In April 1986, a catastrophic explosion occurred in No. 4
reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine,
causing extensive radioactive contamination of the surrounding
area. A massive rescue response took place – re-settlement of
people from the most severely contaminated districts, mass
screening for cancers, new sickness-related benefits for the
Fifteen years later, a United Nations team set out to examine
what had happened to local people. Their report was
startling.1 Overall, the well-intentioned help had
caused more death and illness than the disaster itself. The
expected rise in some cancers, notably leukaemia, had not occurred,
though much anxiety and unnecessarily aggressive treatment resulted
from mass screening. Huge numbers of people had become dependent on
benefits, driven by the policy of paying benefits to anyone who
lived near Chernobyl prior to evacuation. Evacuees suffered from
very high rates of mental illness, alcoholism, unemployment and
family breakdown. Only two groups in the affected population
avoided this fate – those who refused to be evacuated, and
those who were evacuated but quickly chose to return to their
The response to the Chernobyl disaster is a lesson in how to
undermine the natural resilience of populations. First, rush to
intervene without considering whether your actions might cause more
harm than good. Second, exaggerate the risks. Third, render the
population impotent by taking away their decision-making ability.
Fourth, dislocate them from their naturally occurring sources of
support, especially friends, family and community. Fifth,
under-estimate their capacity for recovery. Last, render them
Is there a danger that contemporary attitudes – and even
policies – towards children and young people could be having
a similar effect? We seem to be driven by two strangely conflicting
beliefs. On the one hand, we believe children should be encouraged
to participate, to express their beliefs, have their opinions
valued and even assume authority in many situations. On the other,
we believe children are threatened by an increasing number of
dangerous social and environmental hazards from which they need to
There is also a growing concern that children and young people
have greater difficulty than previous generations in bouncing back
from adversities, that is, have become less resilient. A resilient
child was defined, in a report recently produced by
Barnardo’s for the Scottish executive, as one who “can resist
adversity, cope with uncertainty and recover more successfully from
traumatic episodes or events”.2
The study of resilience is concerned with identifying the
factors that enable some children who face severe adversities to
flourish, while others appear to succumb. These factors may be part
of the child’s personality, their immediate or extended
family, or their environment, and may be encouraged, or diminished,
by our actions.
However, in recent decades, the identification and elimination
of risk has become a dominant preoccupation of child care
professionals and parents. This has certainly resulted in many
benefits, especially relating to the physical health of children.
Unfortunately, children’s emotional and mental health appears
to have declined in all developed countries over the same period.
If we imagine an average British child today compared with 1970,
today’s child would be less likely to be injured in a road
traffic accident, less likely to die from measles and more likely
to live long enough to draw a pension.
Conversely, today’s average child would be more likely
– if they are male – to commit suicide and have a
behavioural problem and – if they are female – to
self-harm and be depressed. Some benefits have been bought at a
price. Children have been protected from road traffic accidents by
being driven to school but exposed to risk of obesity and early
death through coronary heart disease by the resulting lack of
exercise. At what point, we need to ask, is the good done by our
protective strategies outweighed by the unintended consequences of
Promoting resilience emphatically does not mean exposing
children to harm, or complacently assuming that they may recover
from trauma without help. It does, however, suggest that we need to
recognise the potential of children to cope and overcome demanding
situations. This involves our having to accept some very
challenging and possibly counter-intuitive concepts.
Contrary to the belief of many adults, chronic low-level stress,
such as that caused by persistent bullying or poor peer
relationships, appears far more harmful to children than episodes
of acute trauma. Parental death is less strongly associated with
poor adult adjustment than parental separation, especially
following an extended period of conflict. While high self-esteem is
an important aspect of a resilient personality, high self-esteem
that results from vanity or unearned praise will not make a child
more resilient. Early responsibilities can help build resilience,
as can part-time work in early adolescence, especially where useful
skills are being learned. Resilience may result from a child having
to cope with premature demands during times of family stress, but
will most certainly not result if a child is unable to bear the
burden of such demands.
In a famous study that took place during the Great Depression,
teenagers in families that lost most of their assets did better in
adult life than young people in families who were less unfortunate.
However, children who were too young to play any productive
economic role in their household did worse.3 Finally
– and perhaps the most challenging for child care services
– there is extensive evidence that where adversities are
relatively short term, or where strong protective factors are
present, around two-thirds of children appear to survive with no
detectable long-term harm.
Promoting resilience depends on our willingness to make fair and
reasonable assessments of risk while not exaggerating the dangers
facing children in return for a quick fix of short-term publicity.
Once public and professional perceptions of risk are ratcheted up,
they rarely return to their previous levels, and the resulting
restrictions that are placed on children become permanent.
Just as physical immunity to disease only develops following a
gradual exposure to pathogens, so resilience can only develop when
children and young people are exposed to measured demands that
stretch their abilities, without snapping them.
1 United Nations Development
Programme and Unicef, The Human Consequences of the Chernobyl
Nuclear Accident: A Strategy for Recovery, 2002, Available
2 T Newman, S Blackburn,
Promoting Resilience in children and young people during
periods of transition, Scottish Executive, 2002. Available on
Children of the Great Depression, Chicago, University of Chicago
Also see T Newman, Promoting Resilience: a review of
effective strategies for child care services, Centre For
Evidence-Based Social Services, University of Exeter, 2002
Available online at
Tony Newman is principal officer research and
development at Barnardo’s.
Factors that promote resilience through
- Strong social support networks.
- The presence of at least one unconditionally supportive parent
or parent substitute.
- Positive school experiences.
- A sense of mastery and a belief that one’s own efforts
can make a difference.
- Participation in events outside school and the home.
- The capacity to re-frame adversities so that the beneficial as
well as the damaging effects are recognised.
- The ability – or the opportunity – to make a
difference by helping others or through part time work.
- Not to be excessively sheltered from challenging situations
which provide opportunities to develop coping skills.
Features of resilience
- Risk factors are cumulative – the presence of one
increases the likelihood that more will emerge.
- If a chain of adversities can be broken, most children can
recover from even severe difficulties.
- Transition points in children’s lives present both
threats and opportunities.
- Managed exposure to risk is necessary if children are to learn
- Acute episodes of stress are – usually – less
harmful to children than chronic difficulties.
- High self-esteem is important to the promotion of resilience
– but it must be earned.
- The promotion of resilience involves trade-offs – our
goal is effective adult adjustment not eliminating the legacy of
all childhood trauma.
How to promote resilience
- If children have opportunities to take part in demanding and
challenging activities then…
- …they will become less sensitive to risk and more able to
cope with physical and emotional demands.
- …they will develop more competencies and their competencies
and self-esteem will grow.
- Exposure to people or events that contradict risk effects will
compensate for previous bad experiences and …
- …help counter the belief that risk is always present.
- Teaching coping strategies and skills and being helped to view
negative experiences positively will result in the child
- …a capacity to re-frame experiences and be an active rather
than a passive influence on their own future.