Research into resilience in children has led to an accumulation of data that has contributed to an understanding of factors that serve to protect children from negative outcomes. APS researcher Rebecca Mathews MAPS reports.

The idea of resilience emerged in the developmental literature at a time when there was a shift from traditional deficit-based models of development towards strength-based models. Since its emergence, the study of resilience in children has flourished. It began with the investigation of children whose parents had a mental illness, and progressed to include the study of a range of at-risk groups, including children living in poverty (Werner, 1993), children of substance-abusing parents (Garmezy, 1991), children with learning difficulties (Luthar, 1991; Masten et al. 1988), and investigations of adolescent development (Haggerty, et al. 1994; Luthar, 1991; Wolin & Wolin, 1995). The aim of this work has been to identify those factors, both within the child and within the child's environment, that promote resilience, with the view that if psychologists can identify the 'quality' that allows some children to overcome major adversity, this same 'quality' can be promoted in other at-risk children to improve their outcome.

Risk and protective factors

Discussions of resilience often focus on risk and protective factors. Risk factors are characteristics or circumstances that, if present, increase the likelihood of an individual developing an emotional or behavioural problem (Keogh & Weisner, 1993) when under stress. It is in this context that there is a need for resilience.

One of the most important findings that has emerged from longitudinal studies in this area has been the knowledge that as the number of risk factors in a child's life increases the chance of a positive outcome significantly decreases. For example, Rutter, Maughan, Mortimore, Ouston and Smith (1979) found that the rate of psychiatric disorder in children of mentally ill parents was a function of the number of familial risk factors to which the child was exposed. A single risk factor led to no higher prevalence of mental illness for these children than that of children who were not exposed to this risk. However, the presence of two or three risk factors resulted in a fourfold increase in the rate of mental illness in this group. An additional fourth risk factor led to a tenfold increase. Similarly, Deater-Deckard, Dodge, Bates and Pettit (1998) reported that cumulative risk led to poorer outcomes in a study of primary school-aged children. Reducing the number of risk factors, even by one, has been found to have a significant impact on the individual's level of functioning (Gilligan, 2000).

In the shift towards a strength-based approach, research has broadened to consider protective factors. Protective factors are described as attributes of the individual and the environment that moderate the effect of the individual's vulnerability to stress - such as an easygoing temperament or a supportive family environment (Carbonell, Reinherz & Giaconia, 1998). Research has identified a range of protective factors that impact on outcome for at-risk children, making it clear that there is no single pathway to resilience. Characteristics of the child found to determine outcome include child temperament, in particular, high levels of persistence and approachability (Ezpeleta, Granero, De la Osa & Guillamon, 2001), and social skills. Environmental factors shown to make a difference to outcome for children include family stability and support, good peer relationships, involvement in community activities, and a sense of connectedness to family, friends and the community in general.

Masten (1989) has argued that maladaption is more likely to occur when risk factors outweigh protective factors in any given context. However, Waller (2001) found that while an increased number of risk factors are associated with poor outcomes, the right combination of protective factors could prevail over the negative effect of risk. It is this process of interaction between risk and protective factors at both the individual and environmental level that is said to determine resilience. However, although research demonstrates that both individual and environmental factors are important contributors to resilience, there is evidence that it may be the individual level factors that have the greatest impact (Kalland, 2002).

Emmy Werner, an early contributor to resilience research, conducted a longitudinal study of the total cohort of children born on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in 1955. In all, 698 babies were included in the study that aimed to document the outcome of this entire sample through to adulthood. These infants were born into chronic poverty, defining them as an at-risk group. The children identified as resilient could specify one person in their life who had believed in them and offered them support when needed, or the children had one skill or ability that they were good at, giving them a sense of achievement and competence and enabling them to become accepted into peer groups.

Werner (1993) found that those children who did not demonstrate adequate coping skills were still able to develop resilience through education and intervention programs to promote social skills and problem solving. A range of intervention programs for children have been developed both overseas and in Australia based on such research. In general, intervention programs have focused on reducing the number of risk factors that children experience and promoting protective factors and individual strengths.

The following two Australian projects provide some insight into how we can use research findings to develop programs that promote better outcomes for children and adolescents.

Children of Parents with a Mental Illness (COPMI)

In the 1990s, a number of Australian Government reports highlighted the vulnerability of children whose parents had a mental illness. These children were considered to be more at risk of mental health problems than the general population (Mental Health Promotion and Illness Prevention Policy; Office of Mental Health, 2002). In 2001, the Australian Government allocated funding to promote better mental health outcomes for children of parents with a mental illness. This project is known as the Children of Parents with a Mental Illness (COPMI) initiative.

The initiative has three main aims:
1. to develop guidelines and practice principles for health professionals working with this group of children;
2. to develop resources for professionals, parents and children; and
3. to provide ongoing advice to Government.

While formulating the initiative, an extensive literature review was conducted which identified the risk and protective factors relevant to this group. From this research, information programs that helped these children to build personal competency were identified. Consultation in the development of programs and resource material also involved parents, children, health providers (including psychologists), and other service providers across Australia.

To date, the outcome of the initiative has been the development of a range of resources including a website, brochures and booklets for families, carers and health professionals, and psychoeducational intervention programs being conducted across the country. Evaluation of these programs suggests that providing support and appropriate information helps protect children from the adverse effects of parental mental illness.

In addition, the initiative has informed Government on the ongoing needs of children whose parents have a mental illness. This has resulted in the program being extended for a further two years beyond the initial three-year phase. More information on the COPMI project can be found at

School Transition and Resilience Training (START)

Funded by the Victorian Department of Education and Training, the development of the School Transition and Resilience Training (START) program was influenced by a large literature review highlighting the needs of students in the middle years of schooling. The program emerged as a result of an earlier project called Connect that aimed to implement a model of transition from primary to secondary schools. Clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller and colleagues were major contributors to the Connect project. They conducted a research project investigating resilience in young people and demonstrated the importance of family, peer and school connectedness in reducing emotional and social difficulties in times of risk.

In developing the START program, it was recognised that the transition from primary school to secondary school can be a challenging time for children. The program was designed to assist schools to implement strategies that promote resilience in students at a stage in life that may result in increased vulnerability.

The aims of the project were to provide students with activities that promote self-esteem, self-competence and positive relationships, and reduce the risk of negative outcomes such as anti-social behaviour, substance abuse, depression, and youth suicide. A range of material for use with children in years five to nine was developed which focused on making the transition from primary school to secondary school a positive experience.

Drawing from past research, the objectives of the program include:

  • appreciating and working with the diversity of needs of students and their families, and increasing teacher support;
  • promoting meaningful relationships between teachers and students, and amongst students;
  • promoting self-competence in students through the promotion of goal setting and problem solving;
  • increasing family and community involvement; and
  • providing professional development and support for teachers.

An evaluation of the START program was undertaken in 2003. The program was comprised of two components over a ten-week period. A questionnaire-based survey was conducted with teaching staff, students and parents. Students involved in the evaluation had taken part in the START program in year six. The first component focused on providing students with information on the secondary school environment and addressing student questions. The second component worked on developing strategies to promote and maintain positive and supportive relationships among students and teachers.

Overall, it was concluded that the START program increased positive outcomes by offering students opportunities to better develop their readiness for secondary school. START led to a better awareness of the secondary school environment and the characteristics of friendly behaviour. However, it was concluded that more practice opportunities for students to develop positive social skills were required. Small group activities, which involved sharing and team teaching, were found to be most effective (Bruce, 2003).

In conclusion, the study of resilience has led to a greater focus on positive outcomes and what factors may contribute to such outcomes in the face of adversity. Moreover, this work has led to the development of a range of intervention programs to assist individuals at risk. Many such programs, both in Australia and overseas, have demonstrated that interventions with individuals who are currently at risk can assist in promoting positive outcomes.


Bruce, T. (2003). Implementing The START Program in Year Six. Student Welfare Projects - Enhancing Social Competence and Connectedness. Retrieved January 7, 2005, from

Carbonell, D. M., Reinherz, H. Z., & Giaconia, R. M. (1998). Risk and resilience in late adolescence. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 15, 251-272.

Gilligan, R. (2000). Adversity, resilience and young people: The protective value of positive school and spare time experiences. Children and Society, 14, 37-47.

Haggerty, R. J., Sherrod, R., Garmezy, N., & Rutter, M. (1994). Stress, Risk, and Resilience in Children and Adolescents: Processes, Mechanisms, and Interventions. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hawley, D. R., & De Haan, L. (1996). Toward a definition of family resilience: Integrating life-span and family perspectives. Family Process, 35, 283-298.

Kalland, M. (2002, August). Risk and protective factors affecting the development of children in foster care: Systemic approach. Paper presented at the IFCO 2002 Conference, Tampere, Finland.

Keogh, B. K., & Weisner, T. (1993). An ecocultural perspective on risk and protective factors in children's development : Implications for learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 8, 3-10.

Luthar, S. S. (1991). A study of high-risk adolescents. Child Development, 62, 600-616.

Masten, A. S. (1989). The roots of resilience as a focus of research. In D Cicchetti (Ed.), The Emergence of a Discipline: Rochester Symposium on Developmental Psychopathology, Vol.1. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Masten, A. S., Garmezy, N., Tellegen, A., Pellegrini, D. S., Larkin, K., & Larsen, A. (1988). Competence and stress in school children: the moderating effects of individual and family qualities. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 29, 745-764.

Office of Mental Health, Department of Health and Ageing, Australia (2002). Mental Health Promotion and Illness Prevention policy document.

Rutter, M., Maughan, B., Mortimore, P., Ouston, J., & Smith, A. (1979). Fifteen Thousand Hours. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Waller, M. A. (2001). Resilience in ecosystemic context: Evolution of the concept. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 71, 290-297.

Werner, E. E. (1993). Risk, resilience, and recover: Perspectives from the Kauai longitudinal study. Development and Psychopathology, 5, 503-515.

Wolin, S., & Wolin, S. (1993). The Resilient Self. New York: Villard Books.

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