Resilience in the Individual and in the Family System

Webster’s Dictionary (1974) defines resilience as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to change or misfortune” (p. 596). Although this definition is widely accepted, resilience may be conceptualized as being more than merely bouncing back from setbacks. Resilience may also be the ability to bounce forward in the face of an uncertain future (Walsh, 2004). Resilience has been conceptualized as the forging of strengths through adversity (Wolin & Wolin, 1993). Like the willow tree, people thrive if they have a strong, healthy root system. With branches flexible enough to bend with the storm and firm enough to weather strong winds without breaking, the willow tree can continue to grow despite being twisted into differing shapes. The willow tree may be a metaphor for the resilient individual and resilient family system. Resiliency is critical to mental health and healthy aging.

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Bonanno (2004) defined adult resilience as a person’s capacity to resist maladaptation in the face of risky experiences. Bonanno’s individually-based definition of adult resilience assumes that resilience resides in the person, an observation supported by the list of individual attributes that covary with resilient outcomes in Bonanno’s work (hardiness, self-enhancement, repressive coping, and positive emotion.). Importantly, this definition of resilience does not identify the positive outcomes that can result from adversity in the hardy individual. Despite Bonanno’s (2004) narrow definition, his analysis includes an interesting finding that loss and brief traumatic experiences, despite being aversive and difficult to accept, are normatively not sufficient to overwhelm the adaptive resources of ordinary adults. Bonanno’s research calls into question the research of Sameroff, Bartko, Baldwin, Baldwin, and Seifer (1998), which demonstrated in longitudinal analyses that as levels of adversity rise, and as resources fall, resilience becomes less tenable.

Rutter (1985) observed that strong self-esteem and self-efficacy make successful coping more likely, whereas a sense of helplessness increases the likelihood that one crisis will lead to another. In a similar vein, Kobasa’s (1985) research findings supported his hypothesis that people with resilience possess three general traits: (1.) the belief that they can influence or control events in their lives; (2.) an ability to feel deeply committed and involved in activities in their lives; and (3.) a tendency to embrace change as an opportunity to grow and develop more fully. Thus, resilient children are more likely to have an inner locus of control (Seligman, 1990), or an optimistic belief that they can positively impact their fate.

Dugan and Coles (1989) suggest that individuals prevail over adversity more effectively if they have moral and spiritual resources. In a phenomenological study of nine subjects who had experienced such traumas as life in a concentration camp, disability, breast cancer, massive head injury, a life of violence and abuse, and loss of a child, Rose (1997) identified similar themes of resilience which emerged from individual interviews: the role of supportive others, empathy, self-care, faith, action orientation, moving on, positive outlook, and persistence. Rose identifies the foundational structure of resilience as faith, self-respect, striving, supportive others, coping, empathy, self-reliance, and moving on.