The link between growing up in difficult circumstances and
experiencing problems later in life is so overwhelmingly strong
that it is easy to overlook the fact that many people who encounter
disadvantage go on to lead fulfilling and successful lives.
Yet for more than 20 years psychologists have been probing the
issues surrounding resilience, the ability to “bounce back” from
adversity. Their interest stems from observing that the
relationship between disadvantage and later outcomes is in no sense
deterministic. Many children who grow up in poverty, for example,
do not go on to experience health, behavioural, learning or
emotional problems. Intrigued by this finding, psychologists have
spent many years exploring the characteristics that seem to help
individuals to cope well in difficult circumstances.
But although resilience is now an established concept in psychology
– and one that has filtered to a more limited extent into practice
– few policymakers speak of building resilience.
This is surprising when you consider how such an approach would be
in keeping with a social inclusion agenda. You would think that
combining measures to improve individuals’ capacity to deal with
adversity with steps to tackle disadvantage would offer the kind of
double-whammy irresistible to policymakers. What’s more, the
message that an escape from disadvantage rests as much on an
individual’s own capacity as their circumstances would seem to fit
the government’s views about rights and responsibilities.
But, contrary to what you might expect, resilience is not a concept
that has shaped policy thinking in recent years. Indeed, as the
focus on tackling disadvantage has increased, so has the tendency
to cast individuals in difficult circumstances as vulnerable. There
has been little room to consider individuals as possibly holding
the key to their own success. Policymakers have paid little
attention to the characteristics that seem to help people to thrive
against the odds.
Why is this? Part of the answer seems to lie in the evidence that
psychologists have unearthed about what builds resilience. While
there appears to be no such thing as a resilient personality type,
some characteristics emerge repeatedly in research. The presence of
a strong relationship with a dependable caregiver,
self-confidence and self-esteem, a sense of optimism and control,
the capacity to reflect and solve problems and clear aspirations
have all been found to be important. And since research suggests
that it is possible to trace coping characteristics from infancy,
it seems that the foundations for resilience are likely to be laid
early in life.
Children seem to be more likely to be resilient in the face of
adversity when they develop certain social and emotional skills.
And time and again research points to the influential role that a
strong relationship between a child and a significant, caring adult
can play, in most cases between a parent and child. This would
suggest that policies that aim to support the parenting role are as
important in terms of improving life chances as policies that seek
to improve living standards.
Yet policymakers have felt more comfortable addressing living
standards than supporting parenting. Parenting support is an area
where policymakers have chosen to tread carefully, fearful of
interfering in the private realm of the family other than in the
most desperate of circumstances. Were policymakers willing to take
seriously evidence on resilience they would need to be more willing
to cross the threshold into the private world of the family. So
far, only tentative and targeted steps towards augmenting parenting
support have been taken.
Placing resilience at the heart of policymaking would also need an
overall change in approach. Tracking children to target those most
disadvantaged or “at risk” serves to reinforce the deterministic
notion that disadvantage inevitably leads to failure. A policy
programme to support resilience would seek to foster coping
characteristics as much as protecting individuals from
Could the evidence on resilience ever be taken seriously by
policymakers? There is a school of thought which asserts that the
goal for public policy ought to centre on promoting well-being in
society. The New Economics Foundation published a “well-being
manifesto” aimed at encouraging policymakers to look beyond
economic prosperity as the means of measuring the nation’s health.
Were a government to take this agenda seriously it might find that
fostering resilience not only contributes towards improving
wellbeing in society but helps to reduce disadvantage.
Lisa Harker is chair of the Daycare Trust