In considering future research on resilience, we consider, next, how we might most productively focus our future inquiry on psychosocial vulnerability and protective factors. There are so many candidate constructs from which to choose, all potentially alleviating or exacerbating risk. Weighing this issue again, from an applied or interventions perspective, we present a set of four criteria that might be helpful.5
First, given a particular at-risk condition, there must be concerted attention to factors that are salient in that particular life context, those that affect a relatively large number of people in that group. Second, we should prioritize attention to indices that are relatively malleable––risk modifiers amenable to change via external interventions or “modifiable modifiers.” Third, focus should be afforded to indices that tend to be relatively enduring in a child’s life, or those that continue to exert their (positive or negative) effects for some length of time. Finally, it is critical to attend to indices that are generative of other assets; those that set into motion “cascades”2 wherein they catalyze other protective processes.
Reviews of more than 50 years of research on childhood resilience5,32
show that across different risks—ranging from parental divorce and bereavement to maltreatment and community violence—close, supportive family relationships clearly meet all four criteria. These relationships are obviously salient and proximal in children’s lives; they can be changed via interventions; parents are present in children’s lives for almost two decades or longer; and good parent–child relationships can generate other assets, such as feelings of confidence, security, and self-efficacy.
At the same time, there is still a great deal more to be learned about parents, families, relationships, and resilience. Most importantly, we have very little research on what makes for
In child development studies, parenting dimensions are almost always predictor variables and almost never outcomes, so that we know little about how it is that parents facing formidable challenges are still able to function reasonably well. Thus, in future research it must be a priority to understand how parents, particularly mothers who are usually primary caregivers, are able to do well despite considerable odds (e.g., chronic poverty along with serious psychiatric problems).
We also need more research on the specific demands of parents in particular risk contexts, and on how to optimally harness the resources available from adults other than parents. As an illustration relevant to the first point, parental monitoring and supervision are critical in violence-prone, inner-city settings whereas in upper-class suburbia, guarding against crushing achievement pressures can be crucial.10
With regard to the recommended increased focus on nonparent adults, this is important because the reality is that even with our best efforts, we will not be able to reach some parents at high risk. Juxtaposed with this unfortunate reality, however, is a more comforting one (a truism put forth decades ago by pioneers in resilience33–35
)—what is critical is a strong, enduring relationship with at least one caring adult
; this may or may not be a biological parent. For vulnerable children in contemporary society, there are in fact many adults who could potentially fulfill this function—not only informal mentors, but also teachers at school, often cited as having turned people’s lives around.5
Stated differently, we know without question that good relationships are fundamental to children’s resilient adaptation. We need, now, to work harder on developing interventions that harness the relationship resources existing in children’s lives, toward systematically fostering strong, supportive relationships in the lives of vulnerable youth.