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A short history of resilience

When we talk about resilience, most of us use the word fairly loosely. Often it's intended to mean the same as words like hardy, tough, irrepressible, stamina, 'stick-ability' etc, but psychologists use the word with much more precision.

For example:

'Resilience is the process of, capacity for, or outcome of successful adaption despite challenging or threatening circumstances.' (Masten, Best & Garmezy 1990)

'Resilience is predicated on exposure to significant threat or adversity, and on the attainment of good outcomes despite this exposure.' (Luthar, Cicchetti, & Becker 2000).

The study of resilience started only 40 or 50 years ago. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, psychologists who were studying children growing up high risk environments realised that a proportion of the youngsters developed well despite the adversity they faced in life.

Those who appeared to be thriving psychologically, despite the impact of poverty, poor parenting, hunger or war, were quickly seen as being 'resilient', 'stress-resistant', 'survivors', or even 'invulnerable.

Whatever the label, some children were clearly able to adapt to, and cope with, their adverse circumstances. The search was on to find the ingredients that make up resilience. To develop as human beings, we need to be able to cope with what life throws at us, adapt to the situation and continue to develop. If we could bottle resilience, then optimism would increase while depression would decline. We'd save a lot of money on health and social services, and many more people would achieve their goals.

As a result, the study of resilience quickly became an area of psychological research in its own right and is now considered an important area of research. Early studies were mainly focused on young people deemed to be living in very risky social or physical environments, but over the last couple of decades it has become recognised that the demands of growing up mean that virtually all young people face stress and pressure. As a result, the study of resilience has expanded significantly and now encompasses practical applications as well as theoretical studies.

Interestingly, many of the pioneers of resilience research rejected the notion that they should simply be looking for children with 'problems'  and sought a more positive line of inquiry.

William Frankenburg, one of the fathers of resilience research, remarked: 'Researchers and care providers alike have been caught up in a pathological model of looking at children. We have focused on looking for problems, a negative approach that may sometimes have the undesirable effect of making us think negatively about children.'

He preferred an approach that would build on, and strengthen, resilient traits.  Positive resilience theory rejects the idea that risk is something to be avoided. Instead, it focuses on those factors that promote well-being in individuals faced with adversity. Rather than take a defensive stance against risk, resilience theory takes the view that life, with all of its ups and downs, is there to embraced and that coping with risk and bouncing back from adversity are positively good for us.

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