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Resilience: Unpacking a Powerful Word

By Jim Perretta, PhD, CPsych
Date: March 10, 2020

Concepts from the mental health field often seep into pop culture.  “Resilience” is one of those words that everyone from psychologists to teachers to talk-show hosts seems to be using nowadays.  But is the term just a buzzword – is it empty of meaning when you try to unpack what it means?

The field of Resilience is a relatively new one. It is considered an applied developmental science, meaning it strives to develop practical strategies to deal with problems that arise in human development, while also promoting optimal human development, despite exposure to adversity and risk.  Stated simply, resilience can be defined as successful adaptation to risk.

It is important to look at several levels of analysis in considering the multifaceted construct of Resilience, including Individual, Family, and Community levels. All these levels interact with each other. Too often, we only focus on the Individual level. This sort of analysis is outdated and misguided.

We can take a famous example and re-examine it from a resilience lens.  Terry Fox is a Canadian icon.  He exemplifies the idea of courage and strength in the face of insurmountable odds.  Without a doubt, Terry Fox had amazing strengths – both physical and mental.  However, it is important to remember that he had supportive friends and family members and indeed a whole nation that came to support him in his run across Canada to raise funds for cancer research. 

We need to change the narrative of Terry Fox to include the Family and Community levels of support, which bolstered his own personal strengths.  If we deify someone like Terry Fox and “put him on a pedestal”, we place high expectations on all individuals to “rise up” in challenging circumstances, without providing adequate supports.

Many important researchers have contributed to the evolving Resilience concept.  Emmy Werner conducted a famous longitudinal study of a large sample of children born on the island of Kauai over an impressive 40-year span.  Not many studies follow children for this length of time.  Just imagine the high degree of commitment and dedication that both the researchers and the participants had to offer over this time period. 

Starting in 1955, each child was examined at ages 1, 2, 10, 18, 32, and 40.  Many of the children in this study challenged the prevailing pessimistic views that individuals were fated to experience dysfunction and disorder upon encountering a pile-up of risk factors at a young age. 

Werner observed many protective factors in her large sample of children.  She grouped these protective factors into three groups:  Individual, Family, and Community.  We will examine each group in due turn.

1) Individual:  Werner discovered that children with practical problem-solving skills and good reading skills were likely to handle stressful situations better.  Similarly, children who had an easy-going temperament were likely to do better later in life.  A sense of self-confidence was another protective factor.  We will see that these Individual factors are facilitated by Family and Community factors.

2) Family:  Werner discovered that children coped better later in life if they had a close bond with at least one stable person.  Interestingly, this close bond was often with a substitute caregiver – not necessarily a parent.  Often, a grandparent or another community member stepped-in to form a strong bond with the child.

3) Community:  Werner noted several factors at the Community level, which provided much-needed support to children and made it more likely that they flourished later in life, despite exposure to early risk.  For example, those children who coped better often had a favorite teacher, supportive peers, elders, caring neighbours, youth leaders, ministers, counsellors, supportive church group members, or other mentors.

In conclusion, I want to emphasize that all three factors need to be considered.  As a society, we need to promote and invest in each level.  Too often, we place unrealistic demands on individuals alone to cope with challenging stressors in life.  

Feel free to view this web-link for more detailed info on the Kauai Longitudinal Study:

If you would like assistance coping with mental health concerns and promoting resilience call the Guelph Psychology Centre to book an appointment - 519-265-6960.

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