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

CFCA Paper No. 2 – April 2012

What is resilience?

As can be seen in Box 1, resilience is a complex, multifaceted construct that has been defined ever more elaborately over time and in different contexts.

Box 1: The changing nature of definitions of resilience

Broader definitions

"The capacity of a system to absorb disturbance, undergo change and still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks." (The Resilience Alliance, 2011, para 9)

"Resilience is the happy knack of being able to bungy jump through the pitfalls of life." (Fuller, 1998, p. 75)


"[Resilient children are] … invulnerable children … those children who, despite genetic, psychological, and environmental disadvantage, continue to adapt and perform competently." (Garmezy, 1974, p. 65)


"Resilience of children, that is, their capacity to cope effectively with the internal stresses of their vulnerabilities (such as labile patterns of autonomic reactivity, developmental imbalances, unusual sensitivities) and external stresses (such as illness, major losses, and dissolution of the family). Even through the most stressful experiences in the most terrible homes, some individuals appear to emerge unscathed and to develop a stable, healthy personality." (Werner & Smith, 1989, p. 4)


"Resilience is a broad conceptual umbrella, covering many concepts related to positive patterns of adaptation in the context of adversity." (Masten & Obradovic, 2006, p. 14)

"Recurring attributes of person, relationships and context emerge as predictors or correlates of resilience across diverse situations, implicating a 'short list' of probable and rather general factors associated with good adaptation or recovery following significant adversity." (Masten & Obradovic, 2006, p. 21)

"[A development in resilience research] … was the recognition that positive adaptation despite adversity is never permanent; rather, there is a developmental progression, with new vulnerabilities and strengths emerging with changing life circumstances … A related qualifier was that children can seem resilient in terms of their behaviours but still might struggle with inner distress in the form of problems such as depression and anxiety … scholars now underscore the need to consider the unique profiles, and associated intervention needs, of youth who are behaviourally stellar but at the same time psychologically vulnerable." (Luthar, 2006, p. 741)


"Resilience is not static, it is not a trait, and it is not a construct that can be directly measured. Resilience is a 'superordinate' construct that is indirectly inferred from two component constructs subsumed under its definition: risk exposure and 'good' adaptation." (Kim-Cohen, 2007, p. 272)


"The attainment of positive adaptation in the face of significant adversity involves a developmental progression; new vulnerabilities and challenges and/or strengths and opportunities often emerge with changing circumstances over the life course. Resilience is not something an individual 'has' - it is a multiply determined developmental process that is not fixed or immutable." (Cicchetti, 2010, p. 146)

The term originated in the areas of materials science and environmental studies and then broadened to include resilience in individuals (McAslan, 2010). In discussing resilience it is helpful to look at how the discourse around the construct has changed over time and to identify some of the concepts and ideas that have informed these changes:

  • Early definitions made note of "invulnerable children" (Garmezy, 1974) or children appearing "unscathed" despite exposure to adversity (Werner & Smith, 1989) but more recently researchers have come to acknowledge that there are no invulnerable children (Masten & Obradovic, 2006).
  • Although there is a range of definitions of resilience, most agree that it involves children displaying adaptive or competent functioning despite exposure to high levels of risk or adversity. Resilience cannot occur without the presence of two factors - adaptive functioning and exposure to risk or adversity. A well-functioning child who has not faced high levels of adversity would not be considered resilient (Vanderbilt-Adriance & Shaw, 2008).
  • Resilience has moved from being considered a fixed personality trait to being a temporal process. Research suggests that resilience is not static but may wax and wane over the life course (Luthar, 2006).
  • There appears to be no single path to resilience and both risk and protective factors may have different impacts on children at different stages of development (Masten & Obradovic, 2006). Identifying developmentally appropriate, adaptive functioning is important in defining resilience.
  • Some children may appear resilient in terms of their behaviours but actually be experiencing internal distress (Luthar, 2006). Children may also display resilience or adaptive functioning in one domain (e.g., emotional functioning) but experience significant deficits in another (e.g., academic achievement) (Luthar, 2006).
  • Resilience is a heterogeneous, multilevel process that involves individual, family and community-level risk and protective factors. Individual protective factors may include emotional self-regulation, self-efficacy and self-determination (Cicchetti, 2010). Family factors may include a close relationship with at least one caregiver and sibling attachment (NCH, 2007). Community factors may include a community's social assets such as schools, associations and sporting clubs, as well as feeling a sense of community connectedness (Dean & Stain, 2007; Maybery, Pope, Hodgins, Hitchenor, & Shepherd, 2009). Determining how and which protective and risk processes are involved is imperative for designing effective interventions (Luthar, 2006)
  • More recently it has been suggested that "resilient" functioning may be a more normative response to adversity than once considered. Masten (2001) suggested that "resilience is common and that it usually arises from the normative functions of human adaptational systems, with the greatest threats to human development being those that compromise these protective systems" (p. 227).

As demonstrated above, resilience is not easily defined and involves a range of complex processes in which a child's individual situation and context must be understood. The concept has been used interchangeably depending on the purpose of the research and the outcomes sought. Therefore there is no universal definition of resilience per se, but rather an understanding that it encompasses multiple factors and may differ depending on the context in which it is used.