The Resilience Framework
Resilience is an oft-used term in social work practice and scholarship that reflects the social work profession’s strengths-based perspective. While the term resilience has been defined in a number of ways, it can be generally understood to mean an individual’s ability to “bounce back” or return to a normal level of functioning after experiencing adversity, trauma, or disruption.
While today, resilience is a prevalent framework for social work practice, the shift to a resilience standpoint marks an important shift in psychological theory. Looking at clients through the lens of resilience means turning away from deficits-based assessments that focus on the presence of negative symptoms or the lack of normal functioning. In recent decades, resilience frameworks offer an alternative to such pathology-based approaches by highlighting the client’s strengths and capacities that support them in successfully overcoming trauma and adapting to life disturbances.
Early studies of resilience conceptualized it as a static individual trait or characteristic. The idea of the resilient individual emerged when scholars began to note that the same type of trauma impacted people differently. For example, one person involved in a fire might overcome the adversity and return to her previous level of functioning, while another person involved in the same fire would find the experience debilitating and struggle to return to her previous state. While these types of observations allowed researchers to recognize resilience as an individual construct, this line of thinking led researchers at the time to the faulty view of resilience as a predetermined trait that some individuals possessed, and others did not.
From that starting point, ideas about resilience evolved beyond the notion of one’s inherent capacity to cope with adversity. Instead, researchers began to view resilience as a dynamic process rather than a trait. One’s ability to demonstrate resilience could change over time, and is contingent upon a balance between risk factors and protective factors in an individual’s social environment. A person’s psycho-social well-being, level of support, and experience with past trauma all impact her ability to demonstrate resilience when new adversities or disruptions come about. This approach recognizes the varying life experiences that impact a person’s ability to be resilient in the face of trauma. More recent approaches to resilience research have recognized the importance of cultural and contextual risk and protective factors that shape resilience processes at the individual, family, and community levels.
Within research on resilience, ample evidence has shown that families act as a protective factor for individual resilience. This means that strong family support and close family ties are positively correlated with individual resilience. This important finding has led researchers to begin to explore resilience as a family-level construct over the past few decades.
Family resilience research views resilience as a dynamic process in the developmental journey of the family as a unit, not just the individual. A family system’s resilience is rooted in the family’s interaction with socio-ecological factors that vary based on culture and context. Thus, the concept of family resilience acknowledges the protective role family plays in individual resilience processes, but also recognizes the resilience of a family as a whole. Family members are interrelated, so adversity, trauma, and disruption in the life of one family member has ripple effects for the whole family. In the face of such experiences, family systems work together to cope, navigating toward and negotiating for needed resources that protect the family’s well-being. Especially in collectivist and family-oriented cultures, family resilience is a key concept to help social workers understand how families bounce back from hard times together.
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