Ohio State University Extension Bulletin

Fostering Resilience in Children

Bulletin 875-99


The Definition of Resilience

Resilience is a word that is often heard these days. It has even been used to refer to pantyhose. However, if you would like to use the term as a professional, you are probably wondering what it really means. Is it bouncing back? Is it a steeling process? Is it a personality type? What exactly does this word mean? When I hear a professional use it or if I myself use it, to what exactly is it referring?

When resilience research is being conducted or referred to, an operational definition is probably being used. For example, educational resilience is a certain grade point average and ratings of social competence. On the other hand, resilience in an AIDS or cancer patient is staying alive. Additionally, for the cancer patient it could mean staying in remission.

But what about an overall definition of resilience? What does the term mean in general? Over the last few years, some researchers on the topic have tried to capture the true essence of the word.

General Definition

In 1984, Garmezy, Masten, and Tellegen operationalized resilience in one of their earlier projects as, "manifestations of competence in children despite exposure to stressful events." In 1985, Rutter defined resilience as facing ". . . stress at a time and in a way that allows self-confidence and social competence to increase through mastery and appropriate responsibility." In 1994, Masten defined resilience in this manner: "Resilience in an individual refers to successful adaptation despite risk and adversity." She goes on to say, "resilience refers to a pattern over time, characterized by good eventual adaptation despite developmental risk, acute stressors, or chronic adversities." In 1995, Gordon defined resilience this way: "Resilience is the ability to thrive, mature, and increase competence in the face of adverse circumstances. These circumstances may include biological abnormalities or environmental obstacles. Further, the adverse circumstances may be chronic and consistent or severe and infrequent. To thrive, mature, and increase competence, a person must draw upon all of his or her resources: biological, psychological, and environmental."

These represent some of the best attempts at defining resilience. They are created by some of the leading researchers in the field. The last two are contemporary and take advantage of some of the latest research.

Practical Application

These definitions have practical applications. What they mean to the practitioner is that some children who are exposed to chronic or severe stress will turn out competent. These children will successfully adapt over time. These children will need tremendous biological, psychological, and environmental resources in order to do this. These children cannot do it themselves. They need love, care, and support not only from their parents, but from educational personnel and other community adults as well.

A Few Cautions

Resilience is being competent despite exposure to severe or chronic adversities. This may seem simple at first, but it is not. This is because competence changes over time. Competence is measured by developmental milestones that change over time. The definition of competence for a baby is not the same as the definition of competence for an adult. A baby need only cry in a manner which gets its needs met. An adult needs to find a means of financial support, intimate relationships, and a manner for giving back to society. Therefore, a person may display resilience in one phase of development and not in another.

The definition is also not simple because resilience is contextual. The individual characteristics and environmental factors that lead to resilience in one context may not lead to resilience in another. For instance, academic resilience may be related to a certain set of individual characteristics and environmental factors. However, these same factors and characteristics may not equal emotional resilience. Different kinds of resilience are related to different kinds of support.

The definition is not simple because resilience is complex. It takes personal characteristics such as social skills and environmental factors such as mentoring to create the resilience phenomenon. Resilience does not just come from the person. Additionally, it draws on biological (temperament) and psychological (internal locus of control) characteristics of the person. The environment's role cannot be forgotten. Environmental factors also come into play. People, opportunities, and atmospheres all add to the resilience equation. A resilient personality is not sufficient. It takes the person and his or her environment.

The definition is also deceptively simple for another reason. Great sacrifice is made and pain is endured for a person to display resilience. Resilient people face tremendous stress and adversity. Resilience is often accompanied by emotional difficulties. There are also stress related health problems in adulthood. Resilience, competence despite severe or chronic adversity, has a cost (emotional problems and health problems). However, the accomplishments that accompany resilience are not minuscule.


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