Resilience Revisited

Since the psychologists Norman Garmezy and Lois Murphy introduced the term resilience into child development studies in the second half of the twentieth century it has become steadily more popular.  So much so that it is now probably fair to say that it is a part of the mainstream of child psychology. 

I have just returned from a consultation in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for example, and one of the participants, Professor Karin Wondracek gave me details of an international conference on resilience to be held in Brazil this month from 19-21 October 2006. (Details of this conference can be found at

It remains, however, a rather difficult, paradoxical, if not slippery, concept.  For this reason it is very good news that a new book on the subject not only summarises the definition and scope of the term, but provides important original research in the field.  The book in question is Out of the Woods: Tales of Resilient Teens, by Stuart T. Hauser, Joseph P. Allen and Eve Golden. I discovered the book through an excellent review in the Times Literary Supplement (21 July, 2006, pages 3 and 4, by Terri Apter).

The summary of resilience is given in Chapter 1.  It is an attempt to focus not on the pathology of child development (why things went wrong in the lives of children), but on how some children and young people manage to survive troubles and traumas in their early years (why things were experienced by the young people as OK).  We know that abuse in childhood leaves psychological and emotional scars that can seriously affect the whole of a person’s life.  But we also know that some children who have been abused go on to lead satisfying and constructive lives.  Resilience studies seek to explore and, more challengingly, explain why and how this is so.

One common misconception is that some children are by their very nature invincible or invulnerable, what might be called “resilient personalities”.  It would be more accurate to say that some people show signs of resilience at certain times in their lives.  In stating this it is vital to note that resilience refers to the study of patterns of behaviour when significant risk or adversity has been experienced by a person.  So this is not about studying heroes and heroines of the human race whatever their stories, but those who have encountered the sort of abuse or trauma that has adversely affected many others throughout life.

Identifying what the key factors are in resilience, thus understood, is the big question.  Ann Masten summarises the evidence assembled thus far and concludes that the best protections against risk are:

  • relationships with competent and caring adults;
  • cognitive and self-regulatory skills;
  • positive image of self and motivation to be effective in the environment

(Ann A. Masten, “Ordinary Magic: Resilience Processes in Development”, American Psychologist, Number 56, 2001, 227-238). 

This seems to make general sense (if you think about the opposite in each case you will immediately see why), but it is all rather vague. For example, there are many unanswered questions about what relationships may mean: how they are used by the resilient children, and what it is in the child that allows her to mobilise other people to help her in very trying conditions.

This groundbreaking book has at its heart the stories of four young people who spent some of their childhood in a secure psychiatric residential unit, High Valley Children’s Center, somewhere in the USA.  They were interviewed while they were at the Center and then several times over a period of years after they had left.  The interviews were carefully structured to facilitate comparison, and the research methodology was rigorous.

One of the key findings concerns the use the young people make of narrative: giving some sense of coherence to a set of experiences and feelings that might otherwise seem chaotic and unrelated.  This sense of narrative helps to account for successful adaptation, but also reflects a willingness and capacity to handle adversity.  The children wanted to find and found ways of making sense of their worlds.

In this they did not rely on the definitions and labels of others (including professionals), They saw themselves as agents, taking responsibility for their own lives (agency). They were able to look within themselves rather than blocking out their own feelings and attributing everything that had happened to others (reflection). And they cared about relationships (relatedness). 

As the four life-stories unfold it becomes obvious that each child has known intense personal emotional and psychological pain.  Their own lives and/or the safety and well-being of others would have been at great risk had they not been interned at High Valley.  Somehow these children had found a way of “seeing in the dark” (the title given to the final chapter of the book), and this is what those trying to help such young people need to learn to do too. 

This requires leaving neat labels and categories of pathology and recognising the minute seeds of resilience, encouraging agency (even when that is risky), and making space for reflection in an age and society where it is increasingly rare, whether in the lives of individuals, families or communities.

I hope this is enough for you to go on, and to realise that those of us living with and caring for troubled children and young people have in this book a treasure store of information and open-ended exploration.

On a personal note I am grateful to have had my attention drawn to the book for three specific reasons.  First I have been witnessing over the past three years first-hand the effects of institutionalisation and labelling in the life of one of the Mill Grove family.  The case notes constantly restate conventional psychiatric terms, but fail to give due weight to the narrative of this person’s life, to foster agency and reflection.  The whole focus is on containment of risk, and built on an understanding of pathology rather than the inner, relational and reflective strengths of this person.  There is no reason to suppose he is alone in this predicament.

Secondly I am due to produce a book called The Growth of Love by the end of the year.  It is a summary of what I have learned at Mill Grove about how love seems to grow (that is the ability to give and receive love) despite the most unpromising of circumstances.  Out of the Woods has encouraged me greatly in this task, and given me fresh lines of enquiry and connections.  It is my privilege to have known many children and young people throughout their lives and everything I know of their stories substantiates the general argument of Hauser, Allen and Golden.

And finally this work confirms and validates afresh the pioneering work of my friend and colleague, Dr Gundelina Velazco, The Pavement Project.  This international model uses stories and pictures as a framework for personal growth in the lives of street children and others who have experienced loss and abuse.

In case this all seems too revolutionary, it might be worth recalling the wise words of D.W. Winnicott towards the end of his remarkable life as a psychiatrist working with children,

"…it is only in recent years that I have become able to wait and wait for the natural evolution of the transference arising out of the patient’s growing trust in the psychoanalytic technique and setting, and to avoid breaking up this natural process by making interpretations. It will be noticed that I am talking about the making of interpretations and not about interpretations as such. It appalls me to think how much deep change I have prevented or delayed in patients in a certain classification category by my personal need to interpret. If only we can wait, the patient arrives at understanding creatively and with immense joy, and I now enjoy this joy more than I used to enjoy the sense of having been clever. I think I interpret mainly to let the patient know the limits of my understanding. The principle is that it is the patient and only the patient who has the answers" (from The Use of an Object and Relating Through Identifications (1969) ).

The exploration of resilience may prove to be one of the movements that contributes most to this revolution in counseling and the care and support of troubled children and young people.

Hauser, S.T.,  Allen, J.P. and Golden, E. (2006) Out of the Woods: Tales of Resilient Teens  Harvard University Press, London

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