Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Psychological resilience development in children

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Psychological resilience development in children:
Can psychological resilience be developed in children?

Overview[edit | edit source]

So what is psychological resilience?

  • Is it something people are born with?
  • Can it be learned, taught and developed?
  • Why is it important?
  • What's the relationship between emotion, cognition and resilience?
  • Does it show up constantly in day-to-day life or is it an underlying emotional defense for dealing with stressful or traumatic events?
  • Does it portray itself differently from person to person or is it the same?
  • Does it differ throughout ages and genders?

These are all the questions this chapter is concerned with and will help you to understand in relation to the child demographic. We want to know if psychological resilience can be developed in children.

Psychological resilience[edit | edit source]

So what is Psychological Resilience and how can it be defined?

Psychological resilience can be described as the ability to bounce back in the face of adversity, being able to cope with difficult negative emotional or physical situations and being able to adapt to changes in the environment (Cahill, Beadle, Farrelly, Forster & Smith, 2014). It is the ability to persevere and adapt when things go awry, to overcome obstacles, to steer through adversities (Reivich & Shatte, 2002). Resilience can also play a role in the management, recovery, and relapse prevention in psychiatric illnesses (Min, Yu, Lee & Chae, 2013).

When things do not go to plan or become difficult some individuals manage to deal with it and move on, whereas others can become easily overwhelmed. If an individual is able to bounce back from adverse events and cope with stressful experiences they are viewed as more resilient (Winder, Hall, Person, Goulet, Robeson, & Godard, 2006).

Nature vs nurture[edit | edit source]

We now pose the question: Is Psychological Resilience something that can be learned or is it simply an innate biological process that we don't know about or that we possess it until we need it.?

Psychological resilience was formerly known as something that a person is born with and can be written into a person's genetic makeup and you either had it or didn't have it. Up until recently, it was thought that resilience was not something that could be learned. But in fact, recent studies have shown that the original biological definition was no longer accurate and it was possible to teach, learn and develop the skills necessary to become more inclined to be psychologically resilient.

Resilience has been found to be a developmental process rather than an attribute or a personality trait possesses by some and not others (Shastri, 2013). Which means children can develop areas of resilience in their lives. This process can only occur and be most effective when children are protected by the positive actions of adults, by good nurturing, by their assets and by policies and practices that support their healthy development and reduce risk across key systems (legal, judicial, educational, family, community) that affect their lives (Pedro-Carroll, 2005). Only when these key areas are met a child can then start to foster resilience in their life.

Being resilient is not as black and white as one might think. There are other factors involved, such as the emotion called stress. How a person responds to stress is an integral part of resilience. Responding to stress includes biological, psychological and environmental factors. The intensity of the psychological response varies person to person. This difference can be attributed to individual biological differences in the functioning, of the autonomic, immune and endocrine systems. It's thought that some people tend to be more vulnerable to stress and some people are less vulnerable. Throughout an individual's life they are subjected to different environments and the number and nature of the stressful events encountered differs for each individual. Through supportive friends and relatives, the cultural norms that teach an individual how to appropriately respond to adverse events can be related to how individual's deal with and cope in the face of adversity (Winder, et al., 2006).

To strengthen the biological response to stress research has shown that exercise and relaxation techniques can be used as well as, community action to reduce the stressors in the environment so they are viewed to be less intense and to foster a more supportive atmosphere. Although research has found that the strongest influence on the response to stress can be described as psychological factors, most evidently, the way a person thinks (Winder, et al., 2006). A person's beliefs are central to resilience. Research has shown that studies of hardiness, self-efficacy, and optimism all show that responses to adversity are determined largely by thoughts and beliefs (Kobasa, Maddi, Puccetti, & Zola, 1985; Bandura, 1997; Chang, 1998). A person's thought process about stress and adversity, the beliefs about one's abilities, and the attitudes surrounding the future are all related areas which all effect the coping strategies used by an individual (Winder, et al., 2006).

Individuals that function well in the face of physical and psychological stress are thought to hold three beliefs. These three beliefs can be used to distinguish high functioning people from other people who do not function well. These three core beliefs are often referred to and described as the three C's of hardiness: commitment, control and challenge (Kobasa, et al, 1985). Resilient people tend to believe that what they do is important which is the first core belief - commitment. Resilient people tend to believe that they alone can influence all the outcomes of events, which is the second core belief - control. Resilient people also tend to believe that the demand characteristics of a stressful event can be viewed as a challenge rather than a threat, which is the third and last core belief - challenge. These core beliefs are implemented to use and to protect an individual from stressful events (Winder, et al., 2006). This is a useful tool to help individuals to learn to be more resilient by using these thinking styles and become a high functioning person in the face of adversity.

Importance of resilience[edit | edit source]

Research indicates that how individual's think about adversity and opportunities affects the levels of success in school, work, overall health and well-being, and risk of mental illness (Reivich & Shatte, 2002). It has been found that individuals can and are able to bounce back in the face of adversity, have longer and happier lives and relationships, and are reported to be more successful in school and work life. A longitudinal study of 99 graduates of Harvard found that the way people described negative events their life at 25 was used to predict their health at ages 30 and 60. If individuals related negative events to personal attributes rather than the environmental factors (external), for example, a common response was 'I will never make friends here because I am just too shy'. The people that had those pessimistic responses actually suffered more health problems than people with optimistic explanations of adversity, for example 'It takes some time to meet people in a new place'. Research also indicates that the thinking styles that allow individuals to bounce back can also be taught and learned by others (Peterson, Seligman, & Vaillant, 1988; Winder, et al, 2006).

Individuals in the 21st century are exposed and subjected to daily high levels of stress, and the diagnosis of depression amongst other mental illnesses is on the rise, most notably in individuals born after 1960 (Seligman, 1995; Winder et al, 2006). Preventing stress and adversity is something individuals cannot control despite their best efforts. The only thing individuals can do is learn to be resilient, first by changing the thought process around adversity and challenges (Reivich & Shatte, 2002; Seligman, 1991; Seligman, Reivich, Jaycox, & Gillham, 1995).

Over the life-time an individual develops non-resilient thinking which can be described as 'ruts'. These negative thinking patterns can prevent individuals from accurately and flexibly perceiving stressful events and adversity. On the other hand, resilient thinking requires a certain amount of creative problem-solving, the ability to be open minded (seeing others points of view), to be able to face adversity and to continue through it in daily life despite the stressors and obstacles. This thinking pattern can be learned and used to reduce stress levels and create a healthy mental and physical well-being (Reivich & Shatte, 2002; Seligman, 1991; Seligman et al., 1995; Winder, et al., 2006).

Emotions, cognition and resilience[edit | edit source]

How individuals feel and think are very much related, and it can be seen in everyday experiences. For example, if Mary is feeling happy and her best friend Sarah doesn't invite her to their party, Mary would probably think she is too busy and has simply forgotten to invite her. Mary interprets Sarah's behaviour in this manner would just ask Sarah about the party at school tomorrow. But if Mary was anxious and depressed, she may interpret Sarah not inviting her as an indication of her worth to Sarah. The interpretation of this behaviour decreases Mary's self-esteem and makes her feel bad about the friendship, she probably won't talk to Sarah about it at school the next day. This example shows how self-esteem and emotions play a significant role of Mary's interpretation of the stressful event she had encountered. Research has shown that cognition and emotions are interconnected and play a role simultaneously (Bell & Wolfe, 2004). The brain constantly keeps in touch with each of the centres responsible for cognition and emotion. Everyday experience shows that emotions and moods affect an individual's thinking. Cognition and emotions have a close relationship which can be seen as they both influence each other (Forgas, 2001; Lazarus, 1991) which has been demonstrated by the example above.

Whether cognition plays a role in the everyday experience of emotions has been debated over the years Zajonic (1980) amongst others believe that emotions can indeed be experienced without any conscious thought. His research shows people actually show preferences over people and objects but then do not remember having viewed them before. This means that faces and objects cannot be consciously appraised, or the person would remember them (Zajnoc, 1980). Although other researchers are led to believe that this phenomenon could, in fact, be due to a failure of memory rather than an obvious absence of cognition. Whereas other researchers support the idea that the emotional reaction to stimuli that is completely dependent on cognitive appraisal. Cognitive appraisal can be divided into three levels; the first, primary appraisal, this occurs only when a stimulus has been assessed as positive, negative (stressful) or unimportant. Secondary appraisal occurs only when the individual decides if the stimuli presented can be dealt with. Lastly, re-appraisal occurs only when both primary and secondary appraisals have been completed and the previous results from those appraisals are reviewed and modified to suit the new approach if one is needed (Lazarus, 1984; Winder, et al., 2006).

Lazarus (1991) has shown he can agree with Zajonc that not all cognitive evaluations or appraisals are consciously decided or deliberate. But he also argues that after the stimuli need to first be assessed as negative or positive, there are underlying emotions that can be experienced subconsciously without knowing it (Lazarus, 1991; Uleman & Bargh, 1989). This is an interesting discovery as it compliments Zajonic's previous theory but also adds an element of underlying subconscious emotions it sound a lot like psychoanalysis and something from Sigmund Freud. It can be concluded that primary appraisals do occur and there may be subconscious thinking. Secondary and re-appraisal include only conscious thought and no unconscious thought (Winder, et al., 2006).

Cognition is a definite process in experiencing emotions, how individuals interpret events simultaneously influences feelings and behaviour. Some researchers argue if emotions are not related by interpretations of events, every person would react in the same exact way to emotionally arousing events. But this is not the case, each person has a different reaction to the event depending on their thoughts and beliefs about the event. For example, receiving an invitation to Sarah's party would make all Sarah's friends feel welcome and accepted if they had been a good friend, made a decent effort with that person and received an invitation. But each person reacts differently due to what they think, what their expectations were, how they interpret the invitation and what it means to them personally (Reivich, & Shatte, 2002; Winder, et al., 2006).

It's thought that individuals usually respond to events in reasonable and productive ways that foster continuing on with daily life. Emotions are most often dealt with in positive ways that enhance the health and well-being of the individual. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Sometimes individuals will experience debilitating negative emotions that reduce motivation to engage the problem or help to solve the problem, but in fact, make it worse. Individuals tend to dwell on the importance and significance of the stressful or adverse event and continue to feel the negative emotions relentlessly. This dwelling can disrupt sleep, increase irritability and become debilitating for the individual, preventing bouncing back and continuing with daily life (Winder, et al., 2006). Furthermore, at times in a person's life, they can be more sensitive than they usually are particularly when they are exposed to adverse events. This exposure then facilitates and leads to the debilitating emotions. This pattern can be caused by the individual's thought process and thinking style. Consider describing particular beliefs to others, most often they would appear as irrational and illogical. For example, a student doesn't get an invitation to their friend's party, the friend is disappointed, here is an example of the thought process that they might have:

I worked hard to be this person's friend, but I obviously failed. I'm not good enough to be invited. How could I be so stupid to think they liked me? I really don't belong here. I don't have what it takes to be a good friend. No one will ever like me and it's too hard to try.

These beliefs about not receiving an invitation to the party may sound illogical and overblown to other people, but there would have been times when other people had similar overly dramatic and irrational beliefs which would interfere with a person's ability to cope logically and effectively. Therefore, it is the beliefs that cause the adverse and debilitating negative thoughts and emotions, not the event (Winder, et al., 2006). Through this finding, it's important to understand the connection between cognitions and emotions, and that cognitions about beliefs that tend to create negative thinking patterns rather than the event alone.

Different types of resilience?[edit | edit source]

Hopefully, you now know the definition and understand that this process is innate but it is also a learned emotional response. We now look at the fact that psychological resilience exists and that it is quite an adaptive process. We want to discover if there are any other types of resilience, along with psychological resilience.

Broaden-build theory of emotion is the framework theory that resilience falls into[factual?]. This theory states that through the use of positive emotions using examples of previous situations, a person can use the strategies and other information learnt to be able to cope with a difficult situation or problem (Tugade & Fredrickson, 2004).

To deal with adversities life throws at them, children can use different coping strategies to help them to cope with a stressful situation. A coping strategy can be explained as a thought process used by the child to assess, interpret and cope with adversity (Shure, 1999). There are three sources of resilience that have been uncovered by Grotberg (1995):

  1. I CAN, which relates to self-efficacy (theory) if children feel like they are competent to do things.
  2. I AM, which related to sense-of-self and how responsible they are.
  3. I HAVE, which relates to the support the children have around themselves and people they can ask for help if they need. Through the use of these three steps children can learn to face adverse events by thinking about these three things. For example, a child fails a test because they were roudy and unfocused when the class was learning the content, the child will need to reasure themselves of the other tests that they have aready passed. The child will then be asked why they failed and what could they have done better to pass, in this instance, it's to focus more, actually learning the content as they were unfocused and distracted. The child will then think of the support that they have, they know that they can ask the teacher for help and the teacher can help and if the teacher sees they need more help they will ask for a tutor and learn the content again. After using this technique children can learn to rationally think about the adversity and use these skills to overcome them.

Something else to consider is that children learn to deal with adversity and stress by observing other people. In stressful situations or events, children will look to their parents, siblings, teachers and friends to figure out how to respond to these events and try to find what is the most appropriate way to respond. Children imitate those around them including the reactions, explanations and behaviour of those role models, caretakers and friends. Modelling is seen to be an important strategy to show children how to react to adversity. Adults will first need to develop a resilient and effective coping strategies so they can foster and model those strategies and effective coping styles into their children's lives. This teaching helps a child to foster and construct their own style of coping from a young age (Seligman, et al., 1995). Research has found that the earlier the child is taught the easier it is to implement, as it is found to be easier to learn before than after the event (Rutter, 2000; Winder, et al., 2006).

Finding resilience teaching programs for children is not difficult as they have been around since the 1970's. These programs often focus on building self-esteem, increasing school readiness, and supporting the child-parent relationship (Garmezy, 1991; Luthar & Ziegler, 1991; Werner & Smith, 2001). Whereas, some of the programs focused specifically on understanding children's social cognitions, which have been found to help both the parent and the child to understand and develop a much more effective social problem-solving style (Shure, 1999; Winder, et al., 2006).

Displays of psychological resilience[edit | edit source]

So this psychological resilience, does it show itself constantly in day-to-day life or is it an underlying psychological/emotional defense used specifically as a defense mechanism to help deal with stressful or traumatic events?

Research has found that children exposed to and growing up in diverse, broken families, parents that abuse substances and low socioeconomic background are more resilient because these children are predisposed to adversity and stressful situations from a young age (Ungar, 2007). Research has found that children growing up in these environments are more than capable to look after themselves and adapt to their environment quickly, as it is all they know (Ungar, 2007). These children have also reported to being resilient and tend to thrive in their environment as this lifestyle is all they have and there is a relationship between children's identity and to the child's background (Ungar, 2007). Through research, it has been noted that children who are exposed to these adverse circumstances have been reported to view themselves positively and have high resiliency as they can adapt to and deal with adverse events in a timely manner (Ungar, 2007).

It has been found through research that children with defence force or military families have also reported high levels of resiliency (Sinor, 2003). These children are exposed to geographical displacement, alienation from society, strict authoritarian family life and absent parents due to the nature of their deployment (Sinor, 2003). These children are submersed in this stressful environment from a young age and have no choice but to either survive and adapt to the environment or buckle under pressure. If they cannot survive and adapt they will use ineffective coping strategies and be at risk of abusing drugs, alcohol and become violent or aggressive (Sinor, 2003).

Gender and age differences[edit | edit source]

So we know what psychological resilience is and how it comes about but does it portray itself differently through different genders and ages?

Children have been found to adapt more quickly than adults in the face of adversity (Bitiska, Sharpley, & Mailli, 2014). Men and women both experience resilience differently due to innate biological differences (Zhang, Zhao, Ju, & Mu, 2015). There are two types of resilient ways that adults deal with adverse situations (Bonanno, Galea, Bucciarelli, & Vlahov, 2006):

  1. Resilient individuals
  2. Long recovery periods for individuals

Research has found that although there are different coping styles, there is not a particular style that is more favourable than the others. Some individuals are naturally resilient which is ideal, others require a little more help. Needing some help is okay because it has been found that resilience is a skill that can be fostered and developed over time even if some people are more adaptable than others (Bonanno, et al., 2006).

Research has found that there are multitudes of things individuals can do to become more resilient. The first step would be to take good care of oneself physically by maintaining a decent amount and regular sleep cycle, eating nutritious food and exercising regularly. Secondly one can learn how to increase the flexibility and accuracy of one's thinking in regards to adversity and challenges (Winder, et al., 2006).

Childhood development of resilience[edit | edit source]

Can psychological resilience be developed in children?

Research has found that through the use of a technique children can learn to be resilient. This technique can be described as the ABC's of resilience created by Albert Ellis 1962. Ellis (1962) proposed the idea that a person's feelings are not caused by an event, that happened but rather by the way a person interprets the event. Ellis (1962) also created a new cognitive approach which is known as Rational Emotive Therapy which has been a successful tool in which people are able to use to combat irrational beliefs which lead a person to feel depressed. Ellis (1962) proposed these three steps:

  1. A = Adversity - Adverse event/challenge
  2. B = Beliefs - Thoughts about adversity
  3. C = Consequences - Feelings and behaviours

This three-step model created by Ellis (1962) encourages children to think about the adverse event. The adversity can be explained as the challenge the child is facing. For example, failing a spelling test. The model then encourages children to think about their beliefs and opinions about this challenge. For example, thinking they will be stuck at the same level and never be able to excel to the next level. The model then encourages children to think about the consequences. For example, Feelings of sadness or despair and giving up. Through the use of the model a teacher can challenge the child's belief and opinion, for example, asking the child to think about other passed tests. The model then challenges the child's view on the perceived consequences of the test, for example, asking the child how focused they had been on learning the spelling words and to now focus on learning the correct spelling. Ellis (1962) suggested that people often create unnecessary stress which is a by-product of the views a person has about themselves, others and the world around them. Through the use of this technique, children can learn the appropriate cognitive style to help combat negative emotions and stress when facing adverse events.

Culture, socioeconomic status, exposure to traumatic or stressful events and upbringing all play a role in the development of resilience. There is limited research on different cultures other than western societies in regards to resilience. When looking at psychological resilience in terms of culture it has been conceptualized that another definition has been used to explain psychological resilience which is:

"In the context of exposure to significant adversity, resilience is both the capacity of individuals to navigate their way to the psychological, social, cultural, and physical resources that sustain their well-being, and their capacity to individually and collectively to negotiate for these resources to be provided and experienced in culturally meaningful ways (Ungar, 2008, p255 as cited in Ungar & Lienbengerg, 2011)".

Through the use of this new definition it has been defined in a culturally sensitive manner which in previous years it has not. Resilience being understood this way provides the insight for both individual and environment that have the potential for positive development. Previous literature on the measurement of resilience have described a few different measures used, some are listed here but are not limited to; 'The Resilience and Youth Development Module (RYDM)', 'the California Healthy Kids Survey', 'Wagnild and Young's Resilience Scale' just to name a few. These all assess the strengths that are relevant to young people regardless of the differing degrees of diversity that they faced. A new measurement was formed called the Child and Youth Resilience Measure (CYRM-28). This new measure purpose was to create a significantly more culturally diverse questionnaire. This new measure was designed by an international team of investigators from 11 different countries around the world. Through the diversity of the team, they were able to find that not all cultures understood resilience in the same constructs as others.

 Case Studies

Case Study 1: Lisa is a 12-year-old girl who has grown up in a military family. She is an only child and has lived on numerous military bases throughout her life, never really settling anywhere for more than three or four years. Every few years she moves to a different military base in a different country. This sense of displacement and being alienated from society has an impact on her life. She has an authoritarian father who is barely around because of his deployment and hasn't been able to make any long term friends. Her parents describe her as curious and alert. She has a photographic memory and doesn't forget much.

Case Study 2: Thomas is a 10-year-old boy that has grown up in a big city with his parents. He has lived there his whole life and has a pet dog named Sam. He has been to the same school since pre-school and has a good group of friends. He is good at sports and makes people laugh.


Out of the two children presented who do you think is more resilient?


Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Psychological resilience is displayed by the ability to cope with difficult circumstances and is defined as being able to bounce back in the face of adversity. The way an individual deals with a situation where things have become difficult or gone wrong is their display of resilience, and an easy way to remember what it means. Resilience was thought to be an innate biological process that could not be learned. Research has shown, however, that each individual reacts to stress differently due to individual biological differences and everyone can learn to be resilient. The three C’s of hardiness (commitment, control and challenge) determine how well an individual will handle stress. Resilience is important as individuals try to prevent and avoid adversity and stress but sometimes individuals develop non-resilient thinking which is described as ‘ruts’ and experience debilitating negative emotions. It is thought that cognition and feelings play a role in resilience as the brain is in constant connection with both centres responsible for thoughts and feelings which influence each other. To deal with adversity children can use the three sources of resilience (I can, I am, and I have). Children have been found to mimic their family and friends. They use what they have seen and if parents have an effective coping system it can be taught to their children from a young age. Resilience programs have been around since the 1970’s. It has been found that children subjected to adversity (low socioeconomic status, broken families, parents that abuse drugs or grew up in the military) are exposed to resiliency from a young age. These children will either be happy and adapt to their upbringing as it is all they know or they will become overwhelmed, be at risk of abusing drugs or alcohol and/or become violent or aggressive. Research shows that children can be taught to be resilient through the use of the ABC’s technique developed by Ellis (1962). Cultural context needs to be considered in relation to the definition and use of the word resilience, as there is limited research on how resilience is defined and it’s importance in non-western societies. Researchers from 14 nations collaborated and created a culturally inclusive measure of resilience and adversity. They developed the Child and Youth Resilience measure (CYRM-28), this is used to assess adversities faced by children and is considered to be culturally diverse. Although the researchers found that not all cultures understood resilience in the same framework and definition.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

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