What is resiliency?

Put simply, resiliency refers to the capacity of human beings to survive and thrive in the face of adversity. It is a term that can be applied to people of any age. However, in the context of this website it refers to the capacity that some children have to overcome difficult circumstances and go on to lead healthy, successful lives.

Here are some definitions of resiliency, as it has been defined by researchers in the field:

Why is it important?

Mental health problems among young people are an increasing problem in Australia and world wide. The World Health Organisation has predicted that depression will the be the number one health issue in the world in 2020. In Australia, it has been estimated that 20% of young people suffer from some form of mental disorder, with depression one of the most common problems. Not only is depression the leading cause of youth suicide, but it is frequently a recurring disorder, which has social and economic costs that continue for years.

Resiliency research helps us to understand the factors that help children develop into mentally healthy adults, despite growing up in disadvantaged circumstances. Understanding these factors is of great importance if it means we can learn to help children in adverse circumstances to overcome the odds and grow up to become healthy and productive citizens.

Although the impetus for resiliency research originally came from research into 'at risk' populations, what has ultimately emerged from this research is a picture of the building blocks of mental health that is relevant to everyone. Although we may choose to target resiliency-oriented programs at those populations which are most in need of intervention, all children have the same needs for care, competence, self-esteem, autonomy, and the other components of resiliency. Therefore, the information on this website is important for everyone who deals with children, including parents, teachers, childcare workers and social services workers who deal with children.

Components of resiliency

Broadly speaking, resiliency can be broken down into the following components (click a heading to expand):

The resilient child

A great deal of research effort has gone into distinguishing the characteristics of resilient children from their non-resilient peers. These findings consistently show that resilient children tend to display the following attributes:

Social competence

Resilient children tend to be responsive, socially adept, capable of initiating and sustaining close relationships with adults and peers, and able to show appropriate empathy. They have good communication and conflict resolution skills, and possess a healthy sense of humour. (See Social skills.)

Problem-solving skills

The resilient child is typically able to think creatively and flexibly about problems, to make plans and take action on them. They are able to ask adults for help when needed, and show resourcefulness in dealing with problems. (See Problem solving.)


Resilient children show a healthy degree of independence, are able to think and act autonomously from adults, and are able to reflect critically on their environment. They have a well-developed sense of their own identity and believe in their own ability to effect changes in their environment. (See Encouraging autonomy.)


Optimism encompasses the sense of having a bright future, a tendency to see challenging situations in positive terms, and a belief in one's ability to deal with whatever life brings. (See Optimism.)

(Benard, 1995)

Three sources of resiliency

Edith Grotberg of the The International Resilience Project defines resiliency in terms of three sources, which she labels I HAVE (social and interpersonal supports), I AM (inner strengths) and I CAN (interpersonal and problem solving skills).




(Reproduced from Grotberg, E. (1995))

According to Grotberg, for a child to be resilient, he or she needs to have more than one of these strengths. For example, if a child has plenty of self-esteem (I AM), but lacks anyone whom they can turn to for support (I HAVE), and does not have the capacity solve problems (I CAN), they will not be resilient. This finding is in line with other research showing that resiliency is the product of a number of mutually enhancing protective factors. It is not a personality attribute, but the result of many factors which combine to buffer a child against the potentially harmful effects of adversity.

Resiliency as a process

Resiliency is not an attribute of an individual, as this would imply a fixed and unchanging invulnerability that some have and some do not. Rather, it is a complex process involving both internal cognitive and personality factors and the functioning of external protective factors, such as caring adults. Therefore, rather than labelling any child as 'resilient' or 'not resilient', it is better to think in terms of children who are manifesting resilient behaviours and those who are not. Also, just because a child is showing resiliency today does not mean that he or she will continue to show it tomorrow or next year. The skills that help a child to be resilient at the age of nine may not be adequate for the demands of adolescence. Resiliency is a process that unfolds within the context of development and many other temporal and contextual factors.

Resiliency is also a normal, understandable process. It arises from normal, human adaptational systems such as the ability to rationally solve problems, the capacity to regulate emotion, and the ability to form close, supportive ties with others. It is only when these systems are damaged or overwhelmed that natural human resiliency fails.

Longitudinal studies of resiliency

A number of longitudinal studies have documented the phenomenon of resiliency over time. The following are some examples:


Brief summary of resiliency information, plus a lot of child and youth mental health information on the general headroom site:


General information about resiliency and the 'resilience paradigm': www.projectresilience.com

Excellent bibliography of resiliency related articles, including some online articles: http://activated.det.act.gov.au/reading/curr_jour_hotlists_resiliency.htm

Key resource for all matters related to resiliency: http://resilnet.uiuc.edu


Alvord, M. & Grados, J. (2005). 'Enhancing Resilience in Children: A Proactive Approach'. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. 36(3). pp. 238-245.

Anthony, E.J. (1987b). Risk, Vulnerability and Resilience: an Overview. In Anthony, E. & Cohler, B.J. (eds.). The Invulnerable Child, pp.3-48. New York: Guilford Press.

Benard, B (1995). 'Fostering Resilience in Children.' NY: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. Available at: http://resilnet.uiuc.edu/library/benard95.html.

Grotberg, E. (1995). 'A Guide to Promoting Resilience in Children: Strengthening the Human Spirit.' Available at: http://resilnet.uiuc.edu/library/grotb95b.html.

Grotberg, E. (1997). 'The International Resilience Project: Findings from the Research and the Effectiveness of Interventions.' in Bain, B, et.al. (Eds). Psychology and Education in the 21st Century: Proceedings of the 54th Annual Convention of the International Convention of Psychologists. Edmonton: ICPress. pp. 118-128. Available at: http://resilnet.uiuc.edu/library/grotb97a.html

Howard, S. & Johnson, B. (1998). 'Tracking Student Resilience'. Paper presented to the 1998 Annual Conference of the Australian Association for Research in Education. Available at :http://www.aare.edu.au/98pap/joh98076.htm.

Masten, A. (2001). 'Ordinary Magic: Resilience Processes in Development.' American Psychologist, 56(3), pp. 227-238.

Rutter & The English and Romanian Adoptees Study Team. (1998). Developmental Catch-up, and Deficit, Following Adoption After Severe Global Early Privation. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 39, pp.465-476.

Rutter, M., Pickles, A., Murray. R. & Eaves, L. (2001). 'Testing Hypotheses on Specific Environmental Effects on Behavior.' Psychological Bulletin, 127, pp.291-324.

Werner, E. & Smith, R. (2001) Journeys from Childhood to Midlife. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.


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