Childhood Resilience and Vulnerability

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Resilience and vulnerability among children has been an ongoing topic in research of developmental psychology. These two definitions are closely tied together as they are considered both sides to the spectrum. Schaffer (2006) defines resilience and vulnerability as the susceptibility to develop malfunctioning following exposure to stressful life events, as opposed to the capacity to maintain competent functioning stress. If stressful life events are the trigger here, why is it that some children are far more vulnerable, yet others are more resilient? The three studies discussed in this paper will attempt to explain why these differences occur and what can we do to enhance protective factors.


An easy way to conceptualize the term resilient is defined by Berger (2008). Berger (2008) refers to resilience as the capacity to adapt well to significant adversity and to overcome serious stress. According to Berger (2008) there are three parts to this definition: resilience is dynamic, it is a positive adaptation to stress, and adversity must be significant. In regards to Berger's first part, it is apparent that resilience is dynamic. In one article, a 14-year old girl was described as living absent from her institutionalized mother, and because of this she was responsible for taking care of her younger siblings and alcoholic father (Alvord & Grados, 2005). Results of a longitudinal study concluded that although she should have formed an avoidant relationship with a future partner, she went on to form a secure and long-lasting marriage. The article questions if she was good at coping (resilient) or was she invulnerable? Second part to Berger's definition is the fact that resilience is a positive adaptation to stress.

A more recent study has given us evidence that children can recover and develop normally (Alvord & Grados, 2005). These findings were evident when deprived orphans from Romania were adopted to amorous families living in the United Kingdom. Following the adoption, cognitive and physical growth increased. These children had the ability to continue their growth through wise choices, enhanced education, and take advantages of new opportunities (Alvord & Grados, 2005). Finally, Berger (2008) explains Adversity must be significant. Some adversities are comparatively minor (large class size, poor vision), and some are major (victimization, neglect). Looking at adversity from a humanistic perspective we need to recognize individual differences, such as culture, gender, and emotional experiences. Keep in mind, resilience is not a personality trait, it is a process.

Contributing risks and factors

Schaffer (2006) defines risk and protective factors as conditions that increase the probability of some undesirable outcome or, on contrary, conditions that buffer the individuals against undesirable outcomes. Risk and protective factors exist independently from one individual to another. Not only are an individual's characteristics important, but their physical, social, and family environments. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (2009), a protective factor would be considered a child living in a two-parent house. If one of the parents is in any form abusive to the other parent, or the child the living situation would be altered to a risk factor. However, not living with the abusive parent would result back into a protective factor.

Therefore, factors rotate in a cycle. If protective factors are what we are aiming to improve, we must be aware of the individual's developmental stage, and also the cultural factors that come into play (Alvord & Grados, 2005). Alvord and Grados (2005) have broken down protective factors into six categories. These six categories appear to be the buffers against risk factors (Alvord & Grados, 2005). Many of these components are coexisting with each other. The first protective factor is proactive orientation. Proactive orientation is Taking initiatives in one's own life and believing in one's own effectiveness, this has been identified as a primary characteristic in defining resilience (Alvord & Grados, 2005).

Children who are high in proactive orientation develop hopefulness about the future, and view hardships as learning experiences. (Alvord & Grados, 2005). Self- Regulation is another key protective factor. It is the ability to develop self-discipline or self-control (Alvord & Grados, 2005). Connections and Attachment is the third protective factor. This consists of the desire to belong and to form attachments with family and friends (Alvord & Grados, 2005). The need for connections and attachment is human instinct. Proactive parenting has a large impact in the production of protective factors. Children whom have at least one warm and caring parent or caregiver are more likely to be resilient (Alvord & Grados, 2005).

These caregivers should form limits and boundaries for the child to abide to; this improves compliance with caregiver-child relationships, along with better peer relationships (Alvord & Grados, 2005). School achievements and involvement, IQ, and special talents are also an important protective factor (Alvord & Grados, 2005). This gives the child a chance to excel, academically or socially. Building up a sense of self-pride and self-efficacy is good for any individual. Cognitive ability has been found to be associated with resilience in children (Alvord & Grados, 2005). The last protective factor that Alvord and Grados (2005) talk about is community factors. The main question is, are there supportive relationships available outside the family? Children with positive role models and elders in their lives are often more resilient (Alvord & Grados, 2005). Also, having mentors such as coaches and teachers are important, this is why after school activities are suggested (Alvord & Grados, 2005).

Theories derived from clinical designs

There have been many research designs to make these theories empirical. Three studies will be discussed; they all examine the levels of resilience among individuals and how many unconscious surroundings have an effect on a child's vulnerability. Keep in mind that many stresses that might be daily hassles can accumulate to become major if they are ongoing (Berger, 2008, p 353). A wonderful study by Matheson et al (2005) made the quote by Berger evident. This study assessed the effects of road traffic and aircraft noise on the children's cognitive development and health (Matheson et al, 2005). Over 2800 children were a part of the research method; ages 9-10, from eighty-nine primary schools situated close to three of the major airports in Europe.

The three airports participating in the study were: Schiphol (Netherlands), Barajas (Spain), and Heathrow (United Kingdom). The question that Matheson et al (2005) were aiming to answer was, at which point are noise levels optimal for learning? The noise exposure was based on a sixteen-hour outdoor contour provided by the Civil Aviation Authority. Matheson et al (2005) measured the road noise based on the proximity from the school to the main roads, and traffic flow was based on the UK Calculation of Road Traffic Noise method. These were standardized tests.

They compared the external noise to the levels of cognitive tests and health questionnaires administered in the classroom. Information about their socioeconomic status, education, and ethnic group was gathered from the children's parents. The children's outcome measures focused on two parts: recall and recognition. Matheson et al (2005) assessed episodic memory in terms of, delayed recognition, prospective memory, and delayed cued recall. Delayed recall and recognition were tested by the Children's Memory Scale. The Children's Memory Scale is an episodic memory task used in the USA and UK. The test assesses the ability to process, encode, and recall meaningful verbal material that is presented in narrative format (Matheson et al, 2005).

The three countries were exposed to two stories, in audio form, taken from the Children's Memory Scale. Matheson et al (2005) explains that the children were advised to listen carefully with understanding they would have to recall them later. There was a thirty-minute delay between the audio tape and the recalling of the story. In order for the child to receive a recall point, it had to be in the exact manner the information was presented in the tape. The other way the children's answers were recorded was their conceptual recall of the themes, not just the details. The scoring of the conceptualized themes were much more lenient (Matheson et al, 2005). Following the recall test, a delayed recognition test was given. This test also consisted of two parts.

Matheson et al (2005) explains the experimenter read out fifteen recall questions that consisted of facts. The children were instructed to check the yes or no box on a response sheet. The results of the study showed that, exposure to aircraft noise impaired reading comprehension and recognition. The average reading age in children exposed to aircraft noise in high levels was delayed by two months in the UK and one month in the Netherlands. The exposure to neither road nor air craft noise had no effect on the sustained attention, mental health, or self-reported health on the children. Long-term exposure to both the aircraft noise and road noise was associated with increased levels of annoyance. This shows that children are vulnerable to environmental factors that we impose on them every day. Some children are more resilient to these noises, whilst others are not. Thus, we need to be far more aware of the situations children are forced to learn in. If a child lives near an airport, that stress happens several times a day, but for just a minute at a time. (Berger, 2008, p 354).

Cohen, Moffitt, Caspi, & Taylor (2004) examined children that were exposed to socioeconomic deprivation. Cohen et al (2004) explains that children in low socioeconomic status families are at higher risk for both cognitive and behavioral problems. However, not all poor children develop problems, and some of these resilient children function better than expected (Cohen, Moffitt, Caspi, & Taylor, 2004). The study tested for the factors that contributed to the resilience and vulnerability deprivation, such as genetic and environmental contributions. The findings that Cohen et al (2004) presented, explained that resilience is somewhat heritable.

The children's resilience had been assessed by the difference between their actual scores and the average scores predicted from the levels of their SES deprivation. Maternal warmth, stimulating activities, and children's outgoing temperament appeared to promote positive adjustment in children exposed to SES deprivation (Cohen et al, 2004). With this knowledge, Cohen et al (2004) reveals that both genetic and environmental effects are a part of protective processes.

However, Kitano and Lewis (2005) suggest that children who are more culturally diverse and come from low-income families have experience in overcoming adversity. It looks promising to say that higher intelligence or higher SES is not a requirement for resilient children. There are too many confounding variables to determine the cause of resiliency. Kitano and Lewis (2005) suggest that resilient individuals and gifted children share many of the same characteristics. This is why educating parents, counsellors, and teachers, on coping skills will benefit children both socially and academically.

A study conducted by Daud, Klineberg and Rydelius (2008) was aimed towards studying the resilience among children whose parents suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The test group consisted of 80 refugee children aged 9-17, 40 boys and 40 girls. The controlled group was made up of 40 children, whose parents were not diagnosed with PTSD. Intelligence tests and diagnostic interviews were set up to see if the test group children were mirroring their parents exhibited PTSD symptoms. Daud's et al (2008) questionnaires were able to assess self-esteem levels and the possibility of resilience and vulnerability characteristics.

Daud et al (2008) conceptualized vulnerability as heightened susceptibility to develop PTSD or a clinical picture dominated by PTSD-related symptoms. Daud et al (2008) conceptualizes resiliency as a universal human capacity to cope with traumatic events, but that this capacity needs encouragement and support within a facilitative environment to enable resilience to win over vulnerability and risk. Parents and caregivers should be aware of Daud's et al (2008) findings. Family characteristics such as warmth, cohesions, structure, and secure attachments are all in relation to resilience among children.

Promoting Resilience

In order to promote resilience among children, counsellors, educators, and parents need to understand some of the protective factors. Resilience should be seen as a set of internalized attributes, Resilience involves action (Alvord & Grados, 2005). Youth who are resilient are proactive when faced with challenges. They adapt to difficult circumstances by using internal and external resources. Resilient children come to understand that although they cannot control everything, they have some power to influence what happens next, explains Alvord & Grados, 2005. Wouldn't it be nice if all children had the ability to make the best of everything? These studies indicate that risk and protective factors are usually cumulative: the more protective factors in young people's lives, and the fewer risk factors, the greater the probability that these children or youth will be resilient (Center for Addictions and Mental Health, 2009).
A metaphorical example to what resilience really is explained tremendously by Centre for Addictions and Mental Health (2009):


Young people are like trees. They come in various shapes and sizes and grow up in most parts of the world. Families can be thought of as the soil and water at the base of the trees. Schools, neighborhoods, communities and society at large can be compared to the sun, rainfall, insects, birds and animals. The different characteristics of trees, qualities of soils and weather condition (such as the amount of sun and rainfall) can affect the health and growth of trees. Trees go through developmental stages as they mature from young saplings to full-grown specimens. Children also go through developmental stages on their way to adulthood, and what happens to them at various stages of development can affect their outcomes.

Resilient children and youth grow, branch out and flower when systems supporting their healthy development (such as well-functioning families and environments) work together. Resilient children can be encouraged to become more resilient. And children who seem to have less resilience can be helped to develop it.
In conclusion, every child has the potential to be resilient; it all depends on which factors attribute to each individual's situation.


  • Alvord, M., & Grados, J. (2005). Enhancing Resilience in Children: A Proactive Approach. ‹Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 36(3), 238-245. doi:10.1037/0735- ‹7028.36.3.238
  • Berger. S. K. (2008). The Developing Person Through The Lifespan (7th ed). New York,
    ‹NY: Worth. Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (2009). Retrieved March 20, 2011, ‹from
  • Daud, A., Klineberg, B,. Rydelius, P. (2008). Resilience and Vulnerability among Refugee ‹Children of Traumatized and Non-traumatized parents. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry ‹and Mental Health, 13(3). doi:10.1186/1753-2000-2-7
  • Kim-Cohen, J., Moffitt, T. E., Caspi, A., & Taylor, A. (2004). Genetic and Environmental ‹Processes in Young Children's Resilience and Vulnerability to Socioeconomic Deprivation. ‹Child Development, 75(3), 651-668. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2004.00699.x
  • Kitano, M. K., & Lewis, R. B. (2005). Resilience and Coping: Implications for Gifted
    ‹Children and Youth At Risk. Roeper Review, 27(4), 200-205. ‹doi:10.1080/02783190509554319
  • Matheson, M., Clark, C., Martin, R., Van Kempen, E., Haines, M., Barrio, I., & Stansfeld, S. ‹(2010). The effects of road traffic and aircraft noise exposure on children's episodic ‹memory: The RANCH Project. Noise & Health, 12(49), 244-254. doi:10.4103/1463-‹1741.70503
  • Schaffer, H.R. (2006). Key concepts in developmental psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage ‹Publications Ltd
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Childhood Resilience and Vulnerability. (2019, Mar 13). Retrieved November 28, 2023 , from

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