Defining And Understanding Resilience
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Published: Mon, 15 May 2017
Drawing on material from the module, critically discuss the extent to which theories relating to resilience inform our understanding of an aspect or aspects of contemporary social work. Resilience is described by Fonagy, et al ( 1994) as an ability to achieve a normal standard of development, within a challenging situation. Within contemporary social work practice therefore, support should be provided to enable children and young people to develop and be resilient when faced with adversity and trauma in their life.
Rutter (2000) argues that a child’s ability to be resilient when faced with hardship, is
comparative as opposed to being conclusive. A child or young persons level of resilience is not a predetermined personal quality, individuals are therefore not either weak or strong. The ability to be resilient to trauma subsequently changes in relation to the situation the child is in and the protective factors which may, or may not be, in place. I will explore this further in respect of the psychosocial theories concerning resilience and vulnerability and the defensive aspects which might underpin this. I will also discuss how an increased understanding of these can be constructively applied within modern social work and the need for development of resilience in social workers, practising within a bureaucratic environment.
From a psychoanalytical perspective, Freud (1923, cited in Glassman, 1995) proposes that psychological states are determined in the very early stages of life, arguing that a persons level of resilience or vulnerability may be set in place prior to the Oedipal stage. Therefore, by the end of the childhood development period, reactions such as apprehension and fear, alongside other emotive forces and mechanisms of defence have already been imprinted into a specific individual model (Thomas, 1996). A child experiencing the divorce of his parents for example, may develop polarised split views of each parent for example having positive feelings towards the mother and negative towards the father, as a method of coping with the situation (Rutter, 2000). When a situation as an adult occurs which is causing similar emotive reactions such as anxiety, an individual may fall back on this prefigured defence mechanism of splitting their views very distinctly, without perhaps analysing all of the information fully.
Masten & Powell (2003) argue that primary structures recognised as qualities of human functioning are adaptive and have significant importance in building resilience throughout a diverse range of traumatic and frightening circumstances, for example the forming of attachment relationships which provide a sense of security. Bowlby’s (1969) theory of attachment argues that the establishment of a definite connection to a primary care giver, is a significant and valuable initial relationship. Object relations theory which explores the relationship between mother and child proposes that for a child to feel positive about themselves, a warm, stable relationship is required.
Bowlby (1988) proposes that a secure attachment will support a child to make confident enquiries of the world around them, developed from having a strong feeling of integration within an encouraging social structure. Attachment can be divided into secure and insecure attachments, and contains both empirical and hypothetical implications. Throughout practice therefore, a model of insecure attachment for example, can be applied in observing a child’s behaviour and their possible inability to form relationships. An insecurely attached individual may have a combination of juxtaposed views such as reliance and closeness, alongside an anxiety of possible criticism and dismissal ( Holmes, 1993) . In practice therefore, an understanding of an individuals lack of connection with other people and difficulties in coping with an adverse situation can begin to be understood further within the attachment theory framework.
Henderson et al ( 2007) propose that in respect of young people, the transition from childhood through to adolescence and into adulthood, is greatly strengthened by being part of a group and experiencing a sense of connectedness, as opposed to loneliness. A strong sense of ones own abilities and potential can be bolstered by being part of a social network, and also support a child’s perception of school as being a constructive and positive part of life (Glover, 2009). The theory of attachment can be applied in practice not just from a psychoanalytical approach, through analysis of learned behaviour and unconscious processes, but also from a behavioural perspective which may argue that an inadequate attachment to a primary caregiver, explains the difficulty experienced in forming friendships during school years for example. Practitioners should remain mindful, however, that there are children who with a great deal of family encouragement and wider social support, still struggle to have the ability to endure the adversity and stresses which may occur in their lives (Rutter,1999).
Therefore, whilst psychological theories such as Bowlby’s attachment theory can aid understanding of behaviour each individual is effected by the structural factors impacting on their lives. Skeggs ( 2001) argues a sociological view, postulating that class has a significant impact on access to education for example, due to economic resources and as such restricts an individuals opportunity to develop and move forward with their lives, in a way they might wish to. Giddens (1991), in contrast, argues that people have a great deal of agency and control over their lives and therefore have the ability to make changes within their experienced structure of society. Giddens (1991) argues that we live in a post traditional society in which young people do not fall back on traditional roles which were executed by previous generations. Whilst this level of agency enables greater autonomy it may also add to the vulnerability felt by young adults, some of which may struggle more than others due to factors such as racism, stigma and disability (Banks, 2006). It could be argued therefore, that young people are attempting to move forward in life with very little sense of direction. In a postmodern society the propensity for insecurity of children is almost built into their lifestyle.
Erikson’s ( 1965) theory of development supports this view, arguing that cultural and social circumstances, rather than inner drives, should be evaluated. This will enable an understanding of a individuals behaviour to be gained and issues which are having a damaging effect, to be addressed.
The field of child psychology which is concerned with life events, analyses the context in which the child is experiencing the significant incident. The resilience needed to cope with a life event such as divorce is ongoing. As argued by Rutter (2000) there may be particular turmoil surrounding the life event, but there is a potential for the effects of this trauma to continue throughout all other aspects of life. For example having to move home and therefore change schools, form new friendship groups and cope with the feelings of loss if a parent is no longer maintaining regular contact with the child. Therefore, whilst the divorce if the significant life event the long term loss and vulnerability felt by the child is much broader than this.
A child who is experiencing a difficult home situation because of the breakdown of a parental relationship, can shield themselves from some of the mental and emotional anguish of their home life through the formation of a close relationship with an adult who is external to the immediate family unit. Howe (1995) postulates that extended family members such as aunts or uncles who positively acknowledge and nurture their abilities and unique characteristics will encourage and enable the child to form a confident and positive perception of the self, away from their traumatic situation. Achieving a feeling of ownership and confidence in ones own abilities can support the development of coping mechanisms. Fonagy, et al (1994) concur with this, arguing that in regards to building a level of resilience, the development of a strong, close relationship with a supportive adult provides an effective protective factor.
In respect of contemporary social work, it is the practitioners role to support a child or young person who does not have a stable network of social support (Charles & Wilton, 2004), through enabling access to recreation and social activities as necessary. However whilst this may provide support to form a social network and become part of a friendship group within a structured environment, the provision of encouragement does not have to be as definite or predetermined. The introduction of reliable, regular routines into a child’s life may assist greatly in the formation of a sense of identity and well being, as recognised by Sandler et al (1989). For example, recurring daily practices in home life in respect of stories at bedtime for young children or eating meals together at a regular time. All of which help to form a feeling of stability and organisation, encouraging a sense of belonging, attachment and security. If a practitioner can apply this theory when working with a family experiencing trauma it may serve to provide a sensation of familiarity in a life which may, in all other ways, be in turmoil.
Within adult care social work also, exploration of early childhood relationships, presence of attachment and occurrence of significant life events, can be carried out, in order to fully understand how an individual has come to a particular point in their life. For example, Bowlby’s (1969) study of adults in prison involved therapeutically working back through their lives, to a point in which their childhood attachments could be identified. An understanding of the construct in which the adult is existing, will enable a practitioner to gain deeper understanding, provide appropriate support and to ensure anti-oppressive practice occurs, supporting empowerment of the service user (Dominelli, 2002).
Henderson, et al ( 2007) execute a biographical method in their research carried out with young people regarding their perception of well being, enabling a holistic analysis of their lives to be obtained. The benefits of this study are that the researchers tried to comprehend what the young people really understood as being imperative to their well being, through the discussion of life events which had occurred throughout the research process. Whilst the methods used by Henderson et al ( 2007) could be applied positively within social work practice in order to gain understanding of an individuals specific circumstances, practitioners should be mindful of not overlooking the complexities of situations by using the information disclosed in respect of significant life events as a straight forward method of explanation of why a young persons life has transpired the way it has.
Kenny & Kenny (2000) identify the possibility for patriarchal and authoritarian practice, in the application of psychosocial theories. The notion of resilience itself is subjective and therefore practitioners should be aware of their own opinion of what constitutes ‘sinking’ or ‘swimming’ and ensure that this personal view does not influence their judgement of a situation or an individuals capabilities ( Walker & Beckett, 2003). The level of power, therefore held by social workers is vast and should be applied carefully and with an awareness of and respect for, diversity of family structures and relationships within the assessment process (Dominelli, 2002).
The qualitative methods executed by Henderson et al ( 2007) in respect of gaining a biography of each participant over time, support the view of Giddens ( 1991) who argues that the self is a reflexive project. Giddens (1991) view of late modernity argues that adulthood is constructed and therefore the most significant method of establishing identity as adults, is the development of self narratives. This view is also proposed by Frosh (1991) who argues that through the development and reflexive nature of narrative construction, an individual will form the skills to endure adversities which he argues can persist throughout life. The construction of a personal narrative and the effects of life events on this, is therefore an ongoing process throughout child and adulthood. This is reflected in the research of Fonagy et al (1994) who identify that mothers presenting as resilient, provided an accurate model of the characteristics of their relationship held with their own mother. This capacity to possess a consistent paradigm of their personal maternal attachments, which may be positive or negative, created a higher likelihood of establishing strong, secure attachments with their own children.
Giddens (1991) postulates that ‘fateful’ moments occur in individuals lives which shape the way their lives continue. This may be empowering or destructive dependant on the event, the timing of the event and how capable and resilient the individual is to deal with it. For example if a child experiences illness and as a consequence is unable to attend school the effects of this event can be ongoing. Being unable to sit exams, missing lessons etc, impact on their ability to integrate into friendship groups when they return to school which may result in being bullied and a change in their perception of school. The ongoing effects of this could be truancy and a lack of engagement in studying, in order to obtain qualifications and progress into further education ( Henderson, et al, 2007). In practice, gaining an understanding of an individuals narrative may present details of critical moments in their life enabling a deeper understanding of their experiences and resilience to dealing with difficulties .
To conclude, it is clear that resilience does not represent a distinct personal attribute or quality. Children and young people may demonstrate resilience in regards to particular anxieties and traumas but feel unable to cope with others ( Rutter, 1999). Within social work practice, therefore, it is essential to evaluate how a child is placed within their family unit and also within wider society. As discussed by Gilligan (2004), the presence of other siblings, how the child functions within the family model and their relationship and interactions with family members, are significant, contextual and influential elements of a child’s life and their capacity to be resilient.
The impact of external environmental factors such as positive relationships with other adults, being part of a friendship group and feeling happy at school all act as protective factors in mitigating the negative elements of their life and promoting their resilience ( Werner & Smith, 1992).
Within the practice of contemporary social work therefore, attention should also be paid to the level of resilience held by practitioners, working with individuals in traumatic situations whilst existing within their own personal construct of relationships, family and past life events. It is imperative that practitioners are self aware in respect of their own ability to cope with the situations in which they are practising. This is an element which can at times be overlooked in regards to people working in supportive roles, who are often perceived as being highly resilient to the effects of trauma ( Coulshed & Orme, 2006).
In modern social work there is great emphasis placed on value and proficiency both in respect of time and finances and efficiency of practice (Rogers, 2001). The significance of emotion and resilience can frequently be underestimated within the bureaucratic schema in which social workers practice. Psychosocial theories of resilience therefore, can be applied not just in working with service users but in attempting to maintain resilience of practitioners.
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