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Protective Factors and Implications of Resilience

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Table of contents

  1. The Roots of Resilience
  2. The Protective Factors and Resilience
  3. Implications
  4. Conclusion

The term resilience literally means to ‘bounce back’ from adverse conditions. Resilience as a concept can be viewed from two different perspectives that are, resilience as a personal trait and resilience as a process. Resilience can be described as a relatively stable personal characteristic or a set of characteristics, which not only develops from life adversity but also grows from the experience of everyday life stress. From this definition, it is clear that resilience increases the chances of striving in difficult circumstances.

Resilience can be considered to occur if the person returns rapidly to a previous state following trauma or negative life events. According to Masten and Reed (2002), resilience refers to a class of phenomena characterized by patterns of positive adaptation in the context of significant adversity or risk. Resilience must be inferred, because two major judgments are required to identify individuals as belonging in this class of phenomena. First, there is a judgment that individuals are ‘doing OK’ or better than OK with respect to a set of expectations for behavior.

Second, there is a judgment that there have been extenuating circumstances that posed a threat to good outcomes. Therefore, the study of this class of phenomena requires defining the criteria or method for ascertaining good adaptation and the past or current presence of conditions that pose a threat to good adaptation. In general, there has been a trend in resilience research from defining it as a trait to regarding it as a dynamic process.

The transition from the personal trait approach to the process approach is based on a number of factors such as, resilience being a broad topic, its meaning can only be derived by its relationship with specific conditions and specific end results. Also, the “process approach gives researchers more insight into understanding the “dynamic and interactive” nature of the process, in which the protective mechanisms of protective factors operate and change to promote positive outcomes under negative circumstances. It has both theoretical and practical implications for resilience-based interventions”.

The Roots of Resilience

The idea of individual resilience in the face of adversity has been around for a very long time, as evident in myths, fairy tales, art, and literature over the centuries that portray heroes and heroines. When psychology began to develop as a systematic science in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there clearly was an interest in individual adaptation to the environment, which can be seen in theories ranging from natural selection to psychoanalytic ego psychology. Freud (1928), for example, noted the remarkable human capacity to triumph over adversity even on the way to execution, describing gallows humour as “the ego’s victorious assertion of its own invulnerability.”

In addition to the ego, early concepts of mastery motivation, competence, and self-efficacy in 20th-century psychology focused on positive aspects of adaptation in development . In 1962, Lois Murphy decried the negative focus of research on individual differences in children: “It is something of a paradox that a nation which has exulted in its rapid expansion and its scientific-technological achievements should have developed in its studies of childhood so vast a ‘problem’ literature”. Murphy’s words were a harbinger of change.

A decade later, the systematic study of resilience in psychology emerged from the study of children at risk for problems and psychopathology. A year later, the same group of researchers created tools to look at systems that support development of resilience. Some of these investigators were struck by the observation that there were children purportedly at high risk for problems who were developing quite well. Subsequently, these psychiatrists and psychologists began to write and speak about the significance of these children.

Their observations were a call to action for research on the phenomenon of doing well in the context of risk. In the 1970s, Emmy Werner was one of the early scientists to use the term resilience. Resilience also emerged as a major theoretical and research topic from the studies of children with mothers diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 1980s. The major area of research on resilience, since its onset, has been the protective factors that explain people’s adjustment to unfavourable conditions such as mistreatment, urban poverty or miserable life events.

Finally, conceptions of resilience as absolute or global, as opposed to relative or circumscribed also have changed over the years. In some early writings, those who did well despite multiple risks were labeled “invulnerable”. This term was misleading because it implied that risk evasion was absolute and unchanging. As research evolved, it became clear that positive adaptation despite exposure to adversity involves a developmental progression, such that new vulnerabilities and/or strengths often emerge with changing life circumstances. Thus, the term ‘resilient’ is used prominently to describe successful high risk children.

The Protective Factors and Resilience

Protective factors are defined as characteristics of the child, family, and wider environment that reduce the negative effect of adversity on child outcome. A number of factors, including child IQ, emotion regulation, parenting, low parental discord, advantaged SES, effective schools, and safe neighborhoods, are associated with positive outcomes in the context of high risk. Protective factors refer to the characteristics of persons or circumstances that predict better results under high-risk conditions; in fact, they can be called as assets that matter when risk or adversity is high. Examples include support from caregivers and peers and strong social-emotional skills.

Protective factors can be identified by two major approaches, namely variable based and person- based analyses. In variable based analyses, researchers take the help of multivariate regressions to examine continuous scales of adversity and risk modifiers, with relation to their results and to investigate whether it is main effect or interaction effect. One of the first efforts to use this variable-based approach was the ground-breaking paper by Garmezy, Masten, and Tellegen (1984), demonstrating that high IQ was protective: Increases in life stress seemed to affect intelligent children far less than their low IQ peers.

In the person based analyses, comparisons are made between a group of children who are classified on the basis of their end results and risk profiles. In both variable- and person-based analyses, a hallmark of the current generation of resilience research is attention to process: If studies are truly to be informative to interventions, they must move beyond simply identifying variables linked with competence toward understanding the specific underlying mechanisms.

With regard to risk transmission, for example, maternal depression can affect children through various environmental processes including negative family interactions and routines, and child behavioral and emotional problems. Similarly, protective factors such as high-quality caregiver–child relationships could benefit a child through multiple pathways including feelings of being supported, a sense of being cherished as an individual, and a strong set of personal values.

Individual-level protective factors are personal characteristics, traits, and resources, such as personality traits, intellect, self-efficacy, coping, good cognitive abilities, adaptable personality, attentional skills, self-regulation, good sense of humour, easy going temperament, appraisal of maltreatment, and life satisfaction. Family-level protective factors include adequate financial resources and supportive relationships, such as family coherence, stable caregiving, warm parental relationships, minimal conflict, organised home environment and spousal support.

Protective factors at the community level include easy access to resources, efficient schools, peer relationships, nonfamily member relationships, social support, and neighbourhood with high collective efficacy, involvement in social organisations, health care availability and religion. Longitudinal and cross-sectional research studies provide evidence for the links between protective factors and resilience. In terms of protective processes, positive relationships with peers and high school engagement can mitigate the deleterious effects of maltreatment.

Furthermore, the protective potential of positive parenting is evident not only in early childhood but in later years as well, through adolescence and even emerging adulthood. Among children exposed to harsh maternal parenting, for example, high levels of grandmother involvement can reduce the risk of maladjustment in grandchildren. Studies have documented the benefits of early exposure to high-quality childcare, where caregivers have positive personal characteristics and offer emotionally supportive caregiving.

In later years as well, supportive relationships with teachers in K-12 can be protective. Positive relationships with peers serve as an important protective factor. Peer-assisted learning can result in significant increases in achievement, and affiliation with peers who model responsible behavior (e.g., good students and good citizens) can mitigate, to some degree, the effects of violence exposure.

Apart from peers, particularly important are social organization processes in the neighborhood, which involve features such as high levels of cohesion, a sense of belonging to the community, supervision of youth by community adults, and high participation in local organizations. Such social processes can help buffer the impact of structural characteristics of the community such as poverty or violence, by providing, for example, opportunities for structured and supervised extracurricular activities.

Studies on diverse risk groups find that individuals with high IQs tend to fare better than others, with the underlying mechanisms potentially entailing superior problem-solving skills as well as a history of successes (e.g., at school or work) over time. Among adults, Fiedler (1995) reported that high- IQ people showed leadership success under conditions of low stress, but that when stress was high, IQ was inversely correlated with leadership success. Shiner and Masten (2012) have demonstrated significant long-term beneficial effects for childhood conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness, as well as low neuroticism. Thus, protective factors at all the levels have a positive relationship with resilience.


Resilience research has both theoretical and practical implications. From the theoretical perspective, resilience acquires the strength perspective of positive psychology. It illustrates the chances and procedure of positive adaptation results in different adverse circumstances, which is against the traditional notion. Some interesting subjects for future research include possibility of growth beyond resilience and theoretical issues with respect to mechanism of interaction, between risk and protective factors concerning the development of resilience. In the practical sense, a holistic approach adopted by the design of resilience based interventions is provided by the theoretical-backed resilience research. Altering the risk factors may be difficult, but enhancement of protective factors should be possible to promote positive adaptation at both individual and environmental levels. The outcome measures from culturally relevant intervention needs to be further studied and worked on, to make possible, resilience intervention which are more evidence-based.


The study of resilience in development has produced a “sea change” in the frameworks for understanding and helping children at risk or already in trouble. This shift is evident in changing conceptualization of the goals of prevention and intervention that now address competence as well as problems. It is also apparent in assessments that include strengths in addition to risks and problems.

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