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Vicarious Resilience and Healthy Helping Professionals

Child advocates have difficult jobs; vicarious resilience can help sustain them.

I just returned from the 33rd annual National Child Advocacy Symposium, which focuses on prevention and treatment of child sexual and physical abuse, and I cannot say enough good things about the people who attended this event, and the work they do every day. The investigators, interviewers, social workers and therapists, law enforcement officers and judges, and child welfare workers who come to this event every year in Huntsville, Alabama are terrifically dedicated folks who do very tough work 24/7 with a sense of joy, even on the hard days. This work is indeed very challenging and the case material mighty unpleasant, and downright repulsive at times. So how are they able to do this, day in and day out? That was the topic of my presentation there: Vicarious resilience.

I have an anti-slime policy in my writing and presenting. No one should walk away from one of my blogs, articles or professional workshops feeling stressed, traumatized, or “unmoored.” My intention is that they should not feel depleted, overwhelmed or discombobulated, because the issues they deal with already on a daily basis—sex trafficking of children, child porn, ritualistic abuse—are highly triggering in of themselves. My goal is to present material that is inspirational, hope-inducing, and supportive of child advocates' continued efforts in this field. My goal is for them to experience social and community support during my presentation—to feel connected, heard, and appreciated. That is to say, my goal is to provide an opportunity for them to enhance their vicarious resilience (Hernandez, Engstrom and Gangsei, 2007), which is the positive effects on helping professionals who witness the healing, recovery, and resilience of persons who have survived severe traumas in their lives. Following in the tradition of positive psychology, vicarious resilience is a strengths-focused concept that does not ignore or supplant the important phenomena of compassion fatigue or burnout, but instead offers a counterbalance, a positive resource to be attended to and nurtured in helping professionals. One means of paying attention to vicarious resilience is through the administration of the Vicarious Resilience Scale (2017), a valid measure of this new and important construct.

Self-care is an important, often neglected area of professional development and continuing education, and I am an enthusiastic proponent of it. However, agencies and organizations, sometimes stuck at the individual level of analysis, place a burden of responsibility for workplace wellness or well being on individual employees, creating a “tyranny of self-care” wherein staff are expected to "pull themselves up by the bootstraps" instead of approaching the issue systemically and institutionally. That is, healthy organizations tend to have health-oriented organizational policies and take their implementation and follow through seriously. Healthy organizations and agencies do not just talk the talk, but walk the walk around issues of taking vacay, predictable work hours each day, not expecting work to continue from home via electronic devices or paperwork, and creating an atmosphere at work where folks are acknowledged and appreciated for their ideas and contributions. Social support, morale, and locus of control are major factors associated with vicarious resilience. My goal is to find out more about what fosters vicarious resilience. My hope is that this work will help inform how we support and train child advocates, so that they can continue to do the work they love, with joy, even when inside they are crying for very young, abused and neglected human beings. Child advocates, you rock.

Kyle D. Killian, PhD is author of  from Columbia University Press.


Killian, K.D., Hernandez, P., Engstrom, D., & Gangsei, D. (2017). Development of the Vicarious Resilience Scale (VRS): A measure of positive effects of working with trauma survivors. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 9, 23-31.

Killian, K.D. (2017, March). Vicarious resilience and you: Keys to self-care and wellbeing. 33rd International Symposium on Child Abuse, National Child Advocacy Center, Huntsville, AL.