Three Questions about Child and Adolescent Resilience

April 3, 2009 at 11:26 am  •  Posted in Youth Development by  •  0 Comments

By Elizabeth K. Anthony, PhD, MSW, MA


Dr. Elizabeth K. Anthony is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University and holds an M.S.W. and Ph.D. in Social Work and an M.A. in Counseling. She has been working with children, adolescents and families in a variety of clinical and community-based practice settings for more than 10 years. Her primary scholarly interests focus on designing and testing the effects of innovative interventions to promote resilient development and reduce risk among young people living in poverty.

Q. Are children and adolescents either resilient or not resilient?

American culture, and perhaps Western culture in general, is fascinated with the notion of resilience—positive adaptation in the context of adversity—the underdog; the successful doctor or lawyer who was raised with little educational support; the artist who turns adversity and abuse into creative expression; and the child raised in poverty who establishes financial security (epitomized by the success of the recent film “Slumdog Millionaire”). We love the stories of resilience—not only surviving a risky, traumatic, and otherwise harmful circumstance but thriving, unexpectedly becoming all the stronger for it. But what makes these individuals different? Are they smarter? Physically, emotionally, or mentally stronger? Are their personalities and early childhood temperaments somehow different? Put simply, are some children and adolescents resilient while others are not?

More than three decades of research focuses on this very question in the interest of better understanding the phenomenon of resilience. What this research has identified is illuminating and continues to unfold as researchers investigate how resilient processes differ by age, gender, ethnicity, and culture. Young people (and adults for that matter) are not simply resilient or not but rather, resilience is a dynamic developmental process that is best measured by the presence/absence and strength of risk (factors that contribute to the problem) and protection (factors that buffer against risk) that exist at the individual, peer, family, school, neighborhood, community, and societal/cultural levels. In fact, dropping the term resilient as a descriptor for children and youth altogether in favor of the terms “resilient development” or “resilient processes” that describe patterns not individual traits, helps to remind us that resilience is not merely a reflection of the individual’s ability to pull her/himself up by the bootstraps but instead is a complex, developmentally interactive process involving multiple ecological levels.

Q. Do “resilience” and “well-being” mean the same thing? 

Sometimes resilience and well-being are used interchangeably to describe a developmental outcome for children and youth; however, they represent two distinct concepts. Resilience necessitates a context of risk whereas well-being describes an outcome applied to children and youth across the spectrum of risk, including youth with considerable resources and few risks. Resilience and well-being do share some commonalities in that certain protective factors such as positive adult relationships are associated with both resilience and well-being.

Well-being is a broad outcome that incorporates the domains of health/physical status, intellectual/cognitive abilities, educational/academic skills, and social/emotional characteristics. Population-level studies focusing on child well-being help us to assess how we as a society are caring for our children. We strive for all of our children to have a high level of well-being. Resilience, on the other hand, beckons us to focus on the features of risk and protection that we can change or influence to encourage and support the adaptive processes of young people exposed to considerable risk.

Q. What can mental health professionals, families, mentors, teachers, advocates, friends, etc. do to promote resilient development among children and youth?

Popular understandings of resilience need to be re-defined to account for the reality of harsh exposure to persistent, high-level risk that can be overwhelming for some young people. The playing field is certainly not level for all our young people—poverty, discrimination, stigma, and other environmental and social ills create considerable imbalance. These issues require advocacy at policy and community levels.

Unfortunately, the romanticized presentation of resilience in the media reinforces the notion that the process of resilient development is truly extraordinary and magical. While resilient adaptation in the face of adversity is truly exceptional and speaks to the adaptive resources of human beings, increasingly sophisticated knowledge of the relationship between risk and protective factors suggests that some risk and protective factors are malleable and can in fact be altered at key developmental stages to support resilient development. Better assessment of young people will help us target our interventions but some simple and yet profound principles can still be applied:

  • Young people need to be connected through meaningful relationships. Spending quality time with positive adults—both family members, extended family members, and otherwise interested adults such as teachers, mentors, tutors, coaches, elders, and pastors) helps young people (and these adults, by the way) develop skills through modeling, relationship development, and challenge. Communication and conflict management skills, concern for others, and a sense of belonging are important potential outcomes of these relationships.
  • Young people need a balance of challenges and responsibility. Young people are active agents in their own lives and need the support and encouragement to experiment and strengthen their agency. Opportunities to develop problem solving skills, social skills, and enhance autonomy are critical. Equally important, a sense of responsibility to others and society encourages character development and empathy.
  • We need to communicate to young people that they are valued and hold an important place in our society (and be sure to protect that space for all youth). In some sections of society young people hold important roles (for example, in smaller communities and within cultures that promote a collective rather than individualist experience and have time-honored traditions celebrating youth and the transition to adulthood) but we have marginalized some young people, particularly “at-risk” youth but also “privileged” youth who are left to raise themselves, and relegated adolescence to be a time to simply survive rather than thrive. Expectations that young people will be contributing members of our society and that we have a responsibility to provide opportunities sends a supportive message to disenfranchised young people.
  • We need to spread the positive word about adolescents. Far too often we hear and see negative images and stories about young people and their “problems.” The reality of social and economic inequities, the settings in which many of us work, and the challenges youth and their families experience can be overwhelming. At the same time, those of us who work with adolescents know they bring an enthusiasm, creativity, imagination, and contagious idealism to the table. Middle childhood and adolescence can be a time of incredible exploration and excitement. Yes, developmental transitions can be challenging but we must remember and share with others the positive aspects of adolescence.

Our overarching message is one of hope; change is possible. Sometimes as practitioners we need to temporarily hold the hope for adolescents and their families when problems are overwhelming. Other times our role is to explore hope in support of the change process. Among young people who demonstrate patterns of resilience in high risk environments, hope for the future and an optimistic outlook are integral. We can model and encourage positive beliefs and cognitions, emotions and feelings—we can communicate hope.


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