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2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 3, No. 1
April 1998

Promoting Resiliency in Families and Children

Did you ever wonder why some of the families and children we work with overcome their hardships, despite crisis, pain, and difficult life experiences?

When this occurs, we say that the family or child involved has the power to bounce back--that they are resilient.

As social workers, our job is to promote resiliency in families and children, to help them recover from whatever challenges they face, be it abuse, neglect, or separation. In order to succeed in this task, we need to be able to do two things. First, we need to know how to assess families and children for the traits that promote or inhibit resiliency. This allows us understand the strengths a particular family can build on to solve the problems that confront it. Second—and more importantly—we need to know how to help families obtain or maintain their ability to "bounce back."

Recognizing Resiliency

To assess a family's resiliency, social workers must be able to identify two kinds of characteristics: protective traits and risk traits.

Protective (or resiliency) traits are strengths that help a person or family cope with stress or life difficulties, increasing the likelihood of rebound from difficult situations. Resiliency traits include: a sense of humor, being first- born, having insight into situations, and independence. These traits are tools people can use in times of crisis; they give them the edge and help them make it through the situation. These traits don't prevent problems, but they do help solve them.

Risk traits are influences that may interfere with a person's or family's ability to cope during times of stress. Risk traits include: living in a home with domestic violence or substance abuse, low birth weight, and low self-esteem (Fraser & Galinsky, 1997). These traits can negatively influence the way people react to crisis. For example, when a problem occurs, an individual may not know how to solve it, what the options are, or even how to ask for help.

Assessment Is Key

Some believe there is a window of opportunity during crisis when social workers can help families find and build on the traits that will help them recover (Saleebey, 1996). Others believe that, if a family is working in partnership with someone they trust, the window of opportunity never closes, and they can learn and develop new skills that increase their resiliency for an indefinite period.

To intervene appropriately, however, a social worker must first thoroughly assess a family's resilience. To do this, he or she must assess protective and risk traits on three levels: individual; family, school, and community; and environmental (Kirby & Fraser, 1997). Once this is done, the family and the worker can then create an intervention plan that builds on the family's strengths.

Individual Factors

To assess resiliency at the individual level, it is important to look at both birth and psychological traits. Building a social history of the individual is a good place to start this portion of the assessment. You can do this by drawing a genogram with the individual or family, or by just talking to them. If family members are not available or do not know the whole story, key data can usually be obtained from a child's medical birth record. This birth information is important, since risk traits such as genetic problems, low IQ, low birth weight, and mental disorders affect not just the child's but the whole family's ability to respond to adversity.

Gender plays an important role--research shows that girls adapt more easily than boys to things such as divorce and out-of-home care, although there are no long-term studies regarding the children of today (Kirby & Fraser, 1997). (See "Are Girls Really More Resilient?")

Culture and ethnicity, too, play a role in assessment. More African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans live in poverty, which put them at risk due to limited resources and limited access to healthcare (Fraser & Galinsky, 1997).

Psychological traits also affect resiliency. Children born with "easy" temperaments are more easily nurtured by parents, making a "good" disposition a resilient trait at birth (Charity, 1997). While talking with a family, observe the level of nurturing parents show their child. Based on your observations, you can ask questions that will tell you more about a family's degree of bonding, communication and problem-solving skills, and general resourcefulness.

Social workers should evaluate individuals' independence, comfort with their roles (caretaker, parent, role model, friend, etc.), and sense of purpose in life—important resiliency traits (Giordano, 1997). Although they may not see these traits immediately, social workers can help families find and develop them. For example, since a nurturing caregiver in a child's life can mediate many risk traits, social workers should focus on helping parents develop their abilities in this area.

Family, School, and Community Factors

To assess a child's or a family's resilience, it is important to look at the role extended family, school, and the community play in their lives. Strong, positive peer bonds, involvement in positive peer social groups (such as athletics), and informal community networks (such as faith community and after school programs) are resilient traits for children. Extended family support and adequate access to needed services (such as health care) also contribute to a child's or a family's ability to deal with hard times.

Usually, if a child has a resiliency trait, the same strength will be found in the child's family. These strengths can give social the worker and family a foundation for their work together. For example, a child who adapts to different circumstances may come from a flexible family. If a social worker makes this connection, he or she can build an intervention plan that will help families remedy their situation by maximizing this strength.

School and community should also be considered when assessing a family's resiliency. If a child is doing well in school and participating in sports or positive peer groups, you should count these things as strengths that can help the child "bounce back" in other parts of her life. If children are in trouble in school, make poor grades, and have few friends, take notice. Community atmosphere and support in their community should be taken into consideration. If the community is involved and supportive, they can help the family in times of trouble, adding to a family's resilient traits.

Environmental Factors

Environmental conditions should be included in any assessment of resiliency. Environmental traits are those of culture, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, education, and employment status/opportunities. Other portions of your assessment will naturally bring environmental traits to light--take the opportunity to discuss these with families.

So, a comprehensive, family-inclusive assessment is needed in order to identify the resilient traits to concentrate on in your work with an individual or family. For example, a child could be considered resilient biologically, with a caring adult caregiver, and still have difficulties due to environmental issues such as homelessness, racial injustice, and poverty. Social workers who recognize these gaps can work with the family to come up with new ways to lower or eliminate risk.

Implications for Social Workers

After assessing resilient and risk traits in families and children, social workers can use these strengths to create a plan with the family to enhance their resilient traits. The plan should be strengths-based and focus on issues the family would like to address, as well as those areas workers feel the family needs to work on. By increasing resiliency in families and children, workers can help them to be more self-sufficient and empowered (for tips on promoting resilience, see "Intervention Points: Increasing Resiliency in Families and Children" and "Protective Traits").

At times a social worker is a key person in a child's life and has the opportunity to assist a child in acknowledging, enhancing, and developing protective factors and strengths. Children have the capability to learn new skills in order to become resilient, and when social workers assist with the assessment and direction of that learning, children can grow to become productive, healthy individuals.


Charity, J. (1997). Resiliency: Overcoming the legacy of abuse and trauma [on-line]. Available: http://www.umm.maine.e…ackiCharity/jc330.html. (Web address no longer functional.)

Fraser, M. W. & Galinsky, M. J. (1997). Toward a resiliency based model of practice. In Fraser, M. W. (Ed.), Risk and Resilience (pp. 265-275). Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Giordano, B. P. (1997). Resilience--a survival tool for the nineties. AORN Journal, 65, 1032-1036.

Kirby, L. D. & Fraser, M. W. (1997). Risk and resiliency in childhood. In Fraser, M. W. (Ed.), Risk and Resiliency (pp. 10-33). Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Pike, L. (1996). Family resiliency [on-line]. http://www.exnet.iasta…ons/Resiliency/q.a.html. (Web address no longer functional.)

Saleebey, D. (1996). The strengths perspective in social work practice: Extensions and cautions. Social Work, 41, 296-305.

1998 Jordan Institute for Families