Building resilience in children, measuring it in adults

This week’s blog is brought to you by Antonio Pangallo, psychologist and Partner at Lucent Psychology. Lucent works with companies to help them thrive by ‘bringing an understanding of people’s headspace into the workplace’.

Antonio is currently undertaking research to understand resilience in the workplace, and here discusses how an adult role model can help children develop the ability to bounce back and increase their potential for resilience in the future.

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Whilst there is no singular definition of resilience, there is some consensus that it relates to the ability to bounce back from life’s challenges, and in some cases thrive despite those challenges. I have developed this definition over time through my work as a PhD researcher on resilience, as well as working with organisations as a consulting partner of Lucent Psychology.

One of the most interesting things about resilience is that some children exposed to challenging family environments escape the negative impact of family disorder and thrive despite such adversity. Researchers have tried to understand the factors that ‘protect’ individuals from the negative outcomes exhibited by others in the same situations.

Whilst there is no ‘magic’ recipe for determining positive outcomes for children, our current understanding of resilience has shown that more than anything else, a supportive and caring adult relationship with a child has one of the most positive effects on their ‘bounce back’ ability. However, the picture is not as straight-forward as it may seem.

A large part of resilience research has looked at children brought up in challenging circumstances who have managed to thrive despite their surroundings. It was initially thought that resilience was a personality trait or something with which we were born. We now know that the quality of social relationships, not just in the family but also at school, in the community or neighbourhood, will have a dramatic effect on how resilient a child is likely to be as they face life’s challenges.

So what are the protective factors that improve the likelihood of positive outcomes? In the late 80s, a group of researchers1 investigated mothers who had been abused as children. The findings of this research were not entirely surprising as it showed that 40% of these mothers had abused their own children; 30% provided borderline care; while the remaining 30% provided good quality care. What was particularly unique about this study was that almost all of the mothers who provided good quality care reported that a foster parent, relative or other adult provided them with emotional support as children or adolescents.

This finding is not limited to one study. There have been many studies over the years2 that have identified an emotionally supportive relationship with a caregiver or adult as key to resilient outcomes for children.

What does this mean for Friendship Works mentors? The implication of this body of research is clear. The role of mentors is key to providing stability and positive role modelling to youths in the programme. But what does positive role modelling mean for mentors? The answer is difficult to demonstrate, yet simple to identify. Mentors must allow learning through vicarious means, resisting the compulsion to ‘tell’ and allow youths to model and learn in their own time.

Friederich Nietzsche once wrote, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Role modelling positive behaviours such as how best to deal with life’s challenges, is an extremely effective way of building resilience skills. The message given to the child here is that it is healthy to face challenges. Facing challenges produces a steeling effect and provides children with resources to cope with future challenges.

Children are incredibly resilient and adaptive organisms if given the right conditions. Sadly, the right conditions are not always available to children, and this is where the mentor relationship partially compensates for such risks in a child’s life. Mentors may be processing their own issues when providing support to a child, so that means that their own resilience will be called upon. This is a crucial skill for mentors as they will be role modelling for children dealing with some extremely challenging personal issues.

The power of close supportive role models has been shown to be protective in a range of adverse situations including poverty and family breakdown3, maltreatment4, having a parent with a mental illness5, and out-of-home care6. It has even been shown that there is a relationship between the perception of care from a teacher and pro-social behaviours, social responsibility, and academic efforts7. Adolescents with emotionally distant parents have shown a decrease in negative outcomes (e.g. truancy, academic performance, expulsion8) when they had good quality bonds with their teachers.

It has hopefully become evident how important bonding with a significant adult is for youth resilience9. Even support from a neighbour has been show to help adolescents with family break-ups or remarriage10. To date, the role of supportive adults has been consistently shown to facilitate resilient outcomes. There appears to be no evidence known to me that contradicts this association.

This blog attempts to highlight just how crucial a supportive adult relationship can be to a child. The mentor role is an integral part of any child’s path towards resilience.

For my ongoing PhD research with City University London, I am trying to develop a measure of psychological resilience in adults. The focus of this PhD is to understand what resilience is amongst those working in highly stressful work contexts and to look at how a measure of resilience can be subsequently developed.

This research will assist employers to reduce costs associated with absenteeism, presenteeism, and lower productivity. Using a measure of resilience in a preventive capacity will also help to reduce the incidence of burnout and stress related illnesses in the workplace. The proposed measure will be developed and validated using health care from a variety of sectors. It is envisaged that through the process of defining and measuring the resilience construct, effective interventions can then be designed to build resilience skills in the workplace.

I am looking for as many people as possible to fill in a quick ten-minute survey about people’s approaches to dealing with adversity within the workplace.

To take part, please click here to complete the survey. 

 

1 Egeland, Jacobivtiz and Sroufe (1988)

2 Clark, 1983; Fergusson & Lynskey, 1996; Garmezy, 1987; Smith & Prior, 1995; Spaccarelli & Kim, 1995; Werner & Smith, 1992).

3 Werner & Smith, 1992

4 Bolger, Patterson, & Kupersmidt, 1998

5 Beardslee & Podorefsky, 1988

6 Legault, Anawati, & Flynn, 2006

7 Wentzel, 1997

8 Crosnoe & Elder, 2004

9 For example, Herman-Stahl & Petersen, 1996; Miliotis et al., 1999; Rodgers & Rose, 2002; Rutter et al., 1990; Werner & Smith, 1992; Wyman et al., 1992

10 Rodgers & Rose, 2002