What makes us resilient?

What is Resilience?

Is a resilient person simply someone who can bounce back from adversity or is there more to it than that?


Resilience has come to be defined as 'a successful adaptational response to high risk' (Fraser,Luthar 2000). Others have defined resilience as the capacity to 'bounce back' or achieve normal or optimal adaptation and development despite considerable threat to that development (Vallant 1993). Gilligan (2004) suggests:


How to promote resilience

In thinking about how to promote resilience, some key factors have been identified. Three clusters of protective factors were identified by Werner and Smith (1992) that differentiated the resilient group from other high-risk children, who developed serious and persistent problems, both in childhood and in later life. These 3 clusters - involving intelligence, affectional ties and support systems and presented below.

  1. at least average intelligence and dispositional attributes that elicited positive responses from family members and strangers, such as robustness, vigour and an active, sociable temperament
  2. affectional ties with parent substitutes, such as grandparents and older siblings, which encourage trust, autonomy and initiative
  3. an external support system (peers, school) that rewarded competence and provided them with a sense of coherence.


Following are 15 factors that appear to be key protective factors identifed (Fonagy 1994). They are:

  1. a good social and economic environment
  2. an absence of organic deficits
  3. an easy temperament
  4. younger age for those who have suffered a traumatic experience
  5. absence of early separation or losses
  6. a warm relationship with at least one caregiver
  7. the availability in adulthood of good social support
  8. positive school experiences
  9. involvement with organised activity
  10. high IQ
  11. superior coping styles
  12. higher sense of autonomy and self worth
  13. interpersonal awareness and empathy
  14. willingness to plan
  15. a sense of humour.
What becomes evident from this list is the interaction between individual and environment factors. From more of an inner-world focus, Flach identified 13 humanistic factors in psychological resilience:
  1. insight into oneself and others

  2. a supple sense of self-esteem
  3. ability to learn from experience
  4. high tolerance for distress
  5. low tolerance for outrageous behaviour
  6. open-mindedness
  7. courage
  8. personal discipline
  9. creativity
  10. integrity
  11. a keen sense of humour
  12. a constructive philosophy of life that gives meaning
  13. a willingness to dream dreams that can inspire us all and give us genuine hope.
In short, resilience refers to a return to functioning or a bouncing back from adversity. Werner & Smith (1992) followed 505 children from pre birth to adulthood, monitoring the impact of a variety of biological and psychosocial risk factors, stressful life events and protective factors at birth, to adulthood.  

Some risk factors these children were faced with were:

  1. moderate to severe peri-natal stress (stress around the event of birth)
  2. chronic poverty
  3. living in disorganised family environments for a prolonged period of time.

Their key finding was that of the high-risk children, one-third had developed into 'competent, confident and caring young adults by the age of 18'. 


If you found this article interesting and would like to find out more, a book called 'Understanding Human Development' by Louise Harms is a good place to start. 

In closing I like what Gilligan (3004) has to say about resilience as it gives us all hope: 'While resilience may previously have been seen as residing in a person as a fixed trait, it is now more usefully considered as a variable quality that derives from a process of repeated interactions between a person and favourable features of the surrounding context in a person's life'.