Resilience after maltreatment: The importance of social services as facilitators of positive adaptation

Ungar, M. (2013) Resilience after maltreatment: The importance of social services as facilitators of positive adaptation. Child Abuse & Neglect 37, p110-115


What is this all about?

In this brief practice note the focus is on children who have experienced chronic maltreatment but who show resilience, often in contexts where they are not only exposed to abuse or neglect, but also have other multiple risk factors associated with marginalisation such as poverty, racism, physical and intellectual disability.  The author provides a review of current literature related to resilience in maltreated children.

Why is this important?

There has been tendency to overlook the protective processes that are unique to children that have been abused that are different from those protective processes that promote positive development among children who have not been abused. We are reminded in this article that we need to understand children in the context of their environment and their interactions in this environment.


What is resilience?

The article takes a social ecological perspective of resilience. So rather than a focus on individual characteristics as predictors of resilience, this perspective suggests that resilience among children who have been maltreated is the result of multiple protective factors including processes associated with individual and environment interactions, quality of services provided and the availability of resources such as education, health and other infrastructure.


Four sources of resilience are relevant to children who have been exposed to abuse or neglect:

  1. Individual temperament and psychological coping styles

  2. Making physical, social and economic capital (i.e housing, food, education, safe streets) available directly to children or their caregivers

  3. Interventions by service providers (both government and NGOs) shape opportunities for children to recover from maltreatment

  4. Government policies influence which resources are made available and accessible to children who have been maltreated

You might think this is all pretty straightforward, but what this practice note highlights, is that there is far more study of the individual, family and school factors (numbers 1 & 2) associated with resilience than the nature of the formal services mandated to intervene and mediate the impact of abuse on children’s development (3 & 4).

So what does the current evidence tell us about service providers and interventions?

Previous studies of resilience among abused or neglected children tend to attribute children’s abilities to cope to be the result of individual factors, rather than the responsiveness of service providers and governments to tailor intervention to the needs of the child.  

Dalhousie University’s Resilience Research Centre (in Halifax, Canada) is documenting protective processes among children and adolescents in more than 20 countries. Findings from a series of qualitative and quantitative studies support the view that resilience is both the innate capacity of young people and the quality of their family systems to find ways of coping following exposure to stressors, as well as the capacity of their schools, communities, service providers and government legislators to provide resources in ways that are meaningful to those who are impacted by abuse and neglect.

In order to know what will be meaningful, there is more research required to understand how protective factors may differ between children who have experienced chronic maltreatment as opposed to those who have not experienced abuse or neglect.


 This practice note consistently reminds us of the importance of tailoring interventions to meet the needs of the child or the targeted client group (depending on your context)


What else did they find?

  • The quality of the care provided by one service provider is more predictive of positive outcomes than the quantity of services accessed.

  • Population wide intervention may only be effective for those who are at most-risk, with little or no reported impact (or in some cases a negative impact!) on children who are better resourced

  • Interventions focused on the needs of children at risk may not be effective unless they address the contextual barriers to the children’s successful coping

  • There can be an assumption that community wide health promotion is an effective intervention in and of itself (this is different to population wide intervention above, ad refers to health promotion efforts). While these efforts may be effective at shifting attitudes about child abuse or neglect, there is little evidence to suggest that those most at-risk benefit from unfocused intervention

  • The best interventions to nurture resilience among chronically maltreated children seem to be those focused specifically on the needs of children who must cope in threatening contexts and delivered directly to them


What should I take away?

The findings demonstrate that there is no single solution when trying to build resilience in children or communities. If you can take the time to stop and ask yourself, your team or the stakeholder group:

  • What is the purpose of our intervention?

  • Who are we hoping will benefit?

  • What are we trying to achieve?

These questions will go a long way to help you really think about why you are doing something and whether it will be meaningful to whom the intervention is targeted.


Tell us what you think

What is your experience in being able to shape interventions or even systems to meet the needs of your clients? What are the barriers that make it tricky? Comment below to let us know…