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

CFCA Paper No. 2 – April 2012

Resilience in practice

Not only has resilience been well researched but it has also been utilised in a variety of practical ways. There are popular books and practical resources for parents and families. The usefulness of the concept of resilience can be found in the many programs, guides and books offering ways for professionals to build resilience in children by focusing on reducing risk factors and enhancing protective factors.

Programs and services that focus on resilience in practice are likely to fall under one of three types: building the capacity for resilience in all children; building the capacity for resilience in vulnerable children or those facing chronic adversity; or building the capacity for resilience in children exposed to one-off traumatic events.

Building the capacity to be resilient in all children

Interventions at this level are proactive in nature and hope to improve the capacity in all children to be resilient should they encounter adversity. These programs tend to operate at the school or broader community level. MindMatters is an example of a national initiative that operates in secondary schools and aims to foster the social and emotional skills young people require to meet life's challenges <>.

Another example of a program that can be run with all primary or secondary school children is the Resilience Doughnut, created by Lyn Worsley, aimed at providing a process through which teachers, students and parents can build a child's sense of optimism and hope <>.

Building resilience in vulnerable children or those facing chronic adversity

Many practitioners will work with children who face a range of chronic and severe risks. Some resources target these children in particular. Gilligan (2009) described how social workers and carers working with children and young people can promote resilience. By focusing on key protective factors found to be involved in resilience, Gilligan showed how these factors may be supported or protected in the daily lives of children living in care, adopted or in need. For example, Gilligan took the well-evidenced finding that caring, good quality relationships with key adults are one of the most important factors in children showing resilience. His book includes a chapter full of practical ways for workers to grow and support these relationships.

The Early Years: Assessing and Promoting Resilience in Vulnerable Children I (Daniel & Wassell, 2002) is one of a series of guides aimed at different aged children. The Early Years is targeted at social workers and focuses on vulnerable pre-school aged children. It provides an assessment and intervention framework for boosting protective factors based on six domains (secure base, education, friendships, talents and interests, positive values and social competencies) that are considered to contribute to three crucial building blocks of resilience - a secure base, good self-esteem and a sense of self-efficacy. All assessments are based on an ecological framework that includes resources within the child (such as temperament), close family or substitute family relationships, and the wider community. The approach allows social workers to engage in positive practice that can build a network of support around the child.

Another practical guide links resilience to Belonging, Being and Becoming - the Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (Linke & Radich, 2010). The authors offer ways of developing resilience practices within childcare settings, in order to help infants and pre-school aged children gain skills that will assist them with coping with difficulties.

Again, it should be noted that research suggests that there are no "invulnerable" children and that the higher the number and chronicity of risks a child faces, the less likely they are to exhibit resilient functioning (Vanderbilt-Adriance & Shaw, 2008). It is also worth noting that some sources of adversity are preventable (such as child maltreatment and homelessness) and it would be far more effective to prevent these (potentially through universal public health programs and targeted services) than to attempt to address them once they have occurred (Masten & Obradovic, 2006).

Building resilience in children exposed to one-off traumatic events

Many children will face a major traumatic event in their lives (e.g., natural disaster or parental death). Although dependent on the intensity and nature of the disaster1 or the type of negative event experienced, the literature generally suggests that most people will experience these events without long-term negative outcomes (McFarlane, 2005).

There may be approximately 5-15% of people who experience adverse effects such as chronic depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following loss or exposure to violence or life threatening events (Bonanno, 2004). Children and young people may be particularly vulnerable to the impacts of disaster or exposure to trauma, especially if the significant adults in their lives have also been impacted (Fullerton & Ursano, 2005; Norris et al., 2002). Children exposed to trauma are at heightened risk of PTSD, depression and separation anxiety disorder, as well as a wide range of other symptoms and behaviours (Fullerton & Ursano, 2005). These children may require individual intervention in order to recover but most children should be able to get on with life relatively unaffected. There is some research to suggest that intervening with those who are relatively well-functioning may, at the least be ineffective, and for some potentially detrimental (particularly for those receiving grief-specific therapies) (Bonanno, 2004).

It is in disaster situations that a focus on community resilience may be more useful than attempting to intervene with every individual affected by the traumatic event.2 Resilience in children depends upon resilience across interconnected systems (e.g., family, school, community) and it is under conditions such as natural disasters that whole communities are likely to be impacted. This links child resilience to community and family resilience which is particularly important in times of major disaster when systems may collapse at multiple levels and have far reaching effects at a number of levels (Masten & Obradovic, 2006).

For further information, see forthcoming CFCA Paper, Natural Disasters and Community Resilience: A Framework for Support (Price-Robertson & Knight).


1 What constitutes a "disaster"? (Caruana, 2010, p. 80). In the literature, "disaster" is commonly conceived as an adverse event or situation beyond the capacity of the local community to manage. To qualify as a disaster for the purposes of the research conducted by the World Health Organization's Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, an event must involve at least one of the following criteria: 10 or more people killed; 100 or more people affected; a declaration of a state of emergency; and/or a call for international assistance (Rodriguez, Vos, Below, & Guha-Sapir, 2009). Disaster events can be classified in a number of ways: disasters that occur naturally or result from human negligence or intent (or a combination of both); events that are sudden and catastrophic or unfold over a period of time; and incidents that are specific to a distinct geographical location or that are more diffuse in reach.

2 Masten and Osofsky (2010, p. 1037) suggested several ways, based on research findings, in which families and communities may help protect children from major adversity. See the article for full details but important factors include: ensuring that attachment relationships are protected and restored as soon as possible (e.g., through keeping children with their parents during evacuations); ensuring that first responders are trained in the range of developmental responses to trauma that may be expected for children of different ages and remember that first responders for children may include parents, teachers and carers; and restoring children's routines and activities, such as opportunities for play, and restoring schools and community organisations that support these routines as soon as feasible.