A Bioecological Model of Children's Resilience

Resilience is as much what is inside you as it is what is around you.

Posted Jan 15, 2020

One year ago, this week, a series of pretty stressful events began in our family.

Early in January, I got a call from my son that he walked into a flooded house with alarms ringing. A pipe broke and water flowed all day, causing major damage to both floors of our house. Over the next few months, our whole downstairs had to be gutted and rebuilt. The same day this happened, I got a text from my sister informing me that my mother needed emergency surgery. A few days later, I flew to my hometown to help out for a few days.

A couple of weeks later, Seattle had one of its unusual snowstorms that shut down the city. It wreaked havoc on my carefully timed waitlist control study that was ongoing. And then my daughter contracted salmonella and was home from school for two weeks, followed by falling down and getting a concussion that kept her out of school for another two weeks.

Through it all, we were dealing with a terrible contractor fixing our house. It was stressful. But we have good home insurance, I was able to fly to my hometown when I needed to, I was able to be flexible with my work schedule to take care of my sick daughter, and my husband and I supported each other through the infuriating interactions with our contractor.

Did these experiences make me a better person? Stronger? It certainly reminded me that I know how to cope with difficult situations and that I am fortunate to have family, friends, and resources to help me through challenging times.

When we think about resilience, we tend to think about the characteristics of a person that helps them weather difficult times. When I asked the audience at a recent presentation what resilience is, people said things like "grit," "determination," "positive attitudes," "fortitude" — all characteristics within a person. We don’t usually think of the support and resources it takes to have those characteristics.

Sometimes they are “built-in” to the person through their temperament. But usually, those characteristics develop when a person experiences having basic needs met, being free from the threat of violence, and having safe, stable, nurturing relationships in our lives — even just one. Research on resilience points to a variety of “intrapersonal” factors — things within the person, and “interpersonal” and contextual factors that support resilience in contexts of stress or adversity.

We use a “bioecological” model to research child resilience. In a bioecological model, it is recognized that children are developing with a context characterized by different nested system levels.

Closest to the child, and perhaps the conduit of most other influences, is their family and parents, and others with whom they have direct relationships. Those relationships are influenced by the contexts those individuals are in — a parent’s workplace, extended family, religious community, a teachers support systems at school and home. Those contexts are impacted by the neighborhood or community context — the safety, resources, and support available in a community. All of those systems are nested within broader social, political, cultural and economic influences.

Research on resilience demonstrates the effects of factors at all of these levels, and the broader levels have their impact on children, particularly in early childhood, through their effects on the relationships in children’s lives.

For example, research shows that living in a context of low income or in neighborhoods with high crime or low resources can have an adverse impact on families, increasing family conflict, chaos, and parental mental health or substance use problems. Those, in turn, can make it harder for parents to be as effective as they want to be or to have the kind of relationship with their children that we know promote child well-being and resilience.

If we want to support our children in developing skills and capacities for resilience, we need to start with creating safe, stable neighborhoods, home, and school settings. We can support effective stress-management and well-being in the adults in children’s lives so they can, in turn, be the positive, effective parents, teachers, caregivers, etc. that promote social and emotional resilience in children.


Lengua, L. J., Moran, L. R., Zalewski, M, Ruberry, E, Kiff, C & Thompson, S. (2014). Relations of Growth in Effortful Control to Family Income, Cumulative Risk, and Adjustment in Preschool-age Children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. 

Lengua, L. J., Kiff, C. Moran, L. R., Zalewski, M., Thompson, S. F., Cortes, R. & Ruberry, E. (2014). Parenting Mediates the Effects of Income and Cumulative Risk on the Development of Effortful Control. Social Development, 23, 631-649. 

Lengua, L. J., Thompson, S. F., Moran, L. R., Zalewski, M., Ruberry, E. J., Klein, M. R., & Kiff, C. J. (2019). Pathways from Early Adversity to Later Adjustment: Tests of the Additive and Bidirectional Effects of Executive Control and Diurnal Cortisol in Early Childhood, Development and Psychopathology. doi:10.1017/S0954579419000373