Tuesday, 19 December 2017

How resilient do we want our children and young people to be?

In a follow-up post, CRFR Associate PhD student Ariane Critchley provides her thoughts on resilience in response to the recent CRFR Seminar ‘The Troubling Concept of Resilience’ given by Eric Carlin and Emma Davidson.

As a social worker I was fortunate to meet a number of children and young people who I would describe as ‘resilient’. The work of Gilligan (2001) was highly influential on my practice and I considered ways in which I might foster resilience in the children I worked with, particularly those children to whom we owed corporate parenting responsibilities, by virtue of their status as ‘looked after’. In my view, it makes sense to talk of ‘resilience’ in the context of frontline social work, where practitioners encounter young people who have suffered 'extraordinary vulnerability’ (Brownlie, 2014: 195) through their experiences of early trauma, their separation from family of origin, and experiences of an imperfect care system with multiple moves of home and school. Should young people flourish through such extremes of early adversity, aren’t we right to think of them as resilient?

I would argue that in this context, ‘resilient’ is exactly how we should describe the ongoing achievement that individual children make by not only surviving serious challenges, but somehow finding a way to grow and to thrive. And the ‘somehow’ here is crucial. Acknowledging Carlin & Davidson’s challenge, that resilience risks that we ‘prioritise external and normative judgements about individuals’ characteristics and behaviours and the adversities they are deemed to have overcome’ (Ungar, 2005), I wish to suggest that resilience as properly understood is an ecological and ‘relational’ quality (Bondi et al. 2007). We can only be resilient to the challenges we face through interaction with the internal and external factors that make up our life world. For example, our health, the people who surround us, the socio-economic context we live in, and the resources to which we have access. Resilience then, is not a ‘characteristic’ so much as a process.

Which is why, as social workers, we feel we can contribute to an individual child or young person’s overall ‘resilience’. However, this does not translate into a policy aspiration that all children and young people should be resilient. Listening to the seminar last week, what struck me was the way that the universal application of concepts such as ‘resilience’ can be dangerous. When youth policy suggests through GIRFEC that all Scottish children should be encouraged to be resilient we risk a backwards misapplication, which seems to demand that children and young people do their best with the cards they are dealt rather than our society finding them a better hand.

In their study of the operationalisation of resilience in practice, Daniel et al. cautioned that, ‘policy documents are increasingly referring to the promotion of resilience as an aim – it is important that such documents set out their operational definitions (Daniel et al., 2009)’. Viewing resilience ‘as an aim’ introduces the great danger that this seminar warned of; we might expect that children and young people encountering significant difficulty should simply become more resilient, flipping resilience on its head in a way that demands individual overcoming, not structural equalising. If resilience is understood as a dynamic process that occurs in conditions of adversity, the aim of public policy should surely be to challenge and reduce the social and material conditions in which children can truly be described as ‘resilient’, to decrease the very circumstances in which resilience can flourish.

Ariane Critchley is a qualified social worker and researcher with a range of interests across social work and public health. Ariane is based at the University of Edinburgh where she is writing up her ESRC funded PhD on pre-birth child protection, examining the complexities of applying child protection processes to unborn children and the experiences of practitioners and of expectant families. Ariane has contributed to Scottish Government publications on maternity care and is currently working with Social Work Scotland on finding evidence of good practice in the implementation of self-directed support in Scotland.


Bondi, L., Davidson, J. and Smith, M. (2007), ‘Geography’s ‘Emotional Turn’’, Chapter 1 in Davidson, J. Bondi, L. and Smith, M. (2007), Emotional Geographies, Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate.

Brownlie, J. (2014), Ordinary Relationships. A Sociological Study of Emotions, Reflexivity and Culture, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

 Daniel, B, Vincent, S, Farrell, E & Amey, F (2009), 'How is the concept of resilience operationalised in practice with vulnerable children?' International Journal of Child and Family Welfare, vol. 12 (1): 2-21.

Gilligan, R. (2001), Promoting resilience : a resource guide on working with children in the care system, London: British Agencies for Adoption & Fostering (BAAF).

Ungar, M. (2005) ‘Introduction: Resilience across cultures and contexts’, in Handbook for working with children and youth. London: Sage.

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