Resilience is a descriptive name given to unexpectedly positive outcomes in the face of negative predictors for child development. The unexpectedness of the outcomes appears to have influenced at least three of the major researchers in the field. While tracking children of drug-addicted women in London, Michael Rutter is reported to have doubted his study when he found that at least one-fourth of the children seemed healthy and capable. When Norman Garmezy studied the children of severely depressed women and found that some of the children seemed healthy, he also doubted his own diagnosis of the mothers. Other research of pathologies led him in the direction of studying the attributes of competence in children. Yet another researcher drawn into the "why not" question was Emmy Werner, known for her longitudinal study of native Hawaiians born in 1955. The study originally focused on the vulnerability of children exposed to several serious risk factors. When one-third of the children successfully coped with the risk factors, however, she changed the focus to look at the roots of resiliency.
How Resiliency Works
Resiliency is the result of a complex interaction between risk factors and protective factors. A closer look at the risk factors reveals three main categories. One category includes life events that tend to trigger disorders; such events include catastrophes, natural disasters, and other traumatic circumstances. Another category is chronic adversity in the home or neighborhood, which predisposes the child to vulnerability; included in this category are poverty, violence, substance abuse, poor prenatal care, and parental psychopathology. Third, the absence of protective factors is itself a risk factor. There is an interactive effect among the risk factors that tend to escalate their impact. Single stress factors do not have a critical impact but combinations do, and additional difficulties compound the impact of all existing risk factors.
There are several ways to look at resiliency and the impact of stress on adaptation. At times the risk factor is seen as having a strengthening or steeling effect, inoculating the individual as the challenge is confronted. In other models risks are not the only elements at work. There are also a wide variety of factors that protect children from the hazards and stresses they face. These protective factors function by increasing resistance to risk, making the stress more tolerable. They may also be seen to alleviate the effects of stress, thus fostering adaptation and competence. These factors can be organized into three groups: personal disposition, family environment, and outside support systems.
Growing Up Resilient
For the newborn, good health is a protective factor. Another is being an easy baby, that is, an active and good-natured baby with an easy temperament. These babies elicit a positive response from the primary caretaker. The age of the opposite sex parent is an influence but it differs: younger mothers for resilient males but older fathers for resilient females. Spacing is protective if there are two years or more between children, as is having four or fewer children in a family. Other protective factors important in infancy are the mother's workload and the number and type of alternative caretakers available to the mother. The amount of attention given by the mother or primary caretaker is yet another. In considering these factors it is easy to see the interaction among them.
As the child grows, the care-giving style of the parents comes to the forefront as a protective factor. This is a realm where self-esteem can be fostered and the child can acquire areas of skill and mastery. Socialization within the family works as a strengthening shield when trust, autonomy, initiative, and affective ties are encouraged. Families fostering resilience often include relatives with similar values and beliefs who are available to pitch in when the parent or parents are not present. Also common is either a brother, or sister, or close friend who takes care of the other children.
Interestingly, an intact family is not a consistent factor. A father's absence is not the determining factor in resilience—more important is the overall coping and functioning of the family, with low discord. An organized home environment that includes structure and monitoring does contribute to fostering resilience.
Other caring relationships develop in school. Along with extended family members, teachers are extremely important as confidants, mentors, or positive role models. During middle childhood and adolescence, encouraging school environments are a powerful factor. A school buffers stress when it provides a place to excel at something—to be recognized and feel good about one's self has a definite buffering effect. Schools that foster resilience have high expectations for children and provide them with opportunities for participation and contribution. In such empowering schools, students' self-esteem, self-efficacy, and positive values are reinforced. Additional supportive environments include churches, clubs, and organizations that furnish positive role models. Through these, caring adults lessen the effects of the risk factors. The community at large can also contribute, when it makes good public health care available and provides high levels of public safety.
Profile of a Resilient Child
Resilience happens when the factors protecting the child outweigh the hazards and handicaps. A child with roots of resiliency is an optimistic, well-balanced person. This child has effective problem-solving and communication skills. Resilient children are generally efficient at getting other people to help out and have at least an average IQ. They also most likely have an area of ability that is recognized and appreciated by those around them. A hopeful outlook is observed, with faith in the future and a sense of meaning in life. A good sense of humor is common, as is efficient impulse control and social skills.
Resilient children do not run a straight line to success. In adolescence, resilient youths may report higher levels of anxiety and depression. Resilient youths rely more heavily on practical coping skills than well-adjusted adolescents who have not been exposed to multiple risks. Resilient youths also struggle more with self-esteem and may experiment with antisocial or illegal activities, although this is not a predictor of similar later activities in adulthood.
There is a temptation to think of resilient children as super-kids who are invincible and stand up well under stress. After all, they can be identified as high risk due to their being poor or coming from families with a history of violence, crime, or substance abuse. They may come from a large family, with parents who have a minimal education or even mental health problems. Maybe they were even born with some congenital disease. Yet somehow, protective factors are also in place and they are beating the odds. Showing signs of being well-liked, well-adjusted, functioning children, it is no wonder they seem "survivors." One researcher described resilient people as a "checkerboard of scars and strengths."
A resilience-based approach is already being used in many youth development, school improvement, and health-risk behavior prevention programs. Some programs have risk-focused strategies, such as the health program that seeks to reduce the exposure to threat. Others focus on improving the number or quality of resources available. Yet others seek to mobilize basic human adaptation strategies such as supporting cultural traditions, fostering secure relationships, or teaching effective coping strategies. Programs exist that include all three types of strategies.
In the early twenty-first century, research was evolving from the identification of the traits of resilience to resilience as a dynamic developmental process. The latter research was seeking to understand the precise nature of the interaction of resilience and risk factors in order to improve health, social, and academic outcomes. In providing a framework for the programs mentioned, it is considered the responsibility of adults to provide the external protective factors or assets while fostering the internal resilience traits of young people. The basic external assets include caring relationships, high expectations, and meaningful participation in home, school, and community. The internal assets encompass social competence, autonomy and sense of self, and sense of meaning and purpose.
The study of resilience holds the key to helping strengthen children's chances of succeeding in spite of many obstacles. The good news is that the past is not a prison, survivors exist who escaped and beat the odds. Their strengths can be identified along with strategies and processes to enhance the developmental process. Resilience can be cultivated.
Glanz, Meyer, and Jeanette Johnson, eds. Resilience and Development: Positive Life Adaptations. New York: Klewer Academic/Plenum, 1999.
Resilience Net. "Information for Helping Children and Families Overcome Adversities." A collaboration of Assist International and ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education [web site], 2000. Available from http://resilnet.uiuc.edu; INTERNET.
Werner, Emily, and Ruth Smith. Overcoming the Odds: High-Risk Children from Birth to Adulthood. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.