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

CFCA Paper No. 2 – April 2012

Where did the concept come from? A brief history of resilience

In order to understand how resilience research has evolved, a brief historical overview is provided. Major voices in resilience research have included Norman Garmezy (e.g., 1974), Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith (e.g., 1989), and Michael Rutter (e.g., 1999). Based on their research, and that of others, the concept of resilience has gone from being limited and specific in nature to being a more broad and widely encompassing construct. Research has moved from focusing on the individual to seeing the child within his or her wider family and community context and considering a much broader range of risk and protective factors (see Box 2).

In studying schizophrenia, Garmezy (cited in Masten & Powell, 2003) found that some sufferers appeared to display more adaptive functioning than others. He then investigated children of parents with schizophrenia and became interested in the protective factors that were involved in many of these children doing well despite being highly at risk for psychopathology.

Garmezy and others (such as Ann Masten and Auge Tellegen), through Project Competence, went on to investigate a broad range of factors involved in children's exposure to adversity, risk and resilience. The researchers found that even in high risk groups of children (such as those with physical disabilities or living in homeless shelters) there were some who still managed to display "'ok' competence (ordinary or better functioning)" (Masten et al., 1999, p. 145) despite exposure to extreme adversity (Masten & Powell, 2003).

In their well-cited longitudinal study of children in Kauai, Hawaii, Werner and Smith (1989) expanded the idea of risk to include factors such as chronic poverty, parental divorce or psychopathology, and perinatal stress. The study found that approximately one-third of children exposed to four or more risk factors still developed into competent adults. Various child, family and community factors were related to positive adult outcomes (Werner, 1995). These factors often differed for different age groups and between boys and girls.

More recently prominent researchers such as Michael Rutter (e.g., 1999), Michael Ungar (e.g., 2004), Michael Resnick (e.g., Resnick, Ireland, & Borowsky, 2004) and Suniya Luthar (e.g., 2006) have added their voices to the discussions - critiquing and evaluating the evidence or focusing on areas such as biological and gene-environment influences, cross-cultural settings and the social construction of resilience, and protective factors in the lives of young people.

Box 2: How does resilience relate to other theories and practices?

With regards to the theory, there is some crossover between resilience and other theories such as attachment or trauma and also with strengths-based practice.

Strengths-based practice

The strengths-based approach is a social work practice that, as the name suggests, focuses on the strengths (e.g., competencies, resources, personal characteristics, interests, motivations) of the individual, family or community (McCashen, 2005; Saleebey, 1996). Strengths-based practice involves moving from the more traditional focus on deficits and pathology to a focus on abilities and resources. Strengths-based practice is built on the premise that the normal human development process is towards healthy growth and fulfilment, and that everyone has strengths that will aid them in this process (Strengths Institute, n.d.). This is in line with the finding in resilience theory that most people will do well despite exposure to great adversity (Masten, 2001).

The relationship between resilience theory and strengths-based approaches is that of theory and practice. Resilience is a theory that identifies the importance of protective factors and competencies, and the strengths-based approach is in part the practical application of that theory, although strengths-based practice also encompasses other theories and broader ideas such as empowerment, and healing and wellness (Saleebey, 1996; Strengths Institute, n.d.). As noted by Leadbeater, Schellenbach, Maton, and Dodgen (2004) "… research on the resilience of individuals has helped to characterize many of the essential features of strength-building processes" (p. 16).

It is worth noting that, not unlike resilience theory, strengths-based practice has faced a range of criticisms (e.g., Saleebey,1996; Staudt, Howard, & Drake, 2001). It has been suggested that the practice is simply positive thinking in disguise, that it ignores how manipulative or destructive some clients or client-groups may be, and most seriously, that it ignores or lessens real problems or disorders (such as schizophrenia) (Saleebey, 1996). A review of studies of strengths-based approaches found limited evaluations of the practice and problems with its operationalisation and measurement.

Further information on strengths-based practices:

  • Kansas University School of Social Welfare, Strengths Institute - What is the Strengths Perspective? <www.socwel.ku.edu/strengths/about/index.shtml>
  • Project Resilience <projectresilience.com/index.htm>
  • St Luke's <www.stlukes.org.au/>

Trauma theory

Trauma theory suggests that exposure to psychological and/or physical trauma (such as child abuse and neglect) may have long-lasting negative consequences for children and adults (Bromfield, Lamont, Parker, & Horsfall, 2010; Gordon, 2007). Trauma and exposure to high levels of adversity are similar concepts, although adversity may include things such as living in conditions of chronic poverty as well as other family and community factors. Trauma is often discussed in conjunction with resilience. Some theorists suggest that the two can co-occur and a child may exhibit signs of being highly traumatised and resilient at the same time (Harvey, 2007). This idea fits in with research that suggests resilience may be domain specific, with children able to competently function in some areas of their lives but not others.

Attachment theory

Attachment is another theory that is often discussed in conjunction with resilience and similar concepts. Secure attachment with at least one adult is seen as one of the most common protective factors found in resilient children (Kim-Cohen, 2007). Although there is crossover between these theories, resilience differs in that it involves protective factors beyond the attachment relationship, such as those within the individual child, the family and the wider community. A strong relationship with a key adult most certainly provides protection for the child from adversity but resilience theory suggests that there is a wide range of other factors that may also be involved. This may be particularly important if the child has experienced trauma related to the loss of the key attachment figure.