Is resilience still a useful concept when working with children and young people?

CFCA Paper No. 2 – April 2012

Current empirical literature on resilience: How has it been used and measured?

In line with the broadening of the concept, recent empirical studies of resilience have used a range of different measures of risk and protective factors, as well as outcomes that indicate resilient functioning. It is these differences in measurement that have created some ambiguity regarding resilience and its various meanings. As noted by Rutter (1999), there is a complex and very individual range of individual characteristics, plus external family and environmental factors that influence cycles of negative experiences as well as positive chain reactions. It is the diversity and complexity of an individual's experiences that may render the construct of resilience somewhat unclear. For practitioners there are three main components of resilience that have been defined and measured differently and therefore need to be understood.

What is risk or adversity?

Differences in what constitutes "exposure to high levels of adversity" have led to potential confusion and a lack of clarity around resilience. What defines "adversity"? What is "risk"? How much is "high levels"? Some studies have considered exposure to a single adverse event or type of risk. Others have suggested that exposure to adversity is rarely a one-off event and so have included measures of cumulative adversity. For example, in their studies of resilience, Hjemdal, Friborg, Stiles, Rosenvinge, and Martinussen (2006) utilised a broad ranging 18-item life stress scale that measured exposure to a wide range of stressful life events such as divorce, having been bullied, serious illness in the family and exposure to violence. In contrast, Dean and Stain (2007, 2010) included only items related to the impact of long-term drought on participants living in rural and remote areas. Further to this, research suggests that it may be the number of risks and chronicity of risk exposure that is more important than any one risk factor, with children experiencing the highest levels of risk (e.g., low socio-economic status, multiple risks, child maltreatment) less likely to show positive outcomes than those experiencing lower levels of risk (Luthar, 2006; Vanderbilt-Adriance & Shaw, 2008).

What are protective factors?

Protective factors, as an element of resilience, have also been a source of variability in definition and measurement. Protective factors are considered to be those that may reduce or mitigate the negative impact of risk factors (Kim-Cohen, 2007). For example, in a longitudinal study of 205 children, Masten and colleagues (1999) included intellectual functioning and parenting quality as potential resources or protective factors, whereas Flouri, Tzavidis, and Kallis (2009) included developmental milestones, temperament, parenting and verbal and non-verbal ability. Protective factors operate at the individual, family and community level and may vary depending on the child's age or developmental stage, as well as the type of adversity being faced. While some appear to be protective across a broad range of risks (e.g., parenting quality), others may be protective only in the context of certain risk factors (Schofield & Beek, 2005; Vanderbilt-Adriance & Shaw, 2008).

What constitutes adaptive or competent functioning?

Finally, adaptive functioning, competence or positive outcomes - which are seen as key indicators of resilience - are understood and measured in different ways. Initially competence was noted as the absence of psychopathology (Masten & Powell, 2003) but more recently competence in a range of areas has been included. Masten et al. (1999) included competent performance ("close to average or better", p. 145) on three age and developmentally appropriate tasks: academic achievement, conduct, and peer social competence. Other studies have utilised components of the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, which has been found to be a valid measure of emotional problems amongst children and adolescents (Dean & Stain, 2007; Flouri et al., 2009).

Further to differences in indicators of adaptive functioning, there has been research suggesting that these outcomes may fluctuate over time and across various domains (e.g., a child may be performing well academically but not so well in other areas of his/her life) and as such, a child's specific context and developmental stage at a given time must be taken into consideration when considering adaptive functioning. Measures of competent functioning should be strongly linked to the risk factors under consideration. For example, in children of depressed parents the absence of depression may be considered competent functioning, rather than high academic achievement which may not be relevant to the risks being studied (Luthar, 2006).

Whilst the broadening of the concept of resilience may have led to some concern regarding its utility, it does not necessarily render it less useful but rather may take into account the major individual differences in people's responses to the same experiences (Rutter, 2006). If practitioners can make sense of the components of resilience then they can work to enhance it through reducing exposure to risk and increasing exposure to protective factors.