Resilience And The Role Of Protective Factors
Even when multiple risk factors are present, many, if not most, children at risk develop along normal, adaptive trajectories. Developmental psychopathologists use the term resilience to refer to children who develop competently and adapt successfully to life's challenges under adverse conditions (Cummings, Davies, and Campbell 2000). Resilience, by definition, cannot occur without some appreciable risk. Thus, a primary challenge is to distinguish between two general groups of competent children: (a) the relatively "normal" children, who experience minimal or no adverse conditions, and (b) the resilient children, who developed relatively normally in the face of considerable risk (Garmezy 1985; Luthar 1993). For example, it cannot be assumed that children of depressed parents who experience healthy development are resilient. Some of these children may, in fact, experience benign contexts of development characterized by parental warmth, consistent discipline, safe and supportive neighborhoods, and high quality schools. Thus, the competence of some of these children may result from the absence of risk rather than the presence of resilience.
Developmental psychopathologists are also sensitive to the notion that resilience is best characterized as consisting of multiple dimensions or features that may change over time. Thus, resilient outcomes are not simply "traits" that individuals have and carry with them across time and setting. These individuals are, by no means, regarded as "invincible" or "invulnerable" to adversity. Rather, resilient children may experience bouts of considerable problems over time or within certain domains of functioning. For example, children may experience normal functioning in one domain of adjustment (e.g., academic achievement) while experiencing difficulties in another domain of functioning (e.g., loneliness, anxiety).
Developmental psychopathologists further emphasize that how resilience is defined may change across contexts and people. For instance, among white, middle-class groups of children, peer ratings of popularity and social competence have been associated with greater academic competence (e.g., better grades) and behavioral competence (e.g., low levels of aggression). In contrast, high-risk inner-city adolescents who were popular among their peers displayed higher levels of conduct (e.g., aggression) and academic problems. In this same group of children, academic competence came at a cost of experiencing lower peer popularity, social isolation, and anxiety problems. Thus, for developmental psychopathologists, identifying who is "resilient" is no simple matter. Resilience is regarded as a complex process that may vary across context (e.g., subculture or culture), domain of functioning (e.g., academic, social, emotional), and the developmental stage of individuals (e.g., children versus adolescents).
Once people who meet the criteria for exhibiting resilience are identified, the next step is to search for the protective factors that account for their healthy outcomes. Protective factors, which are also called buffers, are moderators that dilute or counteract the negative effects of risk factors. Like risk factors, protective factors can be characteristics of the individual (e.g., personality) or larger ecological setting (e.g., family, school, peers). For example, child intelligence appears to offset the negative effects of interparental conflict on children (Katz and Gottman 1997). Likewise, various family characteristics and relationships (e.g., parental warmth, good sibling relations) appear to act as buffers that help shield children from the risk posed by parental conflict (Cummings and Davies 2002).
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