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‘Learning to LUMP it?’ How to improve the mental health of children in public care

Ann Buchanan

In the final analysis, children and young people are not placid consumers of resources but actors in their own right who, from an early age, powerfully influence those around them and the course of their future lives (Prout, 1998). This where promoting resilience comes in.

A central finding in all the literature on psycho-social adversities is that some children despite prolonged and severely negative experiences survive intact. What is this ‘X’ factor? Certainly personal attributes play a part (‘the born survivor’) but there is also much that can be done to promote resilience. Bruce Compas (1995), in studies on children’s coping strategies, found that one of the biggest threats to children’s mental health is the persistent presence of minor irritants rather than occasional major stressors.

In New Zealand, the Christchurch longitudinal study (Fergusson & Lynksey, 1996) compared two groups who scored highly on a family adversity index. Assessed at age 15-16 the resilient group had low self-reported offending ratings, police contact, conduct problems, alcohol abuse, and school drop out, whereas the non-resilient group had high ratings on these factors. The first finding was that in this high risk group, the resilient young people had significantly lower adversity scores.

In the NZ study, those with multiple problems usually had the highest scores, Resilient young people tended to have higher IQs at 8 years; had lower rates of novelty seeking at age 16 and were less likely to belong to delinquent peer groups. Girls were no more resilient than boys. There was little difference between the two groups on parental attachment, and other individual features were not linked to the variations in resilience.

What are the implications of this study? Firstly, even with children who experience multiple adversities, lightening the load may free up energy that can be used productively. Secondly, in adolescence the key influence is not so much the family but the peer group. Common sense strategies to divert young people away from delinquent peer groups seem to be supported by research.

Rutter (1995) in reviewing all the research, hypothesises that resilience in young people may be promoted by:

Compas, B.U, (1995). Promoting successful coping during adolescence. In M, Rutter (Ed,), Psychosocial disturbances in young people (pp, 247-73), Press Syndicate, University of Cambridge.

Fergusson, D.M.,& Lynskey, M.T, (1996). Adolescent resilience to family adversity. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 9(4),483-494.

Prout, A. (1998). Studying children as social actors. A programme of research in the United Kingdom. Association paper: American Sociological Association.

Rutter, M. & Smith, D. (Eds,) (1995). Psychosocial disorders in young people. Chichester, John Wiley and Sons Ltd.

Buchanan, A. (2004). ‘Learning to LUMP it?’ How to improve the mental health of children in public care. Is it just a matter of building resilience? International Journal of Child & Family Welfare, 7(4), pp.197-206

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