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Resilience has variously been described as a process, as a goal, and also as a characteristic within a particular individual. Generally, those people who do not develop negative outcomes and/or who adapt successfully when exposed to challenging and stressful circumstances are considered to be resilient. Research in this area has focused primarily on children’s reactions to difficult and traumatic events. A number of terms have been used to characterize those children, such as invulnerable, stress resistant, and more recently, as survivors of adversity.
Qualities of Resilience
Developmental psychopathology research, which focuses on children exposed to a variety of stressful and high-risk family environments, has succeeded in identifying children who appear to adapt well despite the obvious challenges posed to their adjustment. The qualities of resilience have been studied for children in a variety of traumatic circumstances, including homeless children, children living in foster care, children living in poverty, and children having parents with severe psychopathology. Children exhibiting resiliency in these situations are characterized as having survived adversity, as being successful in achieving developmental expectations, and as functioning well across domains.
Resilience and Interpersonal Violence
A review of research on possible harmful effects of the impact of interpersonal violence on children covers a range of outcomes, from relationships with significant people in the family to the child’s social development, emotional adjustment, cognitive development, and school readiness, as well as potential physiological responses. Despite the great amount of diversity in the functioning of individuals exposed to interpersonal violence, there is little research on positive outcomes, such as their coping and resilience. Instead, the main outcomes are generally confined to indices of psychopathology or failures in adaptation. Approximately 50%-60% of children exposed to intimate partner violence have behavioral problems in the clinical range on measures of child adjustment. Features of the other 40%-50% who do not show evidence of psychopathology have not been fully explored.
Yet by studying the processes through which individuals overcome adversity, researchers can learn about both normal and abnormal development. Studies of individuals at risk alert researchers to a number of salient factors that contribute to the detriment or enhancement of adjustment following exposure to negative events. There are key probable risk and protective factors that have generalized influences following a substantial stressor, such as a child’s exposure to interpersonal violence. These factors are used in research studies as predictor variables, correlates, and moderators of both competence and psychopathology.
Children in high-risk families may be protected from negative outcomes by the presence of buffering circumstances. The impact of interpersonal violence may be moderated by a host of protective factors, such as family income, social support, positive peer and sibling relationships, and effective parenting style. In some instances, protective factors may be the opposite of risk or vulnerability factors, for example, having an educated mother who is not depressed, being older, or living in a family with higher income.
There may also be unique elements of protection that can be identified. Protective factors specifically associated with lower levels of psychopathology for children exposed to interpersonal violence have included elements particular to the child, the parent, and the broader environment. Individual protective factors take the form of characteristics such as older age, sociability, or physical attractiveness. Family level protective factors are family cohesion, flexibility, and connections with extended family or the presence of a helpful relative. Community level protective factors are identified as resources such as school programs that address violence or the availability of day-care. In some cases, risk and protective factors may not be mutually exclusive, for example, the child
fights with a sibling as well as receives support from the sibling. Further, both risk and protective factors may not necessarily be characteristic of the child or the family across different contexts or settings.
Various models have been developed to explain the impact of risk factors on children exposed to traumatic situations. In the late1970s, Rutter demonstrated that children with a single risk factor were no more likely to exhibit adjustment problems than those with no risk factors. However, the addition of a second risk factor predicted a fourfold increase in the likelihood of negative outcomes. In other studies, the prediction of adjustment problems for children increased exponentially with the number of additional risk factors in the child’s environment. Thus, it appears that risk is related to the quantity as well as to the quality or strength of risk factors. Therefore, additive studies that aggregate risk factors (e.g., the presence of multiple forms of violence) may present the most informative view of risk factors.
Just as with protective factors, elements of risk may exist at each level of the system in which the individual functions, from individual features (e.g., young age, having a physical disability) to family risks (e.g., having a parent with a mental health problem) and community level risks (e.g., living in a violent neighborhood, violence at school). Finally, risks may be transactive or mutually influencing in nature, thus exponentially escalating their effects.
Research on Resilience, Risk, and Protective Factors
Much can be learned from research on children who cope successfully with other forms of adversity. By studying the features of children who appear to adapt in the face of severely distressing circumstances, researchers can develop new ways of promoting strengths and creating change in families where children are abused and maltreated. Therefore, it is essential to evaluate factors that may reduce or ameliorate, as well as contribute to, the negative impact of interpersonal violence on children.
Little is known about the life course of children who fare well despite exposure to interpersonal violence. Perhaps children who seem resilient in the immediate aftermath of witnessing violence may develop problems later in life. Conversely, children who appear to be suffering may do better over time. Such information could be used to develop intervention strategies as well as to anticipate outcomes for children. Additionally, because very few studies of resilience have specifically examined ethnicity and the cultural context of the family, extensive research is needed in this area.
Despite the gaps in current research, great strides have been made in recent decades. Only a few years ago, many researchers did not recognize the hardships children experience when exposed to violence. A broader understanding of interpersonal violence that incorporates both risk and protective factors may allow children to receive the assistance they need to live healthy lives in spite of exposure to family violence.
- Bonanno, G. A. (2004). Loss, trauma, and human resilience: Have we underestimated the human ability to thrive after extremely adverse events? American Psychologist, 59(1), 20-28.
- Cicchetti, D. (2004). An odyssey of discovery: Lessons learned through three decades of research on child maltreatment. American Psychologist, 59(8), 731-741.
- Hughes, H. H., Graham-Bermann, S. A., & Gruber, G. (2001). Resilience in children exposed to domestic violence. In S. A. Graham-Bermann & J. L. Edleson (Eds.), Domestic violence in the lives of children: The future of research, intervention, and social policy (pp. 67-90). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Masten, A. S. (2001). Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist, 56(3), 227-238.
- Rutter, M. (1985). Resilience in the face of adversity: Protective factors and resistance to psychiatric disorder. British Journal of Psychiatry, 147, 598-611.
- Sameroff, A. J., Seifer, R., & Bartko, W. T. (1997). Environmental perspectives on adaptation during childhood and adolescence. In S. S. Luthar, J. A. Burack, D. Cicchetti, & R. J. Weisz (Eds.), Developmental psychopathology: Perspectives on adjustment, risk, and disorder (chap. 22). New York: Cambridge University Press.
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