(Originally published December 2011)
The subject of resiliency in the face of adversity continues to stir popular imagination, as well as generating both a steady stream of research and considerable scholarly debate. Both researchers and scholarly critics are quick to acknowledge that resiliency is not a temperamental trait like extroversion / introversion or a character trait like perseverance or impulsivity. Christopher Lalonde, a Canadian scholar, utilizes the concept of resilience to refer to “those cases, (i.e., children), in which exposure to risk or adversity fails to produce the usual or expected degree of negative effect, or the magnitude of recovery is greater than anticipated.” Masten, Best and Garmazy (1990) refer to three forms of resilience:
1) positive outcomes despite adversity;
2) sustained competence under stress; and
3) successful recovery from trauma. It seems plausible that persons who are the most resistant to PTSD and other trauma symptoms are also more likely to quickly recover from trauma related mental health conditions, but most resiliency research is not designed to test this hypothesis.
Sapienza and Masten (2011) comment that studies of children at risk for psychopathology have found that “Many young people developed surprisingly well, becoming healthy and productive adults, or recovering from even severe adversity exposure, although some did not.” These researchers identify four waves of resiliency research: first, descriptions of factors that might account for observed differences in youth development; second, identification of processes leading to resiliency, third, promoting resilience in child welfare, schools and other settings through effective interventions and the “fourth wave, now rising, … focused on the processes across system levels that influence individual development in context, from genetic to neural to behavioral to social levels and beyond.” These researchers assert that definitions of resilience have changed to reflect these changing research agendas, and they offer a current definition that follows from a systems perspective: “the capacity of a dynamic system to withstand or recover from significant challenges that threaten its stability, viability or development.”
Even more interesting than the marriage between systems theory and resiliency research has been “the great surprise” that “resilience appears to be a common phenomenon arising from ordinary human adaptive processes,” (Masten, 2001) such as healthy families, normal cognitive development, emotion regulation and motivation to learn and explore the environment. Early resiliency research highlighted allegedly invulnerable children with extraordinary traits, a research focus that has long since been abandoned. More recent research has been interested in “human capabilities and adaptive systems that promote healthy development and functioning.” Masten (2001) comments that “resilience does not come from rare and special qualities, but from the everyday magic of ordinary normative human resources in the minds, brains and bodies of children, in their families and relationships and in their communities.” The systems and processes that promote optimal child development also promote resiliency because children who have secure relationships with caregivers, good social skills, the ability to reflect on their experiences, think before they act when under stress, control their emotions, give wide range to curiosity and opportunities to develop their talents are better equipped to cope with adversity when it occurs.
It is worth considering how resilient individuals function under threatening conditions. Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery (1993) comments that “During stressful events, highly resilient individuals are able to make use of any opportunity for purposeful action in concert with others, while ordinary people are more easily paralyzed or isolated by terror. The capacity to preserve social connection and active coping strategies, even in the face of extremity, seems to protect people to some degree against the later development of post – traumatic syndromes.” Herman comments on Vietnam veterans who had “consciously focused on preserving their calm, their judgment, their connection with others, their moral values, and their sense of meaning, even in the most chaotic battlefield situations.” The perspective on emotional strength offered in this discussion is very different from the acquisition and deployment of super human destructive powers frequently portrayed in American movies.
How do children develop the capacity to affiliate and work closely with others, control their emotions under extreme stress and persevere in attempts to cope with difficult challenges? Resiliency researchers and trauma experts have a common answer, i.e. in nurturing families through emotionally responsive parenting, through empathetic and skilled professional help and in organizational environments that are both supportive and empowering. Literature and films add another perspective: children whose capacity for normal development is severely challenged by circumstances or disability, adult maltreatment, the cruelty of peers and/ or the loss of families are forced into desperate adaptations that come to define their character and shape their fate. Extreme circumstances give rise to extreme solutions, for good or for ill.
One of the best recent television accounts of resiliency is contained in the HBO series, The Wire, a crime show that ran for five years and included seasons focused on labor unions, the political establishment, schools and journalism, as well as police work and drug gangs. The fourth season of The Wire examined attempts to educate “corner boys”, African American youth who sold drugs on Baltimore street corners, several of whom could fairly be described as conduct disordered. These youth learned to survive in a hard violent world, and a number of the youth featured in the show’s episodes suffered violent deaths or became violent criminals during their adolescent years. The behaviors and attitudes that helped them survive on the street did not equip them for the classroom. One season of The Wire follows the attempts of teachers, advocates, police officers and a boxing coach to reach out to these youth, and help them negotiate the school system which is mainly concerned with their low scores on high stakes tests.
In The Wire, the adults who reach out to these youth see past their aggression, verbal insults and refusal to obey the school’s rules to their potential for social connection and learning. Possibly the brightest of these youth is virtually defenseless on the street, but he flourishes under the tutelage of a kind and talented teacher until he is separated from the teacher by promotion to a higher grade in a different school. This young man becomes a drug addict in the show’s final episodes.
Another youth is taken in by an advocate who has endured his outrageous behavior in school after the boy’s mother kicks him out for his inability to earn a living managing a corner in ‘The Game’, as The Wire describes the world of illegal drugs. In the last episode of The Wire, this young man is shown taking part in a city wide debate tournament.
Other adult attempts to rescue youth from a life course whose likely end is prison fail either because of the indifference of the child welfare system which comes off very badly in The Wire, or because youth of strong character who can protect themselves and rise in drug gangs through violence are too well adapted to the street and too distrustful of adults to accept their overtures. Some of these youth have extraordinary management potential and strong attachments to siblings.
In The Wire, both the schools and police department have been thoroughly corrupted by testing and performance measures, and regularly ‘game’ or lie about statistics to impress their superiors and advance their careers. The schools teach to tests much of the year, a process that deadens curiosity and makes a mockery of learning; and police make meaningless arrests of corner boys to inflate their arrest statistics while often allowing mass murderers to operate with impunity. Child welfare agencies are portrayed as rule blind bureaucracies who place youth in residential facilities in which strong youth prey on the weak.
Some of the lessons of The Wire can be applied to child welfare policy and practice with children of all ages. Most children who have had hard lives and have lost their families, or been maltreated by drug addicted or mentally ill parents can respond to the kindness of strangers even in adolescence if the adults who take a continuing interest in them are skilled, emotionally intelligent and persevering. Skilled adults join with children’s interests as they are and shape these interests in pro- social ways. Children and youth have an extraordinary capacity to help one another, but they also require good adult role models and adult assistance.
Children who are in foster care are in an extremely vulnerable precarious position, much more so than often assumed by child welfare staff desensitized by day in day out experience of placing children in out- of- home care. These children, like sick and elderly adults dependent on others, are unusually sensitive to acts of kindness and cruelty, or others’ indifference to their plight. The experiences in foster care and residential care of exceptionally vulnerable children and youth can have a lasting effect on their beliefs and expectations, and consequently on the attitudes with which they approach the world. One dimension of resilience is positive adaptation to changed circumstances, a potential which becomes more difficult when children fear and distrust adults.
There is another piece of resiliency research regarding community responses to trauma that has relevance for child welfare policy and practice. Christopher Lalonde has noted that “the rate of suicide for First Nations youth (in Canada) is much higher than for non – Native youth. By our calculations, the risk of suicide … is 5- 20 times higher for First Nations youth as a group. ... there is, however, huge variability in the rate of suicide at the level of communities.” Lalonde and his colleagues have developed measures of the extent to which Aboriginal “communities have taken active steps to preserve and promote their own cultural heritage and to regain control over various aspects of their communal life.” These measures include efforts to regain legal title to traditional lands, to reestablish forms of self- government of education and provision of health care, fire, policing and child and family services, and to erect facilities devoted to traditional cultural events and practices. Over a 14 year period, Lalonde asserts, “success on each one of these measures is associated with a decrease in the rate of youth suicide.” Furthermore, risk reduction is cumulative according to Lalonde. “When none of these marker variables (i.e., indicators of self- government and cultural continuity) is present, the youth suicide rate is 10 times the provincial average; when all six are present the rate falls to zero.”
Lalonde concludes that culture can be a protective factor in youth development. He writes “When communities succeed in promoting their cultural heritage and in securing control of their own collective future – in claiming ownership over their past and future – the positive effects reverberate across many measures of youth health and well – being. Suicide rates fall, fewer children are taken into care, school completion rates rise, and rates of intentional and unintentional injury decrease.” The self- empowerment of communities that have experienced repeated assaults on their cultural traditions to govern themselves and find a positive identity in cultural traditions builds youth resiliency, according to this research.
Lalonde comments that “resilience implies transcendence” over destructive events, the main reason the subject continues to excite popular interest. Children and adults whose potential for productive lives could have been destroyed by trauma, or by a desire for vengeance or by drugs and alcohol, or by chronic mental illness discover surprising potential in themselves for caring, for useful and creative work and for development of talents in response to new environmental conditions. This is a story that doesn’t get old and that turns out to have surprising dimensions and depth.
Herman, Judith, Trauma and Recovery , 1992, 1997.
Lalonde, Christopher, “Identity formation and cultural resilience in Aboriginal communities,” Chapter 4 in Promoting resilience in child welfare , edited by Robert Flynn, Peter Dudding and James Barber, 2006.
Masten, Ann, “Ordinary Magic: Resilience Processes in Development,” American Psychologist , March 2001.
Masten, Ann, “Promoting resilience in development: A general framework for systems of care,” Chapter 1 in Promoting resilience in child welfare , edited by Robert Flynn, Peter duding and James Barber, 2006.
Masten, A., Best, K. and Garmezy, N., “Resilience and development: Contributions from the study of children who overcame adversity,” Development and Psychopathology, 2, 1990.
Sapienza, Julianna and Masten, Ann, “Understanding and promoting resilience in children and youth,” Current Opinion in Psychiatry , 24, 2011.