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62 MARCH 2004
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Resilience: What it is and how children and young people can be helped to develop it

Kirstie Maclean

To enhance the ability of youth to help peers and themselves, the author proposes specific training in mature social decision making to help youth overcome immature moral development and egocentric thinking.

The term resilience has become fairly commonplace in residential childcare in the last few years but staff are not necessarily clear how to help children and young people become more resilient. This briefing paper aims to assist the development of a positive and hopeful resilience perspective and to provide some pointers as to how it might be put into practice. Obviously a short briefing paper cannot provide comprehensive information and advice and readers are urged to follow up their interest through accessing books and articles in the bibliography, attending a training course, or seeking consultancy and advice. SIRCC can provide all these services.

Resilience explained
There are many definitions of resilience but most have similar components. Gilligan's (2000) definition – “a set of qualities that helps a person to withstand many of the negative effects of adversity” .Bearing in mind what has happened to them, a resilient child does better than he or she ought to do – is one of the more straightforward. Most authors consider that resilience is a mixture of nature and nurture. Attributes that some children are born with, such as good intellectual ability and a placid, cheerful temperament, are associated with resilience. Children who are born prematurely and/or with disabilities, who cry and cannot be comforted, who cannot sleep or who will not accept being held are more vulnerable to adversity and may be less likely to be resilient.

There are, however, many other qualities associated with resilience which develop through children's life experiences – the main ones can be summarised as follows:

Good self-esteem derives from being accepted by people whose relationship one values and from accomplishment in tasks one values. Praise, on its own, will not improve self-esteem; the child him or herself has also to ascribe value to the achievement.

A belief in one’s own self-efficacy means having the qualities of optimism, “stickability” and believing that one’s own efforts can make a difference. For children and young people who have had very damaging childhoods the creation of “survivor’s pride”, i.e. the ability to value how far they have overcome huge adversity in their lives, is helpful. Young people’s sense of self-efficacy is enhanced by taking responsibility and making decisions.

Initiative is the ability and willingness to take action, including action to stop abuse occurring. Children and young people facing adversity are in a stronger position to deal with it if they are able to take the initiative in finding “creative” responses. This sometimes combines with a strong sense of responsibility towards others such as siblings.

Faith and morality can be described as “a belief in a broader value system (which) can help the child to persist in problem solving or in surviving a set of challenging life circumstances. A sense of coherence in their experiences gives the child a feeling of rootedness; the conviction that life has meaning and an optimistic focus” (Daniel, Wassell and Gilligan 1999.

Trust is believing in or relying on another person or thing. In order to trust others, you do not need to love them but you do need to experience them as reliable, feel respect for them, value them and not expect them to betray your confidences.

Attachment is “an affectionate bond between two individuals that endures through space and time and serves to join them emotionally” (Klaus & Kennell 1976, quoted in Fahlberg 1994). A secure attachment relationship creates a secure base from which a child feels safe to explore the world. Many looked after children whose primary attachment figures have been unsupportive or unpredictable are able, fortunately, to find other attachment figures. In fact, one sign of resilience in children is the ability to “recruit” caring adults who take a particular interest in them. This could be a neighbour, friend's parent(s), teacher, child minder, relative, mentor or befriender, foster carer or, of course, residential worker.

The concept of a secure base originally related to the security provided by a dependable attachment relationship. However, in the context of looked after children it has developed a wider meaning i.e. the provision of a consistent and stable place to live and continuity of wider relationships which then allow the maintenance or development of attachment relationships. Where placement moves are absolutely unavoidable, strenuous efforts should be made to maintain continuity in other aspects of children's lives.

Meaningful roles: Such roles include proficiency at academic and non-academic activities at school, sporting prowess, part time work, volunteering, caring for siblings, and domestic responsibilities, provided they are not excessive. Such roles are likely to have a positive effect in several ways – they can be beneficial in providing a sense of positive identity and a source of self-esteem, they may act as a source of pleasure and hope or distract young people from the adversity they are experiencing in other areas of their lives.

Autonomy means the ability to make decisions. Young people who are autonomous know that it is OK to make mistakes and that you can learn from mistakes. They take reasonably well calculated risks. Autonomous children and young people are good at self-regulation – they gain increasing control over their own emotions and behaviour.

Identity: Young people in care have a deep need to know and understand who they are, where they belong and to whom they are important. They may need help to find these answers. Children and young people’s ethnicity, religion, culture and language form part of their identity. Preservation of their background and culture helps to create continuity and a secure base; it is also a legal right.

Young people who have good insight into their own difficulties, including a realistic assessment of their own contribution and the contribution of others to those difficulties, are more likely to be resilient. Young people who are able to recognise benefits, as well as negative effects, from severe adversity are likely to be resilient. Insight helps people to take appropriate actions and make appropriate choices. It is therefore linked to self-efficacy and to initiative.

Humour is the final building block of resilience. It can help young people to distance themselves from, and therefore reduce, emotional pain and it can also help them make and sustain relationships. Humorous people are usually popular people. It may even be the source of a career.

Assessing Resilience
In order to develop a child or young person's resilience, it is important to know how far they have the above qualities i.e. where their current strengths and deficits lie. A number of authors, such as Daniel, Wassell and Gilligan (1999) and Grotberg (1997) have developed helpful assessment frameworks. Grotberg drew together the findings of an International Resilience Project which surveyed almost 600 children and their families in 30 countries. She found that the following aspects of resilience were relevant, to varying degrees, in all cultures:

Trusting and loving relationships with others: parents, siblings, teachers, friends. Loveable: the child possesses, or is helped to develop, qualities that appeal to others. Communicate: the child is able to express feelings and thoughts, and listen to those of others.
Structure at home: clear rules and routines, comprehensible and fair sanctions when breached, praise when followed. Loving: the child is able to express affection to others, and is sensitive to their distress. Solve problems: the child can apply themselves to problems, involve others where necessary, and be persistent.
Role models: parents, other adults, peers, siblings, who model good behaviour and morality. Proud of myself: the child feels they have the capacity for achievement and resists discouragement. Manage my feelings: the child knows and understands emotions, recognises the feeling of others, and controls impulsive behaviour.
Encouragement to be independent: people who offer praise for growing autonomy. Responsible: the child accepts and is given responsibilities, and believes that their actions can make a difference. Understand my temperament: the child has insight into their personality and that of others.
Access to health, education and social care: consistent direct or indirect protection for physical and emotional health. Hopeful and trustful: the child has faith in institutions and people, is optimistic for the future and is able to express their faith within a moral structure. Seek out trusting relationships: the child has the ability to find people “peers or adults “in whom they can confide and develop mutual trust.

Table 1: Promoting resilience – action model (adapted from Grotberg 1997)

This is a model that could be used with children and young people to help them consider their own resilience and the areas they might work on with you.

Building resilience
There is an increasing amount of research and practice literature on how resilience can be built. A small amount relates specifically to looked after children but much of it more generally to vulnerable children and/or children in adverse circumstances. The main building blocks described are:

Resilient children are often those in receipt of social support. The term support is very widely used in social work but it is not always clear what practitioners mean by it and how well it is provided. Richman, Rosenfeld and Hardy (1993) helpfully suggest that social support takes eight distinguishable forms: listening support (just listening, not advising or judging); emotional support; emotional challenge (helping the child evaluate his or her attitudes, values and feelings); reality confirmation support (sharing the child's perspective of the world); task appreciation support; task challenge support (challenging, stretching, motivating); tangible assistance support (money or gifts); and personal assistance support (e.g. driving the child somewhere). Research undertaken by Richman, Rosenfeld and Bowen (1998) with disadvantaged school children found that those who regularly received the different types of social support were doing better in school on a variety of measures than those who did not receive them. The only type of support that did not appear to make a difference was tangible assistance.

Many authors stress the importance of education and attainment for building resilience. Borland et al (1998) in a research summary concerning the educational experiences of looked after children stated:

“Schooling may be vital in enabling children to make the best of adverse circumstances like being in care, both through offering opportunities for academic success to compensate for the “failure" in family life and in affording access to alternative supporting relationships – with teachers and with peers “.. schools also offer opportunities for children to learn coping styles and gain a sense of self worth”.

The different outcomes in adult life between those looked after children who do well in school and those who do not is startling. Jackson and Martin (1998) in their comparisons of adults who had been in care who had achieved well educationally and a comparable group, in terms of their experiences of adversity, who had not done well educationally found the following outcomes:

High achievers Comparison group
Unemployed 2.6% 72.7%
Single mothers 3.8% 41.7%
In custody 0% 18.2%
Homeless 2.6% 22.7%

Table 2: Educational achievement and adult outcomes (adapted from Jackson and Martin 1998)

It seems clear that educational success is a major tool in promoting resilience. However, recent research in Scotland (Dixon and Stein 2002) showed that only 40% of care leavers gained any Standard Grades at all. There is also, fortunately, evidence that success in non-academic subjects at school, such as sport or music, or social success, such as being popular, provided it is not popularity with a delinquent group, can also lead to resilience. In 2003 the Scottish Executive intends to publish quality indicators for assessing the educational richness of residential units and foster homes. It is important that residential staff use these indicators to try to improve the educational outcomes of the young people they look after.

There is a growing body of research that shows that participation in activities, hobbies and useful tasks promotes resilience. For instance Mahoney (2000) found that young people who participated in extra-curricular activities at school were less likely to drop out of school early and less likely to be arrested for crimes than their fellow students who did not participate in activities. Other studies have found that adolescent work experience, provided it is not for long hours in stressful, dead end jobs, can help adolescents to develop a sense of self-efficacy and self-confidence and to acquire the skills and abilities required for successful transition to adulthood. There is a huge range of activities, hobbies and useful tasks in which looked after young people can be involved “these can be school based, community based, faith based, employment based, or based in the residential unit itself. Sometimes staff can be concerned about the risk to the child, or to other people, of participation in some activities. It is important to do a risk assessment but bureaucracy or over-protectiveness should not be allowed to prevent looked after young people from getting involved in the kinds of activities that many children living in their own homes take for granted.

Gender has an effect on resilience. Pre-adolescence, girls are more resilient than boys but the situation reverses in adolescence. Different characteristics of the home environment are particularly protective for girls and boys. Girls benefit from an absence of over-protection, an emphasis on risk-taking and reliable emotional support. Boys benefit from greater structure and rules, adult supervision, the availability of a positive male role model and encouragement of emotional expression.

In order for children to receive social support, develop trust, develop attachments and build a positive identity they need to remain connected to key figures in their lives. This will often include parents, step parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, godparents, close friends, neighbours, past carers, past teachers and past youth leaders. Sinclair and Gibbs (1998) state, in relation to children in residential care: “A system which provides them with a variety of adults to whom to turn is less likely to fail them than a system in which they are dependent on one”. For children who cannot have contact with close family members, the concept of family may need to be broadened, e.g. to include a befriender. Even where face-to-face contact is not appropriate, it is essential that children are helped to have a good knowledge and understanding of their family circumstances. Baldry and Kemmis (1998) found that over 20% of looked after young people in their sample did not have contact numbers and addresses for family and friends with whom they wanted to stay in touch. One in three did not even have photos or items to remind them of their family.

Where siblings are unable to live together, sibling contact is very important. Our sibling relationships are usually our longest relationships in life and research shows that most of us view them positively. Staff should make every effort to maintain positive ties between siblings, particularly where they live apart, by, for instance, involving them in joint activities and celebrations, having overnight stays, and making joint videos and family books.

Friends are also important and “it is particularly vital not to view peers as largely negative influences. Children help each other a great deal and all adults should be aware of friends and age-mates as actual or potential resources for resolving difficulties” (Hill 1999). Jackson and Martin (1998) found that one of the protective factors strongly associated with later educational success was having a friend outside care who did well at school. The parents of non-care pupils can often provide social support and academic encouragement. For a variety of reasons, abused children find it harder to make and maintain friendships than their non-abused peers. Experiments where they are paired at school with a more socially competent peer show that they can be helped to interact more positively. Close relationships with peers can increase self-esteem and reduce some of the negative effects of abuse on children's development (Bolger, Patterson and Kupersmidt, 1998). Although much of the literature encourages the maintenance and development of friendships with children who are not looked after, there is evidence that young people develop supportive and sometimes long lasting friendships with their peers in care (see for instance Horrocks and Milner in Mullender (ed.) 1999 and Emond 2002), and that these friendships should generally be supported, not discouraged.

A variety of ways in which residential workers can help increase resilience has been discussed. Children need to be treated as individuals; “one size fits all” responses are not helpful. Remember that communication of your interest and concern in the child is essential; it is often the little things where, for instance, you have gone the extra mile beyond the call of duty, where you have bought something the child particularly treasures or you have just been there to listen and comfort, that matter and are remembered. Residential workers who have a determined resilience perspective will often make a positive and long lasting difference to looked after children's lives.


Baldry, S. and Kemmis, J. (1998) The quality of child care in one local authority “a user study, Adoption and Fostering, 22(3) 34-41

Bolger, K., Patterson, C. and Kupersmidt, J. (1998) Peer relationships and self-esteem among children who have been maltreated, Child Development, Vol 69, No 4, 1171-1197

Borland, M. Pearson, C. Hill, M. Tisdall, K. and Bloomfield, I. (1998) Education and care away from home, SCRE

Daniel, B. (in press), The value of resilience as a concept for practice in residential settings, Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care, 2(1)

Daniel, B., Wassell, S. and Gilligan, R., (1999) Child development for child care and protection workers, Jessica Kingsley

Dixon, J. and Stein, M., (2002) Still a Bairn? Through Care and After Care Services in Scotland. Edinburgh, Scottish Executive,

Emond, R. (2002) Understanding the resident group, Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care, Vol 1(1), 30-40

Fahlberg, V. (1994) A child's journey through placement, BAAF

Gilligan, R. (2000) Adversity, resilience and young people: the protective value of positive school and spare time experiences, Children and Society, Vol 14 (1), 37-47

Gilligan, R. (2001) Promoting resilience: a resource guide on working with children in the care system, BAAF

Grotberg, E. (1997) A guide to promoting resilience in children: strengthening the human spirit, Bernard Van Leer Foundation,

Hill, M. (1999) What’s the problem? Who can help? The perspectives of children and young people on their well-being and on helping professionals, Journal of Social Work Practice, 13:2, 135-145

Jackson, S. and Martin, P. (1998) Surviving the care system: education and resilience, Journal of Adolescence, 21, 569-583

Mahoney, J. (2000) School extracurricular activity participation as a moderator in the development of anti-social patterns, Child Development, Vol 71(2), 502-516

Mullender, A. (ed), (1994) We are family: sibling relationship in placement and beyond, BAAF

Richman, J., Rosenfeld, L. and Hardy, C. (1993) The social support survey: an initial validation study of a clinical measure and practice model of social support, Process Research on Social Work Practice, 3, 288-311

Richman, J., Rosenfeld, L., and Bowen, G. (1998) Social support for adolescents at risk of school failure, Social Work, Vol 43 (4)

Sinclair, I. and Gibbs, I. (1998) Children's homes – a study in diversity, Wiley

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