Bouncing Forward

How Families Can Become More Resilient in the Face of Adversity

Beginning in the early 1980’s researchers began studying individual resilience. That is, an individual’s ability to withstand and recover from traumatic experiences.  Before this research, it was common to view people through a deterministic lens. The traumatic experiences he or she had survived informed and primarily determined the sort of person he or she would become.  In this view, if one were the victim of child abuse, they would go on to become a perpetrator themselves. Over time many experts recognized that this presumption was not born out in actual practice. Most who were the victims of abuse did not go on to become abusers, most people who survived great disasters natural or human-made went on to thrive in life.  This observation contradicted the established deterministic view and caused a surge of research into what is now known as human resilience. Viewed through the resilience lens an individual who has survived trauma is not regarded as “damaged” rather they are seen as having been challenged by life and as having the innate abilities to foster their healing. An entire new discipline within psychology is growing around these ideas.  

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Around the turn of this century, psychologists began looking into resilience within a family system.  This work has expanded our understanding of what constitutes a thriving family system in adverse situations.  Resilience within a family system enables the family to face and successfully respond to challenging circumstances and to grow as a family through these experiences.  The family resilience framework views each family member not only in regards to his or her capacity but also in light of his or her potential impact on the strength of the family as a functioning system.  Resilience is a skill that can be learned and refined within individuals and family systems. In this article, I will present a framework of skills and attitudes which if practiced can maximize a families ability to confront and overcome challenging crises situations, thereby assisting the family in facing their current and future challenges more successfully.  

Based on the work of Dr. Froma Walsh we will consider three broad categories of processes involved in a family resilience framework: family belief systems, organizational patterns, and communication processes.

Systems of Belief

Talking about the narratives we tell ourselves

The stories we tell ourselves about our past, our present, and our future shape what we believe about ourselves as individuals, how we approach the world around us, and what options we feel are open to us.  Similarly, the stories a family tells one another about the family and its history shape the families systems of belief. This family belief system dramatically influences how the family views their shared history, their current situation, and their possible futures.  What a family believes will be a primary determinant in how they approach times of extreme stress.

Making meaning out of adversity

Looking past crisis to see what’s going on

Whether a family views a crisis as permanent, inevitable, and insurmountable or as temporary, comprehensible, and manageable may only be a matter of the stories the family decides to tell themselves about the event.  The shared story has a profound impact on the families ability to overcome the challenge and remain a connected family unit. Experiences are just that, things that happen, the meaning we decide both individually and collectively to ascribe to the state of affairs will largely determine how we can move past them successfully.   

Successful family systems have a sense of adversity as a shared experience and share a belief in the family’s ability to overcome the challenge together.  By relying on the family system, individual family members increase their ability to meet a crisis successfully. Also, by contextualizing and normalizing the distress of the family, the individuals can see their reaction and challenges, as well as, those of other family members as reasonable in the context of the current difficulties.  The understanding of crisis within the context of the family’s evolution allows them to see challenges as meaningful, understandable, and manageable challenges rather than viewing them as incomprehensible and insurmountable. By understanding obstacles as a shared challenge, normalizing the shared adversity, and understanding crisis as an essential experience within a family’s evolution we become better able to understand the experience and move toward exploring a more robust set of options for how to manage the situation. 

Keeping A Positive Outlook

Maintaining a positive attitude and an optimistic outlook for the future can be very challenging, this is never truer than in the face of great adversity.  If a family can maintain a positive outlook, it has a tremendous impact on the family’s ability to move through trouble successfully. The highest functioning families have been found to hold more optimistic views of life in general and appear more able to maintain this point of view during times of high stress.  

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By encouraging family members in times of stress, affirming for one another the strengths inherent in the family, a family system can bolster the positive attitude needed to overcome the current challenge.  Encouragement can counter the sense of hopelessness during these times and enable family members to act with courage and perseverance in surmounting a challenge. A focus on strengths and perseverance are calling cards of resilience.  

I have seen this demonstrated in my own life.  My wife was thirty weeks pregnant with our second child at the time that her water broke, this is far too early and was an immediate medical emergency.  My wife was on total bedrest for thirty days at the hospital to forestall delivery. Throughout this period of stress, she experienced the full range of emotions, as one would imagine.   We are fortunate to live in proximity to family and many friends. Over the thirty days I watched as each visitor affirmed for my wife that she was capable, they reminded her of other experiences she had been through that were very challenging and how she had surmounted those obstacles, and always encouraged her to continue to stay strong.  When she reflects on this experience, she reports how during times of greatest despair she would recall these conversations and how they provided the strength to make it through one more day.

Additionally, my wife will recount that her commitment to only focusing on the elements of the experience that were controllable enabled her to stay focused on positive actions she could take.  The research shows this is much more than a mental trick. Having a positive mindset is not about fooling oneself about potential risks or realities of a particular circumstance. Instead, it is about dwelling in the possible.  That is, the ability to take a realistic appraisal of a situation, what are the possible outcomes, and then focusing time, energy, and effort on creating the best possible resolution for a given set of circumstances. In the case of our family it wasn’t that her positive attitude and perseverance changed the outcome of my sons birth, but these traits enabled Aimy not to give up,  Her strength, in turn, inspired the rest of our family, allowing all of us to experience both the challenge and the good of the experience. When we look back on this time now we think of it not primarily as a challenging time; rather our family story is one of love, connection, and strength. We all agree that it was one of the most important experiences we have shared and that it brought us together as a family, and to top it off we were able to add another member to our family.


The Importance of Transcendent Belief and Affiliation

Finding a power to propel you

Traditionally most people were able to tap into inner resilience through religious affiliation and practice.  Many people still do, for those that don’t actively participate in a spiritual tradition, it is essential to understand what the mechanisms are within these traditions that allow people to tap previously unseen strength and resilience.  Research has found that attachment to ritual tradition, connections to a congregation, and a belief structure that extends beyond one’s specific place and time are the crucial elements.

Ritual traditions have been prominent in every culture of which we are aware.  Rituals are employed to mark the significant transitions in life, moving from childhood to adulthood, partner coupling, the birth of children, death, and many others.  If not members of a tradition which includes these types of rites and rituals it can be crucial for a family to make a conscious effort to develop personal family traditions that celebrate these transitions.  Familial rituals can ease the stress associated with a change allowing members of the family to embrace significant life events instead of associating stress and negativity with these times.

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We have many sayings in common usage that illustrate the understanding that connection and community are essential elements of human life.  “It takes a village,” “strength in numbers” for example. In times of high-stress deep connections to a community provide relief from stress and other negative emotions associated with the current crisis.  We don’t feel alone and have opportunities to be involved in the lives of others taking the focus off our problems.

Religious traditions provide a framework of belief that extends beyond our circumstances and gives individuals the ability to understand their challenges within a broader context.  Being able to take this more comprehensive view helps to lessen the perceived stress of a crisis. When families are overwhelmed with crisis transcendent beliefs, and broad community connections enable them to imagine a better future, cope with stress, and encourage a full sense of their ability to move forward into the future.  These are crucial elements of resilience.

This concludes part one of this multi-part series.  In part two I will examine how our understanding of family structure, connectedness, and a families social and economic resources impact resilience within a family system.  

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Until next time
Your friend in service,
Rob Campbell.

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