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Resiliency as a process

Resiliency is not an attribute of an individual, as this would imply a fixed and unchanging invulnerability that some have and some do not. Rather, it is a complex process involving both internal cognitive and personality factors and the functioning of external protective factors, such as caring adults. Therefore, rather than labelling any child as `resilient` or `not resilient`, it is better to think in terms of children who are manifesting resilient behaviours and those who are not. Also, just because a child is showing resiliency today does not mean that he or she will continue to show it tomorrow or next year. The skills that help a child to be resilient at the age of nine may not be adequate for the demands of adolescence. Resiliency is a process that unfolds within the context of development and many other temporal and contextual factors.

Resiliency is also a normal, understandable process. It arises from normal, human adaptational systems such as the ability to rationally solve problems, the capacity to regulate emotion, and the ability to form close, supportive ties with others. It is only when these systems are damaged or overwhelmed that natural human resiliency fails.

Longitudinal studies of resiliency

A number of longitudinal studies have documented the phenomenon of resiliency over time. The following are some examples:

A longitudinal study of children born into poverty-stricken families on the island of Kauai in Hawaii found that even some of the children who were troubled during adolescence were able to achieve good outcomes in their lives later by making wise choices in such areas as work and relationships (Werner & Smith, 2001).

A study of children who had experienced severe deprivation in Romanian orphanages prior to being adopted into caring families in the United Kingdom showed that many of the developmental delays shown by these children could be made up once the children`s environment had been improved. (Rutter, et al, 1998)

`Project Competence`, a longitudinal study of 205 ordinary elementary school children, found that resiliency is `the extraordinary outcome of many ordinary processes`. The finding that resiliency was based on normal, innate human capacities to adapt to adverse conditions challenged the notion that resilient children were `superkids` blessed with some kind of super-normal invincibility.

A University of South Australia longitudinal study looked at 55 9-12 year old children who had been identified by their teachers as experiencing `tough lives`. 25 of these children were identified as showing resilient behaviours, and 30 were identified as showing non-resilient behaviours. Follow up of these children one year later showed that by and large resiliency remained stable over time, with nearly all of resilient children remaining resilient, and most of the non-resilient children continuing to show non-resilient behaviours (Howard & Johnson, 1998).

Three sources of resiliency

Edith Grotberg of the The International Resilience Project defines resiliency in terms of three sources, which she labels I HAVE (social and interpersonal supports), I AM (inner strengths) and I CAN (interpersonal and problem solving skills).

I HAVE

  • People around me I trust and who love me no matter what
  • People who set limits for me so I know when to stop before there is danger or trouble
  • People who show me how to do things right by the way they do things
  • People who want me to learn to do things on my own
  • People who help me when I am sick, in danger or need to learn

I AM

  • A person people can like and love
  • Glad to do nice things for others and show my concern
  • Respectful of myself and others
  • Willing to be responsible for what I do
  • Sure things will be all right

I CAN

  • Talk to others about things that frighten or bother me
  • Find ways to solve problems I face
  • Control myself when I feel like doing something not right or dangerous
  • Figure out when it is a good time to talk to someone or to take action
  • Find someone to help me when I need it

According to Grotberg, for a child to be resilient, he or she needs to have more than one of these strengths. For example, if a child has plenty of self-esteem (I AM), but lacks anyone whom they can turn to for support (I HAVE), and does not have the capacity solve problems (I CAN), they will not be resilient. This finding is in line with other research showing that resiliency is the product of a number of mutually enhancing protective factors. It is not a personality attribute, but the result of many factors which combine to buffer a child against the potentially harmful effects of adversity.