Resilience can be defined as “the potential or manifested capacity of a dynamic system to adapt successfully to disturbances that threaten the function, survival or development of the system.” (Masten, 2015, P.187). Parenting is central to both child and family resilience (Masten et al, 2018). Parent management training changes parent behaviour that has positive impacts on child functioning. Directed improvement in foster care parenting has been shown to lead to the normalisation of stress biology in traumatised children. A model of cascading resilience focuses on parenting as a lever for change. Many interventions that promote resilience focus on different parenting roles. A secure early attachment bond cascades to foster close relationships subsequently, which in turn increase protective function for adaptation over the life course. Sensitive, consistent caregiving enhances the quality of attachment relationships leading to better social and emotional development.
Stress studies show that the presence of a caregiver can mitigate stress reactions to frightening stimuli (Masten, 2018). Parents serve as external or ‘co-regulators’ of arousal, emotion and behaviour until children can do it themselves. In research on families experiencing homelessness, effective co-regulation by parents predicted better school adjustment, seemingly mediated by better self-regulation associated with good parenting. The resilience of parents is therefore crucial to the well-being of children and the family; as a result, there has been a call for greater parental resilience. This is needed to guide improvements in programmes to support resilience in children and families. Research on parenting in relation to child resilience is a leading edge in this work. In resilience studies, promotive factors are understood as ‘assets’ and ‘resources’ that are linked with desirable outcomes on all levels of risk. Protective factors play a special role when the level of adversity is high.
The focus on resilience has had a profound impact on intervention models in shifting them away from a deficit model to ones focusing on positive goals, resources and outcomes (Masten et al, 2018). Focusing on promoting healthy development and functioning does not mean ignoring risk and vulnerability but ensures that there is balance to interventions. These approaches seek to reduce exposure to adversity, boost resources, and mobilise protective processes. Some of the most effective interventions combine two or more of these strategies – an example of this is the home visiting programmes to prepare and care for a new born. Efforts to support resilience through two generations or more approaches are burgeoning. A ‘cascading resilience model’ has been proposed to show how interventions focused on parenting can leverage change across systems reverberating across generations. Community support for families can have the same effect.
There has been a broad shift towards developmental systems models in conceptualisation and research on human adaptation and development (Masten, 2015). Core assumptions of this approach are that human adaptation and development are shaped by many interactions across many levels that range from the molecular to the social and ecological levels. The development of the person will be influenced by interactions within the individual (genetic, neural etc.) as well as interactions with family, peers, school, community and the natural and built environment. Development always reflects the current context as well as the history of previous development. Resilience therefore relies on the co-action of multiple systems. Resilience will be dynamic because individuals and contexts are always changing. Time is essential in thinking about resilience because adaptation unfolds over time. This factor is depicted in ‘pathway models’ or trajectories.
Developmental timing plays a key role in resilience-based interventions (Masten, 2015). Research on resilience which is naturally occurring, suggest that there exist windows of opportunity in which contexts, opportunities and processes converge that can support positive change. The transition to adulthood is an example of this. This is a time when brain development, motivation, mentoring and training can support a redirection towards positive outcomes. The phenomenon of ‘late bloomers’ and people who come back from deviant pathways exemplify this. Data also suggests the preschool years is a period of high plasticity when there is a large development of self-regulation skills and brain systems that support these. Data on prenatal care and high-quality childcare show the protective effects of well-timed interventions. There is a high return on early investment in children as competence build on competence in a cascading effect.
Prevention scientists are interested in interventions that will create positive cascades as these represent the greatest return on investment (Masten, 2015). They also want to understand how to interrupt negative cascades which requires an understanding of timing and the development of these dynamics. The resilience of individuals depends on the resilience of other systems like family and community while the latter also depend on the former for resilience. Differential susceptibility and biological sensitivity to context refers to the idea that individuals vary in how they react to experience. This means that a sensitive person is more responsive to good and bad experience – including perhaps interventions. Whether this trait is seen as an advantage or a liability depends on context.
Masten, A., & Barnes, A. (2018). Resilience in children: Developmental perspectives. Children, 5(7), 98. doi:10.3390/children5070098
Masten, A. S. (2015). Ordinary magic: Resilience in development. Guilford Publications.