Understanding Resilience as a Dynamic Process

What comes to mind when you think about resilience? Is it the person who successfully dealt with a serious illness? The individual who was able to overcome extreme disadvantages and ultimately thrive? Or someone who has dealt with great tragedy in their lives, but just keeps on going? While these images of people who did well despite the challenges they faced can be inspiring, they can also lead us to think of resilience as only an individual trait.

Purple wildflowers grow from a crack in a rock formation overlooking Lake Suprerior
“Superior Resilience” by Bob Bertsch. Licensed under CC-BY 4.0.

Early research labeled these people “invulnerable” (Anthony, 1974), implying their ability to overcome challenges was intrinsic, and they would be able to overcome multiple challenges through their individual traits. However, subsequent research has also shown that the challenges we face and the strengths we use to overcome them emerge as our circumstances change (Masten & Garmezy, 1985), so our ability to deal with adversity is contextual.

The definition of the term “resilience” has evolved to capture this contextual nature. Many recent definitions of resilience draw on Luthar, Cicchetti, and Becker’s (2000) view of resilience as the “dynamic process encompassing positive adaptation within the context of significant adversity.” Froma Walsh (2016) writes that human resilience involves the “interplay of multilevel systemic processes,” including the relationships formed in our immediate and extended families. Michael Ungar (2011) suggests our circumstances are critical, writing, “resilience is less an individual trait and more a quality of the child’s social and physical ecology.” Although they may emphasize different factors, most researchers agree that resilience is dynamic. As Ann Masten (2015) puts it, “Resilience will be dynamic because human individuals and their contexts are always changing.”

A dynamic view of resilience is important because it creates possibilities. If resilience is a fixed, individual trait, what does that mean for people who lack that trait? What does it mean for people dedicated to helping others overcome the challenges they face? Seeing resilience as dynamic and emergent opens up the possibility that it can be fostered and developed. Recognizing that multiple systems (e.g. families, schools, communities, etc.) interact to influence resilience means there can be many, diverse approaches to developing resilience. Accepting that there are factors beyond individual characteristics that can enhance or detract from resilience allows us to see people who have faced adversity, including ourselves, as more than just successes or failures.

Join us to explore resilience from multiple perspectives in a three-part webinar series in August 2019. On August 20 Dr. Ann Masten will be speaking about “Nurturing Individual Resilience from a Multisystem Developmental Perspective”. Dr. Froma Walsh will speak on “Nurturing Family Resilience Through a Strengths-Based Framework” on August 22. Dr. Michael Ungar will facilitate a discussion around “Nurturing Resilience Through a Strong Community” on August 27. Learn more about the webinar series and RSVP @ https://dev.militaryfamilieslearningnetwork.org/resilienceseries/


Anthony, E.J. (1974). Introduction: The syndrome of the psychologically vulnerable child. In E.J. Anthony & C. Koupernik (Eds.), The child in his family: Children at Psychiatric Risk (Vol. 3, pp. 3-10). New York, NY: Wiley.

Luthar, S. S., Cicchetti, D., & Becker, B. (2000). The construct of resilience.: Past, present and future research. In B.M. Lester, A.S. Masten & B.McEwen (Eds.), Resilience in children (pp. 105-115). Boston, MA: Blackwell. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1885202/

Masten, A.S. (2015). Pathways to Integrated Resilience Science, Psychological Inquiry, 26:2, 187-196, https://doi.org/10.1080/1047840X.2015.1012041

Ungar, M. (2011). The Social Ecology of Resilience: Addressing Contextual and Cultural Ambiguity of a Nascent Construct. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 81(1), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1939-0025.2010.01067.x

Walsh, F. (2016). Applying a Family Resilience Framework in Training, Practice, and Research: Mastering the Art of the Possible. Family Process, 55(4), 616–632. https://doi.org/10.1111/famp.12260

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