This blog is written by Dr Ramona Alaggia, Professor at the University of Toronto.
Studying resilience with children and adults exposed to intimate partner violence (IPV) has taken me on a journey that has resulted in a fundamental shift in how I do research, teach and counsel clients. This has been significant in my understanding of adversity, trauma and the profound role of resilience.
When I initially encountered the term resilience I approached it with skepticism and questions. Was it a “feel good” term used to minimize the fall-out from very big problems in people’s lives? Or a tool used by governments to scale back on service funding using platitudes like "kids are resilient"; "they’ll be fine"; "they’ll bounce back" – which has not been my experience with highly vulnerable children. Fostering resilience is a concerted effort that needs to be intentionally built into programming.
Is resilience something people simply have or don’t have with very little in between? Up until recently, the research literature focused largely on individual characteristics for explaining why some people are more resilient than others. These identified characteristics are often related to personality traits – including intelligence, easy temperament, and extroversion for example – traits that appear from birth. Or is something more than that? Context and environment must also be considered in the ecology of the child. But first let’s start with the person, and then consider the interactive elements of environment.
Resilience is a process, not a singular event or state of being, but an active process of fostering resilience over the life course
This then led me to take a deeper dive into the writings on this topic bringing me into reading about the many debates as to whether resilience is a trait, state or process. These conceptual debates dominated the literature for a long time and large international conferences have been held to discuss, define and sort out this elusive concept. It became clear to me, though, that the debates were more about inter-disciplinary orientations divided into camps of individual or environmental stances. In the end I have found through my readings and research that it is all of it – personal characteristics, inter-personal relations, community, culture and context.
The ecology of the child must consider their environment – family, neighbourhoods, community, culture and context.
As a social worker I have landed on an interactive explanation of resilience. From my research where I interviewed adult survivors who were exposed to intimate partner violence in their childhoods, and collecting data using resilience measures from mothers and children who were exposed to intimate partner violence, along with longitudinal data on protective factors from a large scale Canadian study (National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth – NLSCY) I have come to the conclusion that a person-in-environment/ecological framework best helps to elucidate factors and processes contributing to resilient outcomes.
Resilience is a combination of personal factors and environmental influences that, in the right combinations together, create conditions for resilience fostering.
In Canada we subscribe to an ecological approach for many social issues and troubles. My research with IPV exposed children and youth underscores the need for a person-in-environment/ecological approach. Individual characteristics alone are not enough to carry children through adversity. Inter-personal factors such as secure attachments, safe relationships and cohesive family support, and contextual influences such as safe neighbourhoods, supportive resources and school connectedness are all required to foster resilience. Both as preventive measures and also for those children who show vulnerabilities and end up in social services for intervention. As well, socio-political forces promoting child and family friendly policies, pre-and postnatal care, affordable child care, access to high quality education and after school supports and activities, and funding for sports and arts programs are all important parts of the overall equation. Kids cannot be resilient on their own. The important people in their lives, their families, cultural supports, their networks of positive peers, and well-resourced neighbourhoods are all part of the picture of fostering resilience.
Resilience is a process and opportunity, not somethings children have or do not have.
Programming needs to be resilience informed. Because resilience has only recently come across our radars, as helping professionals providing services children who display vulnerabilities in the face of adversity, we need to ask how resilience informed are these services. Are protective factors, strengths and potential sources of resilience identified at Intake or through the assessment process? Are resilience fostering goals to off-set vulnerabilities well-articulated in treatment planning? Are these clearly spelled out and measurable?
Keeping the ecology of the child at the forefront in resilience fostering necessitates advocacy by all helping professionals for resilience promoting environments and conditions. Advocacy and activism is needed at policy levels to help shore up and strengthen families, make available affordable child care, after-school programming and public health outreach to new parents, and in providing accessible resources for family support, education and employment.
For ideas on how to make your program resilience informed please visit www.makeresiliencematter.ca for further research findings and reports, tools, case studies and podcasts to support your practice and programming.