Reflections on Resilience
(Originally published April 2017)
Ann Masten, the author of Ordinary Magic: Resilience in Development (2014), defines resilience as “the capacity of a system to withstand or recover from significant distress that threatens its adaptive function, viability or development.” Masten has studied resilience for several decades in a variety of different contexts, including following natural disasters, fatal accidents, forced immigration due to war or famine, terrorist attacks and chronic adversities such as homelessness or child abuse and neglect. Masten has commented that interest in resilience has waxed and waned over time, in part, as a response to “tough times” that threaten whole communities or societies. In recent years, child welfare practitioners, other professionals and child advocates have raised insistent questions regarding the factors that influence resilience due to the widespread dissemination of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) research findings regarding the dose related effects of childhood adversities on physical health and mental health over the life span, and because of increased understanding of the effects of traumatic stress on both children and adults. It seems that increased awareness of the factors that disrupt positive child development intensify the need of helpers and advocates to identify experiences, capacities and social environments that can protect children and youth from debilitating and disastrous outcomes.
Research of resilience during and following histories of child abuse and neglect has evolved over several decades from an interest in the characteristics of exceptional children (see The Invulnerable Child, 1987) who could somehow withstand and developmentally overcome severe child maltreatment to the perspective that resilience is common, more the rule than the exception. I doubt that many scholars ever believed that there were “invulnerable” children unaffected by child maltreatment and other adversities, but publishers understood the public fascination with a story bordering on myth and legend that resonates across cultures and apparently cannot be eliminated through scholarly disdain. This story is best approached through studies of myth such as Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces and through biographies of notable men and women rather than through prosaic research studies. In this powerful story, heroes, conquerors and world beaters not only triumph over adversity, their identities are created by early trials and suffering without which their achievements could not have occurred.
Pathways to Resilience During and Following Early Adversities
Researchers who worked on the initial ACE studies have described a pyramid of processes to explain how childhood adversities affect physical and mental health over the lifespan. Adversities such as child maltreatment, growing up with a substance abusing parent, a mentally ill parent, domestic violence, the loss of a parent due to illness, death, incarceration or other reasons, are the foundation of the pyramid. Multiple adversities often result in compromised early brain development which leads to social and emotional problems followed by self harming behaviors such as smoking or substance abuse which eventually lead to chronic health conditions and disabilities, sometimes resulting in early death. The idea suggested by this cascade of misfortunes is that resilience can be increased by breaking this chain at any stage through nurturing parenting or foster parenting, screening for social and emotional problems in multiple systems, use of evidenced based and trauma informed practices and programs, and through the skilled management of chronic health conditions. Early childhood education programs, schools, child welfare systems, juvenile justice agencies and public health departments have an important role to play in fostering resilience. Public opinion and public policy should insist that every publicly funded agency or institution that touches the lives of children, embrace the mission of developmental repair following multiple adversities in childhood. This is a tough sell when state governments are chronically underfunding both education and agencies that delivers human services. Nevertheless, once human service agencies relinquish a vision of how their organizations can restore normal development following trauma and other adversities, it is difficult to renew that vision even when resources are greatly increased.
Why do some severely abused and neglected children and youth engage in self harming behaviors while others do not? ACE research has tracked rates of smoking, substance abuse, suicide attempts, unsafe sex and obesity into adults' 50s and 60s. However, this list excludes socially risky behavior such as participation in gang violence, reckless driving and thrill seeking, involvement in sex trafficking and other forms of victimization. Any experienced child welfare practitioner or foster parent will recognize that youth with troubled early histories begin to die at increased rates in adolescence and young adulthood. It is extremely likely that resiliency is affected by participation or non-participation in a wide range of risky practices and activities during adolescence and young adulthood. Why are some youth who have experienced multiple adversities far more willing to risk their health, and often their lives, in senseless activities than others with similar histories? Resiliency research contains some possible answers to this question.
Developmental Assets that Increase Resilience
Masten provides a “short list” of developmental assets and community assets that foster resilience from numerous research studies:
capable care-giving and parenting
other close relationships
problem solving skills
self regulation skills
motivation to succeed
faith, hope, belief
effective schools and communities
effective cultural practices
However, chronic neglect and chronic child maltreatment, i.e., combinations of neglect, physical abuse and/or sexual abuse, undermine the development of close trusting relationships, impair the capacity for emotion regulation, reduce persistence in problem solving and, in extreme cases, may lead children to question “whether it would have been better if I was never born.” Both severe neglect and other traumatic experiences often destroy religious faith and faith in the potential goodness of other people. Masten comments that the combination of “negative emotionality and high adversity with low protection (from parents or self regulation) may be a dire combination in the early life course.” How then do some severely maltreated children acquire developmental assets that foster resilience despite experiences that undermine these capacities for many other maltreated children?
Masten repeatedly asserts that “dose (of adversity) matters.” ACE studies have indicated the impact of multiple adversities on health and mental health outcomes, but “dose” is also determined by the severity of specific adversities. Children who are sporadically neglected may receive adequate parenting for extended periods of time, whereas chronic neglect and chronic maltreatment (i.e., combinations of neglect and physical abuse or sexual abuse) may be uninterrupted and more likely to include highly unresponsive care-giving. Jessica Bartlett and Melissa Easterbrooks hypothesize that abused and neglected children have received highly varying amounts of positive parenting, and that these differences partially account for continuity or discontinuity of intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment. Differences in resilience among maltreated children may reflect differences in the severity of maltreatment, especially during early childhood, and in the experience of nurturing parenting despite occurrences of abuse or neglect.
Competence and Exceptional Talent
Masten's research has emphasized the theme that “competence begets competence.” Children who perform adequately in school, are able to make friends, follow rules (at least most of the time), find and maintain employment and develop positive intimate relationships are more resilient than their less competent peers, according to Masten. At first glance, the research finding that children's competence in major developmental tasks and resilience are strongly associated appears to be obvious or true by definition. However, what Masten's research suggests is that resiliency gradually develops, little by little, through mastery of age appropriate skills and capacities. The development of competence in several domains leads to self respect and to social self confidence; failure to develop these competencies can begin a downward spiral in development. School failure, social isolation, conduct disorder, the lack of industry, initiative and interests in childhood are markers of risk. It's not a surprise that children who have little or no experience of success would have more physical and mental health problems and would have difficulty achieving self sufficiency and finding challenging and interesting work. As obvious as this sounds, there is nevertheless an important lesson for caregivers and professionals who seek to help maltreated children. These children need to experience success in social settings and to master skills that their more advantaged peers take for granted.
Competence paves the way to social acceptance, but it is unusual talent in socially valued activities that leads to social recognition and huge amounts of positive feedback from others. Athletic ability, musical talent, artistic genius, extraordinary computer skills, unusual mathematical/scientific abilities, horsemanship skills, entrepreneurial creativity and other special talents lead to encouragement, support, praise and all manner of opportunities that are unlikely to occur in any other way. Children and youth who have experienced heavy doses of adversity need to develop a 'take it to the bank' talent that they can depend on to make their way in the world. This is one of the few strategies likely to generate sustained social approval for youth with emotional problems stemming from early adversities. Caseworkers, foster parents and professionals who work with troubled children should search for interests and abilities that have the potential -with hard work and opportunity- to become socially valued talents. There are some outstanding movies and novels on this theme: Mad Hot Ballroom, a movie about a ballroom dancing contest in the New York City public schools; the French movie, The Chorus, a moving story regarding the positive effects of participation in a school choir on oppositional youth; Mary Gaitskill's novel, The Mare, which is about an eleven year old abused girl's mastery of riding skills and her encounter with a powerful and dangerous horse.
My hypothesis is that children and youth who have experienced multiple adversities in early childhood vary in resilience according to the amount of positive care-giving and positive social approval and feedback they have experienced at every stage of life. Early adversities can begin a cascade of misfortunes that lead to unstable and punitive care-giving, even in foster care, to school failure and social rejection, along with punishment, persecution or isolation in adolescence and young adulthood. It is no mystery why these children and youth do not thrive according to any standard measure. On the other hand, children with similar histories who develop competencies and talents that bring them peer acceptance, social recognition and opportunities, as well as self respect and hope in the future have the potential to thrive. Some will be able to do extraordinary work that is informed and made possible by their experience of early adversity, work that cannot be done by their more privileged peers who lack an intimate acquaintance with suffering and struggle.
Every child's development is influenced in visible and invisible ways by the communities where they grow up, but community characteristics are especially important for children from low income families. Public resources such as medical and dental care, affordable housing and concrete material supports are obviously vital to poor families but so are parks and other common spaces, after- school programs, recreational programs and faith communities that are actively involved in helping the neediest persons in the community.
Communities foster resilience when they offer children multiple ways to succeed and excel. On the other hand, communities narrowly focused on a specific talent such as athletic ability or exceptional academic performance undermine the development of resilience for large numbers of children and youth. Communities that want to foster resilience will provide multiple opportunities to develop competence and exceptional talent for all children.
Communities can also do something else to promote resilience. For instance, under adverse conditions such as natural disasters, widespread community violence, economic downturns, substance abuse epidemics, terrorist attacks or other threatening events, communities can model the habits and strengths of resilient individuals. They can:
join together, pool resources, and put partisan divisions and personal animosities aside on behalf of the common good
refuse to scapegoat individuals or groups with marginal social status
persistently seek creative solutions through collaboration and mutual problem solving efforts
never give up, even if initiatives initially fail to produce improvements
be willing to change strategies in the light of evidence that conventional approaches are not working
maintain hope in the future and in the community's potential to bounce back from adversity.
These are the habits of resilient individuals, and it's how communities demonstrate collective efficacy. One of the most interesting hypotheses in ACE research is that a community's level of collective efficacy influences the reduction of childhood adversities over a decade or two. Effective communities find a way to improve the lives of children and families even when resources are hard to find. They are also willing to make enlightened investments in the future of children that less effective communities will not consider.
Anthony, E. & Cohler, B. (editors), The Invulnerable Child, The Guildford Press, 1987.
Bartlett, J. & Easterbrooks, M., (2012). Links between physical abuse in childhood and child neglect among adolescent mothers, Children and Youth Services Review 34, 2164–2169.
The Chorus, director, Christophe Barratier, 2004.
Gaitskill, Mary, The Mare, Pantheon Books, 2015.
Mad Hot Ballroom, director, Marilyn Agrelo, writer & producer, Amy Sewell, 2005.
Masten, Ann, Ordinary Magic: Resilience in Development, The Guildford Press, 2014.