The Power of Resilience in Children Exposed to Adversities

by Dr. Niki Nearchou, Assistant Professor at the School of Psychology, University College Dublin.

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 Mairy grew up living with her mother and stepdad, who used to drink and beat her mother every other day. Now she runs her own business and has two children. She feels that being a child was really hard but now all the wounds are healed .1

 Eva was born in December 1942 at a labour camp in Czechoslovakia, and was almost 2 when she arrived in Auschwitz. Now she lives in Munich, Germany, and works as a psychotherapist .2

 Alex was physically abused and neglected for years until the social services intervene and remove him from his family. Now, after graduating from college, he has his first job, lives on his own and thinks it’s time to propose to his girlfriend .1

These children are just a few examples of those who, despite being exposed during their childhood to remarkably adverse circumstances, managed to bounce back, cope with negative consequences and even thrive. This positive coping and adaptation despite experiencing distressful situations or traumatic life events is well known as resilience.

When I was starting to delve into the resilience literature as part of preparing my doctoral research proposal, I was stunned by how amazing children such as Alex or Eva, despite experiencing life events that no child should be ever exposed to, faced the risk and developed really well. I must admit, it crossed my mind that maybe there is something special about these children to make them fight and overcome such stressors in their lives. It seems that the notion of gifted and charismatic children dealing with risks was very existent in the resilience milieu, using at the time terms like invincible or invulnerable children.  In 1975, Pines wrote one of the earliest articles on resilience titled  “In praise of Invulnerables” for APA Monitor, while the next year (March 1976), The Washington Post published an article titled “Trouble’s a Bubble to Some Kids”, a headline implying that some children can burst out of their risk bubble and have happy, normal lives.

As I was unravelling the trajectory of resilience research, I realised that resilience in battered children is far more common than I had initially thought. Among the numerous exceptional scholars that have enriched resilience literature through the years, I was irresistibly attracted by Ann Masten’s work: “What began as a quest to understand the extraordinary revealed the power of the ordinary” 3. This powerful sentence summarizes the essence of resilience, and at the same time infuses hope. I strongly believe that this statement reflects the contemporary conceptualisation of resilience, which is defined as ‘a dynamic process that incorporates adaptation within the context of exposure to adversities.’4 Any discussion on resilience presupposes that the two following conditions are met: firstly, exposure to any kind of risk and secondly, effectively coping with any negative outcomes.

 

‘Participants who, while growing up, were supported by adults outside their family circle, continued their education and established a good relationship with a partner, developed to become competent and caring adults.’

 

The Kauai project followed a cohort of babies born on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in 1955, until they reached their mid 30’s. This ground-breaking study showed that certain clusters of factors operated protectively against adversities, such as parental psychopathology and poverty, and eventually promoted resilience. Participants who, while growing up, were supported by adults outside their family circle, continued their education and established a good relationship with a partner, developed to become competent and caring adults .The list of protective factors is long, and as research evidence suggests, is differentiated according to the type of risk. For example, while family support has been consistently reported as a protective factor for children and adolescents living in areas of armed-conflict,6 one significant adult member of their broader community network, was the agent that helped children cope with abuse.7

Nevertheless, there is a general agreement on three areas of protective factors, identified in individual characteristics (e.g. self-esteem, empathy, optimism), in the home environment (supportive and warm familial context) and in the social environment (school, work, community) 8. The severity of exposure to a traumatic event can be critical, no matter the presence of positive supports, and unfortunately some individuals will not bounce back.

Resilience has been extensively studied in relation to childhood maltreatment, resulting in a rich literature that constantly feeds the design of significant interventions in order to face trauma. Physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and neglect, are the four forms of childhood maltreatment inducing severe consequences on children’s welfare and development. Emotional (sometimes referred to as psychological) abuse has been reported as the most serious form of childhood maltreatment, and the most difficult to detect because usually it leaves no visible marks and can be more easily concealed.9

 

‘Positive teacher-student interactions have a substantial impact on children’s well-being’

 

When considering childhood maltreatment, we tend to plausibly think that family is usually involved, because by definition the term refers to an act of commission or omission (in the case of neglect) imposed by a caregiver. As a child grows up, school becomes the context in which he or she spends a significant amount of their time. Hence, it is not a surprise that school becomes the most important social environment after the family environment to influence emotional, cognitive and social aspects in children’s course of development. Positive teacher-student interactions have a substantial impact on children’s well-being, whereas negative relationships may have adverse outcomes. Although many educators tend to establish good, constructive relationships with their students using effective communication channels, research suggests that this is not always the case. Some studies report that specific teachers’ negative behaviours towards students, identified as Emotional Abuse by Teachers, may have negative psychological and somatic consequences on school-aged children 10.

Being increasingly involved with resilience readings, I could not but ask myself: If teachers’ negative behaviours have adverse consequences on students, are there perhaps some factors to counteract these consequences, diminish their effects and promote resilience? This was one of the questions upon which I based my doctoral research goals, i.e. to explore the role of a number of factors that promote resilience in school-aged children (9 to 12 years) exposed to incidents of emotional abuse by teachers. I was about to dive into totally unchartered territory, given that there is much research on protective factors associated with maltreated children within the family context, but none existing within the school context. The main pillar of my research was the hypothesis that since resilience is so well documented and evident for every form of child maltreatment, then somehow it should be linked to the research questions I sought to answer. Indeed, the findings revealed children that reported incidents of emotional abuse by teachers tend to present more behavioural difficulties when compared to children with no similar experiences. Self-confidence, a warm family environment and good relationships with peers were the factors that had a positive impact on behavioural adjustment in children that had experiences of emotional abuse by teachers.

The implications of these findings in the educational context are critical, suggesting that negative student-teacher interactions may result in unfavourable outcomes on children’s well-being. The key message is the power of the ordinary, reflected in this case upon the interactive power of friendships, of good parenting practices, and of enhancing self-confidence in young children. Are there maybe other individual and environmental factors that can promote resilience in children with negative schooling experiences? This question remains to be explored by future resilience studies.

 

 

  1. These are cases of individuals I worked with during my professional practice as a counselor. The names are not real, the details have been altered and the individuals consented in using some part of their de-identified stories in this article.

  1. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/26/tales-from-auschwitz-survivor-stories

  1. Masten, A. S. (2001). Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American psychologist, (p.235), 56(3), 227-238.

  1. Luthar, S. S., Cicchetti, D., & Becker, B. (2000). The construct of resilience: A critical evaluation and guidelines for future work.Child development,71(3), 543-562.

  1. Werner, E. E. (1993). Risk, resilience, and recovery: Perspectives from the Kauai Longitudinal Study.Development and psychopathology,5(04), 503-515.

  1. Tol, W. A., Song, S. and Jordans, M. J. D. (2013), Annual Research Review: Resilience and mental health in children and adolescents living in areas of armed conflict – a systematic review of findings in low- and middle-income countries. J Child Psychol Psychiatry, 54, 445–460.

  1. Flores, E., Rogosch, F. A., & Cicchetti, D. (2005). Predictors of resilience in maltreated and nonmaltreated latino children. Developmental Psychology, 41(2), 338-351.

  1. Zolkoski, S. M., & Bullock, L. M. (2012). Resilience in children and youth: A review.Children and youth services review,34(12), 2295-2303.

  1. Glaser, D. (2011). How to deal with emotional abuse and neglect—Further development of a conceptual framework (FRAMEA).Child abuse & neglect,35(10), 866-875.

  1. McEachern, A. G., Aluede, O., & Kenny, M. C. (2008). Emotional abuse in the classroom: Implications and interventions for counselors.Journal of Counseling and Development: JCD,86(1), 3.

  1. Nearchou, F. (2018). Resilience following emotional abuse by teachers: insights from a cross-sectional study with Greek students. Resilience-themed issue of Child Abuse & Neglect, 78, 96-106. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2017.10.012

 

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