At its most basic, resilience describes a person’s capacity to face, overcome and even be strengthened by life’s adversities. Harvey and Delfabbro (2004) demonstrate that ‘bad’ experiences that constitute adversity are not randomly distributed in the population and point to “…huge individual differences in people’s exposure to environmental risks” (p3). They acknowledge that while disadvantage increases the likelihood of “…subsequent difficulties in psychological functioning and life success”, it is also clear that many young people do not inevitably succumb to their circumstances or become overwhelmed by the adversity with which they are faced (ibid).
Through the 1970s, the significance of this phenomenon began to be recognised in the fields of medicine, psychology and education. Researchers set out to identify the correlates and markers of healthy adaptation among young people expected to struggle because of genetic or environmental risk.
This early research tended to focus on the qualities of the individual. Those who did well despite multiple risks were described as invulnerable (Anthony, 1974) or invincible (Werner & Smith, 1982). These terms proved to be misleading, implying that a child or young person’s capacity to evade or cope with risk was absolute and unchanging. As research evolved, it became clear that positive adaptation, despite exposure to adversity, involves a developmental progression, such that new vulnerabilities and/ or strengths often emerge with changing life circumstances.
Subsequent research has yielded a substantial body of evidence (described below) confirming that there are no invulnerable children or young people. Rather than being an intrinsic trait, resilience has been shown to be a dynamic process occurring under specific circumstances (Masten, 2001).
Consequently, resilience is now understood as “…both an outcome of interactions between individuals and their environments, and the processes which contribute to these outcomes” (Ungar, 2007, p228). Resilience is therefore closely aligned with ecological and experiential developmental theories such as Ecological Systems Theory, Developmental Systems Theory and Social Learning Theory.
This is confirmed by Johnston and Howard (2007), who emphasise the importance of context and point out that given favourable conditions, resilient behaviour can be learnt, and destructive coping responses such as harmful patterns of substance use, unlearnt. This note of optimism is tempered by the unfortunate fact that in some circumstances “…levels of risk and adversity are so overwhelming that recovery is extraordinarily rare or impossible” (Masten, Obradovi, & Burt, 2006, p21).
Resilience is never an “across the board phenomenon” (Luthar, 2006, p741). It can be demonstrated by young people in one or many aspects of their life (ibid) and be associated with particular kinds of stressors and not others (Masten et al., 2006). While acknowledging that there are multiple pathways to resilience, researchers have endeavoured to identify particular patterns. We have drawn on the work of Masten and O’Dougherty Wright (2009) to provide a brief overview of these most widely recognised patterns.
‘Resistance’ refers to patterns of reasonably steady and positive adaptive behaviour in the presence of significant threats. An example would be children who show a steady course of good function in all age-salient developmental tasks despite growing up in a poor family in a disadvantaged neighbourhood.
‘Recovery’ refers to individuals who struggle when confronted with conditions so challenging that maintaining good adaptation is not expected, but positive adaptive functioning returns when circumstances improve. Masten and O’Dougherty Wright (2009) provide the example of a child subjected to abuse or neglect not being expected to function well in age-salient developmental tasks until care-giving conditions improve. The same can apply in the case of natural disaster or sudden catastrophe. Recovery may be long delayed if severe adversity continues or is repeated over a long period of time.
‘Normalisation’ refers to patterns where a child begins life in an adverse environment, but as conditions improve so does their functioning. Masten and O’Dougherty Wright draw on the research of Beckett et al. (2006) as well as Rutter and the English and Romanian Adoptees Study Team (1998) to demonstrate that children who have been severely neglected, when put in a conducive environment, can show accelerated development and changes that eventually put him or her back on a normal developmental trajectory.
‘Transformation’ patterns refer to cases where individuals had been involved in problematic and even anti-social behaviour, but subsequently made changes and improved their adaptive functioning. Masten and O’Dougherty Wright highlight the ‘Kauai Study’ (Werner & Smith, 1982), as well as ‘Project Competence’ (Masten et al., 2006) and several other longitudinal studies of resilience where ‘late bloomers’ have been identified and studied. These young people do poorly in adolescence and turn their lives around in the transition to adulthood, when there appears to be a window of opportunity for positive change. This pattern can also be reversed under particular circumstances (Rutter, 2007).