The Idea of "Resilience" Can Marginalize Family Stress Level

Innate toughness in children is easily overcome by high levels of family stress.

Posted Jan 11, 2019

 Resilience by Chris Campbell, CC by 2.O
Source: Flickr: Resilience by Chris Campbell, CC by 2.O

The concept of resilience has received a lot of attention in the mental health literature, but most of it has been coming from researchers who over-emphasize the individual’s genetic propensity for it while ignoring the level of environmental stress that the individual is subjected to.

Some children are just born hardier and tougher than others. Such individuals are better able to process, handle, and bounce back from stress and can handle more of it—on the average—than other people. They are said to be more resilient. No denying it. However, the resilience of even those with a great temperament can be overwhelmed by severe stress from a problematic environment.

It is also true that at least some of any apparent resilience does not come from having been born with a better innate temperament, but results from having had at least one supportive and nurturing adult family member who buoyed up the person's coping skills as a child. Dysfunctional families may contain some of these folks in addition to other adult members who are more, shall we say, problematic. This helps to reduce the adverse consequences created by the latter.

Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE's, are clearly shown by a variety of research methodologies to be, overall, the most important risk factors for the development of personality dysfunction (as well as being major risk factors for a wide variety of other health problems). In reading the personality disorders literature, you might think that defective brains were instead the biggest factor. 

In many previous posts I have reviewed ways in which this latter idea is falsely argued—such as by looking at how a normal brain processes trauma physiologically and declaring, ex cathedra, that those processes represent some sort of abnormality. I have also discussed one of the major reasons this sleight-of-hand is employed: to avoid holding parents responsible for their problematic parenting and chaotic family interactions. 

It's just not popular to discuss the role of dysfunctional parenting in creating psychological problems in their offspring. Everyone seems to worry that they might be traumatized. They are not, I guess, very resilient? Better to blame the victim.

Of course, it is also true that bashing parents and making them feel guiltier, more defensive or angrier than they already do is counterproductive, as doing so often causes them to double down on whatever dysfunctional interactions they had been routinely engaging in previously. Nonetheless, pretending that their behavior has nothing at all to do with their child's problems is just a huge, ugly lie.

The blog Aces Too High is devoted to discussing the effects of childhood trauma. It usually puts the family environment in the proper perspective in discussing the relative effects of children's inherent, genetic capabilities, the problems their child's innate tendencies present to parents, and the effects on children of ongoing interpersonal trauma and dysfunction.

A posting in the ACES blog by Christine Cissy White on 2/5/17 contains a highly informative and wide-ranging discussion about how vague a concept resilience actually is, as well as about how difficult it is to measure. I recommend reading it. 

She also points out how the concept of resilience can be used as another device for the purpose of blaming the child victims of severe family dysfunction for their predicament and pretending that the parents' behavior is hardly important at all, if not completely irrelevant:

"Many trauma survivors, with experiences that are often minimized, marginalized or medicalized, are often frustrated by what seems like excessive funding for or fascination with resilience. It can seem as though resilience and protective factors can get overemphasized while the prevention and treatment of ACEs ends up sidelined—as though human suffering might be optional if it’s served up with enough resilience." 

I could not agree more.