Resilience in Children and Youth


Resilience in Children and Youth Raised in a Risk Laden Environment.

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Adversity in a child’s life is universal; it does not discriminate against gender, race, income or social status.  Nevertheless, many children who grow up in risk laden environments find success in life, with successful adaptation from their adversarial backgrounds. While there are factors that negate the potential for serious psychological damage, such as the duration, or support systems in place, we know that any trauma can cause consequential cognitive problems. Thus, this paper will look at the factors involved with some of the resilience successes some children experience, several theories pertaining to resilience, those integrally involved with resilience and finally, assessing resilience.

First, we define resilience; according to the Family Resilience Group, “Resilience is fundamentally a belief that all people possess a natural ability to better themselves and their situation” (2018).  The study of resilience in children called, ‘resilience science’, began during the 70’s, with the purpose of understanding how some children not only survive but thrive in environments that are rife with dysfunction (Masten & Barnes, 2018, para. 1.1). The outcome suggest that resilience is formed by complex interacting structures, comprised of the complex relationships explained in Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory; consisting of parents, teachers, their neighborhood, media and even culture, among others (Guy-Evans, 2020).

In the center of Bronfenbrenner’s theory is the child or self, who as the center, forms the connections with the surrounding systems (Guy-Evans, 2020). While each level reaches farther away from the child, with some indirect influences, the child can in some circumstances, self-protect and strategies for envisioning their future selves, creating an existence and experiences they are only able to dream about now (University of Southern California, 2015, para. 2).

When we look at resilience, the focus on cognitive development leans towards the damage to the normal development process, known as the deficit model, which focuses on what is functioning wrong cognitively, rather than what is adapting and adjusting, to the positive.   However, studies have shown as the brain can change, acclimating its thought processes to fine tune cognitive function, maneuvering in their current environment. This cognitive reworking is known as the “adaption based approach’ (Ellis et al., 2017).

The adaption based approach focuses on high adaptability, utilizing the brains adaptation of being in a stressful environment, with the child being “stress adapted” and excelling where children in non-risk environments may cease to function effectively. Thus, the child can sustain interest, because they have learned how to work in and complete task in environments that require redirecting and shifting priorities because they function regularly in chaos.

Looking at stress adaptation and excelling in environments rife with chaos, I thought of sports; specifically football. Football requires players to think, plan and execute in highly chaotic surroundings. Players must tune out noise, their surroundings, react quickly to stunts and tricks from the defense and execute their task. “…heightened attention-shifting may enable individuals to take advantage of fleeting opportunities, even if frequent shifting interferes with sustained attention” (Ellis, et al., 2017, para. 6).

In an article about poverty, Rory Taylor (2019) noted, “Today, more than half of all NFL players come from a county with a poverty rate higher than the national average. Nearly 70 percent of NFL players are African-American, and face a much higher likelihood of being in poverty than most demographic groups.”

Rettner (2014), in an article titled, “Are Pro Athletes Prone to Violence?” the parallel of risk environments and poverty are suggested, noting it is not particularly rare for football players to have grown up in abusive homes, “When you grow up, you repeat what you’ve seen, or what has been done to you.”

Is it fair to say children who grow up in abusive homes, and become successful and sometimes wealthy athletes are resilient? I would argue yes, as they have subsequently found careers that reward them, with skills learned from stress adapted environments.

As mentioned previously, resiliency can be accomplished within oneself, but to augment greater chances of success, protective factors in the child’s life cannot be ignored. If the protective influence of parents is not available, sometimes other interventions are needed; often this can be from social workers.

Social workers are often minimized in relationship to adversity resilience (Ungar, 2013), however, their efforts are often pivotal. They have resources that can direct parents and other caregivers to programs designed to foster nurturing, redirect maltreatment, and provide assistance with other trauma’s derived from divorce or even bereavement .Social workers are often the conduit to change needed for the child outside of their home if their current environment negates change. Although not the primary goal of social work agencies, placing the child in foster care, with access to therapy, or present avenues that may lead to adoption.

McFarnell (2020) suggest teachers play an important role in building resilience, as on the average, they often spend more waking hours with children than parents and caregivers do. They have the training to encourage the development of strengths, whether that includes academics, art or sports. As mentioned previously, children can reimagine their lives outside of their current environment. McFarnell (2020) calls this, “rescripting”, rewriting the narrative of their lives where they list the positives instead of focusing on negatives, what they learned and the obstacles they overcame.

McFarnell (2020) also refers to Uri Bronfenbrenner’s theory about the interconnectedness of forces in a child’s life. This involves evaluating and helping to change what surrounds them. Connecting them to new, more advantageous networks. He suggest schools, located in the mesosystem, are in the perfect position to work with other services, many within this system, to help children discover positive contacts, formal and informal.

School and education play a large role in resilience, with education being part of the “6 domains of resilience”, as explained by Daniel and Wassell (n.d.), which can be helpful in assessing resilience. They explain, “Factors within each of these domains of a child’s life are known to contribute to a child’s level of resilience to adversity such as abuse, neglect and loss. Wherever possible a strength in one domain can be used to boost a weaker domain.”

Daniel & Wassell (n.d.) explain the assessment in resilience is necessary in order to help create beneficial tactics to support and understand what is involved to help aide regain confidence, as they develop ways to help children cope with the confusion they experience.

Adversity will happen in the life of all children at some point, regardless of gender, race, income or social status.  However many children will find success in life, learn to function in, and in some cases thrive, in their dysfunctional environment. While some children suffer from psychological damage and cognitive deficiencies, many will have support systems directly and indirectly, in their environment to help aid them in their path of resilience.














Daniel, B. & Wassell, S. (n.d.). Fostering resilience. Iriss.   

Ellis, B., Bianchi, J., Griskevicius, V., & Frankenhuis, W. (2017, July 1/2017, July 6).

Beyond risk and protective factors: An adaptation-based approach to resilience.

Perspectives on Psychological Science. 12 (4), 561-587.  Sage Journals.

Family Resilience Group. (2018, December 13). What is resilience: How can I become more          resilient or help my kids bounce back better? resilience-how-can-i-become-resilient-help-kids-bounce-back/

Guy-Evans, O. (2020, Nov 09). Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory. Simply Psychology.   

Masten, A. S., & Barnes, A. J. (2018). Resilience in Children: Developmental Perspectives.                       Children (Basel, Switzerland), 5(7), 98.

McFarnell, S. (2020, June 9).  Building resilience in children: Strategies for teachers [Video].  (2021, February 19).

Taylor, R. (2019, August 30). Andrew Luck gets to walk away: Not all athletes can. Talk Poverty

Andrew Luck Gets to Walk Away. Not All Athletes Can.

Ungar M. (2013). Resilience after maltreatment: the importance of social services as facilitators    of positive adaptation. Child abuse & neglect, 37(2-3), 110–115. 

University of Southern California. (2015, September 8). Children overcoming adversity:   Researchers find children who have a plan can overcome adversity. ScienceDaily.   


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