Children and young people vary enormously in their responses to the same experiences and those who suffer adversity either develop coping strategies to get through it and emerge relatively unscathed whilst others do not, in other words they sink or swim. This essay puts forward bodies of research and theories of resilience that influence thinking in social work and look at the way in which those theories inform contemporary social work to promote resilience in children and young people. It will also examine some of the ways in which issues arise which could hinder these approaches.
Frost and Hoggett (2008) say the psychological and the social elements of the child’s world cannot be understood as two parallel paradigms that influence and impact development. Holloway and Jefferson elaborate cited in Frost and Hoggett (2008),
Subjects whose inner worlds cannot be understood without knowledge of their experiences in the world, and whose experiences of the world cannot be understood without knowledge of the way in which their inner worlds allow them to experience the outer world.
It is evident that it is through a child’s psycho-social experience that they learn to make sense of the world and their place within it. Rutter (1999) informs us that for a child to be determined resilient they must have encountered an experience with the risk of psychopathology for example those who have been living with domestic violence.
There is no one universally accepted definition of resilience however Masten et al (1990) define resilience in generalised terms, as the process of, capacity for, or outcome of successful adaptation despite challenging or threatening circumstances. However an International Resilience Project, set up to study how different cultures and countries promoted resilience, adopted the following definition of resilience:
Resilience is a universal capacity which allows a person, group or community to prevent, minimize or overcome the damaging effects of adversity (Grotberg 1997, p 19).
Masten and Coatsworth (1998) identified the characteristics of resilient children as ‘good intellectual functioning, appealing, sociable, easygoing disposition, self efficacy, self- confidence, high self-esteem, talent and faith; with a close relationship to a caring parent figure and extended family network support and socio-economically advantaged’. These definitions provide useful starting points for the purposes of this essay.
Contemporary society has been described by Beck(1992) as a ‘risk society’ and early research concentrated on how children and young people responded to risk and became casualties of adversity. Ferguson (1997) points out that following the work of Foucault and the concept of ‘governmentality’ post modernist critics argue that the traditional role of social work has suffered from family case workers seeking out and working with ‘dangerous families’ and children at ‘high risk’. A study of children at risk was undertaken by Garmezy and Rutter (1983). The study of 200 children from USA appears to conclude that despite the high risk environments in which they grew up some children appear to have ‘self righting’ tendencies which allow them to develop into well adjusted young adults. It would seem that everyone has the capacity to be resilient at some times and in some circumstances depending on their mental state and level and duration of the stress in the given event.
In order to recognise resilience it is important to understand the factors that lead children and young people to succumb to adversity and to realise that resilience and vulnerability are at opposite ends of a continuum reflecting susceptibility to adverse consequences (Anthony 1987). The response to adversity and stress can be affected by one or more variables from psychological and/or social aspects.
Freud (1910) developed a psychoanalytical theory in which the unconscious is seen as a central concept on which all other aspects of mental functioning are based. The focus of his research was mainly on the individual’s personality. Social workers have to be aware that unconscious processes may conceal or distort memories or even produce responses disproportionate to the situation, giving hints of underlying issues.
Erikson (1959) differs from Freud in that he described eight stages of psychosocial development. In these stages he suggests that we encounter expectable crises which create conflict within ourselves and with significant others in everyday life. Personality and behaviour are influenced by the way in which these crises are dealt with. The people who manage to move through Freud and Erikson’s stages of development are more likely to become resilient people.
John Bowlby(1969) was a psychologist, doctor and psychoanalyst ,who specialised in working with children. He believed that attachment behaviour is a biologically originated response to anxiety and stress stimulated by physical needs such as pain or hunger, separation from or rejection by the primary caregiver or external threats such as a loud noise. He believed this response arises from the infants desire to seek security and protection through proximity to a caregiver. Aldgate(2007) surmises that an attachment relationship is part of a wider affectional relationship: that one person sees the other as stronger and wiser and someone to turn to when he or she is afraid. Through combined nature and nurture individuals begin to establish relationships and understand and begin to manage emotions. By making sense of the caregivers both psychologically and socially, (if they respond in times of need) the infant begins to see them as a dependable and reliable. Such mental models help individuals organise their expectations about other people’s availability and responsiveness (Howe 1996). When the caregiver does not respond in the way the infant expects they experience anxiety and this can lead to insecure attachments. Bowlby’s work was later built on by Ainsworth et al (1978) who through the ‘Strange Situation’ study revealed profound effects of attachment on behaviour and went on to describe patterns of attachment (secure, avoidant, ambivalent, and disorganised added later on). Trevithick (2009) confirms that over the years the work of Bowlby and others has been important within social work making links between children’s behaviour and the quality of their relationships with their parent(s) and other attachment figures. Furthermore Howe (2009) confirms that attachment theory is also playing a major role in the resurgence of relationship based social work. It is therefore of great relevance to social workers to know how parenting styles,culture, family life and the social environments have affected the child’s psychosocial development.
The notion of a secure base is of vital importance for children and young people. In a useful analogy Gilligan (2001) uses a tree putting down roots to elaborate on the idea of a secure base. It is through continuity, quality and consistency of relationships that a child may find their secure base. Relatives, friendship groups, a teacher or even a social worker may provide a secure base in an otherwise complex and chaotic world. If the child is looked after (a child who enters the care system either informally or legally) they may need to learn to develop new relationships and have the opportunity to develop a secure base.
It is not always psychological processes that shape resilience, sometimes a particular episode or situation may occur that may be problematic and have far reaching consequences. Giddens (1991) described these episodes as fateful moments, saying that these are times when events come together in such a way that an individual stands, as it were, at a crossroads in his existence; or where a person learns of information with fateful consequences. A fateful moment will have implications for the individual which may threaten their ontological security. Fateful moments however do not always result in adversity they can signal a change for the better, a potentially empowering experience, however it is the risk that things may go awry that poses the challenge. Within this context it is important that social workers assess the extent to which they make sense of society and people’s experience.
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Similar to fateful moments, life events, ongoing adversities, personal stress, interpersonal problems or familial situations, can affect levels of stress or anxiety. Rutter (2000) used the example of a divorce in the family as a staged process of a life event, rather than a one off event. The divorce may be preceded by a long period of unhappiness, followed by the divorce itself and the uncertainties that accompany it such as the knowledge and burden of financial worries, possible loss of a parent, introduction of new family members, housing worries etc. Social workers working with Giddensian ideas, (that multiple choices are available to all through abstract systems) are able to help vulnerable children and young people who are on a developmental pathway to make positive choices about the direction their lives will take in their life planning. However, those who criticise Giddens say that he is too optimistic in his view of the positive capacity of individuals to understand their lives and always know why they act as they do (Ferguson 2009). There are families who work with social workers who may not have the ability to analyse their lives in this way, and social workers should be mindful of this in their work with people.
The negative impacts of poverty, lack of social and cultural capital and impact of marital discord can cause children, young people and families to be characterised as at risk according to Hoffman (2010). Poverty can have serious and possibly grave consequences for families. Nonetheless, it is important to recognise that not all poor families, or even most poor families experience these deleterious outcomes. Many impoverished families beat the odds and have stable, loving relationships ( Seccombe, 2002)
Skeggs (2001) in her study with young women revealed that they were continually making comparisons between themselves and others and were sure of what they did not want to be but were less sure of what they wanted to be, thus illustrating how the constraints of class and gender are some of the structures that inhibit who we can be and how we can behave. However this does not appear to mean that structures should be accepted per se but by accepting their existence and realising that they are given meaning through human action and interaction it is possible to work with service users and their families. Frost (2003) illustrates the harsh reality for young people stating that the
‘structural inequalities of class and poverty connect into the emotionally quite brutal lived realities of young people themselves- the power of the pecking order, popularity or unpopularity, and in-group membership or exclusion- via the conspicuous display of expensive consumer goods’.
For some young people, the friendship groups they form, sub-cultures they belong to, the styles they wear dictates the way in which they present themselves and gain a sense of who they are in society. Being part of the group increases self esteem and resilience, conversely being different in some way may attract adverse reaction and stigmatisation for example a disabled child may be affected by the negative perceptions of being different.
According to Howe (2009) social workers in the late 1980s began to feel that the service users with whom they were working were the victims of their own biographical narratives, or their place within the social structure. Service users became service users because they had problems, pathologies or weaknesses and that this defined them in some way. The social worker viewed them as a case which then depersonalised them. By introducing a method of assessment whereby they could look at the strengths of people rather than their pathology and problems it was possible for social workers to recognise the resilience and resourcefulness possessed by many people living in adversity. By being interested in and listening to the service user the social worker could begin to uncover where someone’s strengths lie. Saleebey (2002) identified some types of questions that can lead to the discovery of strengths; survival questions, exception questions, possibility questions and esteem questions. It may be difficult to tease out strengths however as many people have had years of self doubt or blame from others to carry around with them however it is on these positive elements however slim the potential for progress lies.
It is crucial to the safety of children and young people that social workers can identify risks in a child’s environment and remove or reduce such a risk. This may ultimately mean removing the risk from the child or removing the child from the risk which could, depending on the level of risk, involve the child becoming a looked after child. In this case the social worker can work with the child to prevent social isolation by maintaining or re-introducing contact with family members, if appropriate. The social worker should also ensure that a child is able to attach the correct meaning to an outcome, if for example, a looked after child has to move to a new placement the social worker must explain in clear language what has happened and why. Schofield and Beck (2005) studied risk and resilience in children in long term foster care and concluded that specific changes or single events in a child’s life such as a new attachment relationship, a change of school, a change of contact arrangements or the discovery of a child’s particular talent do have the potential to alter the direction significantly for better or worse.
Howe et al (1999) state that good quality care giving is the most potent form of self enhancement of children confirming that it is a positive building block on which resilience to build resilience. Therefore the social worker needs to ensure that a child’s caregivers are able to provide a secure attachment through their relationships to ensure that self esteem is promoted. Any relationship break-down will impact on the child’s self esteem thus reinforcing their belief that they are not loved or lovable. A child needs to experience relationships with their caregivers that promote secure attachments. If a child has had a difficult time they may display behaviour or emotions that are not what is expected or are disproportionate to the situation. Atwool (2006) confirms that attachment theory adds weight to resilience theory by clearly outlining the significance of relationships as the key to all aspects of resilience- culture, community, relationships and individual. A social worker can work with the caregivers to explain the child’s behaviour using a theoretical framework and their knowledge of the child and their social situation.
Contemporary social work can help promote resilience in the vulnerable in society however Ferguson (2009) states the discretion social workers once had has diminished because of the rise of bureaucracy, managerialism and targets. This may impact on the time a social worker is able to devote to those they are trying to help. Furthermore Gilligan (2004) queried whether there is to be stress on valued practice principles, for example focus on strengths in clients or is the emphasis to be on what agency management deem important, for example their latest policy or set of procedures. It is also clear that social workers spend a majority of their time at their desk rather than with service users, as Ince (2010) points out in recent child abuse cases the social workers became victims to the point where they have much more familiarity with the computers they use than the children in need they have responsibility for; however this is an opinion and does not appear to be backed up by research..
In conclusion it is clear that relationships and attachment theory is significant to our understanding of resilience. Social workers who work with families to make sure they take full account of their religion, racial, cultural and linguistic background in their work with them are demonstrating the link between social policy and socially inclusive practice. Psychosocial practices should be carefully though out and tailored to the needs of each service users unique circumstances. Access to social and cultural capital enables children and young people to cope with stressors and adversity and increase resilience. Theories of resilience are useful tools to call upon when dealing with the complex and chaotic lives of children, young people and their families/caregivers. However there is no one skill or theory to fit all but many approaches and skills are required to inform and manage effective contemporary social work practice.