one to know about their body, with ideas about how you’re going to talk about it, you’re more likely to take the opportunity to talk openly and show them this is a safe topic. If you don’t have a clear idea, you’re likely to get flustered and have a conversation that is a bit fluffy. And they’ll probably not to raise the question again too soon.

At a recent conference several concerns were raised by professionals who are concerned about the challenges currently facing our adolescents. Here are some points from three topics:

a. Sexploitation:  Our media contains increasingly sexualised content. Ads are appealing to our most base levels of arousal –  physical attraction and insecurity about our appearances. Millions of dollars are made every year on pornography and children are being drawn into it, viewing it and appearing in it. Children are learning more about sex from pornography than anywhere else. The average age of first exposure to pornography is 11 years old. We need to be parents who are ready to talk openly with our children about their sexuality.

b. Alcohol Use:  Alcohol is a money spinner for government, so it is a hard battle to restrict advertising in sports, merchandising it in alco-pops and reducing pub opening hours. The alcohol industry uses many ploys to get young people on board with the idea that drinking alcohol is how to have a good time. Do we talk with our youngsters about how alcohol is used in by our community? How do they observe us use alcohol? Do they have skills to make friends and fun within their community?

c. Merchandise:  The lie merchandising tells us is that life is all about how we look and what we buy. Advertisers appeal to the need be part of the tribe to keep us buying. Can we recognise that our own deep human longings for love, acceptance and belonging are being appealed to as we shop?

Merchandising uses every sense it can for a quick sell. Internet games are designed in order to embed advertisements. Vanilla smells are impregnated into toys because it reminds children of their mother’s milk. Distinctive sounds are used, via packaging or a jingle. Toys associated with food increases the sale of the food. In a media saturated society, what conversations do we have with our children to help them to see these ploys?

Qualities of parent child relationships

I left the conference pondering thinking of ways that parents can prepare our families for adolescence.

Parenting young children is very different to parenting teenagers – in the infant and primary years parents are focused on providing safety, security, learning experiences and are the gatekeepers to what the child can access.

Parenting tween and teens gradually provides room for their key developmental tasks (independence, identity, and peer relationships). Parents are still very important to their well being, but the role that is needed changes remarkably. Parents gradually take on the new role of consultants. Parents do well to invest early on in creating relationships that help to keep them available as consultants for their teens to turn to when facing awkward, embarrassing and crucial challenges.

An example of preparing for teenage years while our kids are still young:  I have explained to my children that teenagers can be interested in taking drugs and what some of the dangers are. When we heard about the schoolies reveller who fell off a high balcony, my 9 year old heard the report. Instead of dismissing this scary fact from our conversation, I talked with her about how young people think that when their responsibilities are over they think they can act irresponsibly and sometimes at the cost of their safety. (I didn’t tell her about the pictures that some young men take of their drunk-passed out girlfriends and post them on Facebook.) I simply let some information be available to her – enough so she can make her own mind up. Since she was still interested in the conversation, her thinking was stretched further by my asking, “What do you think would be a good way to rest after big exams so that you were having fun and staying safe at the same time?”

It can be helpful to consider, “What values do I want to teach as I parent?” and “Does how I respond reinforce or undermine this value?”

Here are some to consider:

Values (deliberate and inadvertent)
• Kindness
• Self-control
• Purposeful
• Confidence
• Persistence
• Resilience
• Generosity
• Patience
• Humility

I bet that you’re already doing some things in your family to grow your little ones into mature people who can make healthy, informed and thoughtful choices. What have you done recently?