Childhood Studies Risk and Resilience
Elizabeth K. Anthony
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0147


An impressive body of research on risk and resilience has evolved over several decades of interdisciplinary collaboration. Early studies investigating the course of psychopathology among infants and young children exposed to considerable stress (such as maternal mental illness or postnatal depression) helped shape our understanding of a concept that was later embraced by public health researchers. Other risks, such as poverty and abuse, separation from family, exposure to violence, natural disasters and other crises, and growing up in war-torn countries, have been studied for their effects on child development and well-being. These researchers, and the developing field of prevention science, were interested in developing interventions and programs to prevent risk for a range of maladaptive health and behavioral outcomes among young people. Shifts in the field reflecting an interest in the adaptive qualities of children exposed to considerable adversity emerged through studies of protective factors and the process and outcome of resilience. In the early 21st century, we know a great deal more about specific risk factors within a child (such as genetic markers) and chronic factors within her or his environment (such as poverty) that cause distress. We also know a great deal more about how many children navigate risk factors to demonstrate resilient adaptation. Researchers from diverse disciplines, including developmental psychopathology, neuroscience, social work, education, clinical psychology, public health, prevention science, and human and child development, have investigated various aspects of the concepts of risk and resilience among vulnerable children, youth, and adolescents. Methodologies used by researchers to study risk and resilience among children similarly represent diverse philosophical traditions and range from large cross-sectional or longitudinal studies to small in-depth ethnographic studies, although the majority of studies are quantitative. This article identifies major references and resources from the interdisciplinary study of risk and resilience in childhood studies.

General Overviews and Conceptual Advancements

Risk factors are commonly understood to be influences that increase the likelihood of harm, or that contribute to or maintain a problem condition (see Coie, et al. 1993, cited under Preventive Interventions). Defined by some researchers as attributes or characteristics that reduce the likelihood of a negative outcome (Benard 2004; Werner and Smith 2001, cited under Historical Works), protective factors are also understood to be individual or environmental resources that minimize risk effects (Fraser and Terzian 2005). Finally, resilience is typically defined as “patterns of positive adaptation in the context of significant risk or adversity” (Luthar 2003, p. 4). As reflected in the citations in this section, researchers disagree about the relationship between risk factors and protective factors, specifically the independence of protection in relationship to risk. The concept of resilience also garners some disagreement regarding resilience as a process or outcome and how resilience is defined and measured. Historical works such as Anthony and Cohler 1987 (cited under Historical Works) describe resilience as a relatively rare outcome, whereas more-recent work (Benard 2004, Masten 2001) shapes resilience as a natural process among many young people. This shift to understanding the underlying developmental processes of resilience that are determined by multiple levels of influence represented a major and critical contribution to the field and is described in Cicchetti 2010. There is currently general agreement among researchers that resilience can be defined as successful adaptation in the face of risk or adversity (see Egeland, et al. 1993 and Luthar 2003, as well as Werner and Smith 2001). Several important works—such as Luthar, et al. 2000 and Rutter 2000—reflect on the construct of resilience. Roosa 2000 discusses conceptual differentiation from other positive outcomes, such as positive development. Cicchetti 2010 describes resilience from a multilevel perspective in the context of complex risk exposure, such as child maltreatment.

  • Benard, Bonnie. Resiliency: What We Have Learned. San Francisco: WestEd, 2004.

    This introductory book describes resilience research in an accessible manner for those with limited knowledge. The focus on personal strengths and factors within the environment is practitioner friendly, as is Benard’s attention to the application of resilience research.

  • Cicchetti, Dante. “Resilience under Conditions of Extreme Stress: A Multilevel Perspective.” World Psychiatry 9.3 (2010): 145–154.

    DOI: 10.1002/j.2051-5545.2010.tb00297.x

    This is an exceptionally well-written article documenting the addition of neurobiological and molecular genetic factors into existing understandings of behavioral and psychosocial correlates of resilient development among maltreated children. It provides insights for new and seasoned researchers alike.

  • Egeland, Byron, Elizabeth Carlson, and L. Alan Sroufe. “Resilience as Process.” Development and Psychopathology 5.4 (1993): 517–528.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0954579400006131

    Using longitudinal data, the authors propose resilience as a capacity that develops over time. This is a relatively early study to look at transactional processes in the context of a person-environment perspective.

  • Fraser, Mark W., and Mary A. Terzian. “Risk and Resilience in Child Development: Principles and Strategies of Practice.” In Child Welfare for the 21st Century: A Handbook of Practices, Policies, and Programs. Edited by Gerald P. Mallon and Peg McCartt Hess, 55–71. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

    This chapter provides a brief and useful guide to basic definitions and conceptual understandings of risk and resilience in the context of child welfare. The chapter is a helpful introduction to the landscape of risk and resilience for students and researchers new to this area of study.

  • Luthar, Suniya S., ed. Resilience and Vulnerability: Adaptation in the Context of Childhood Adversities. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511615788

    This edited text provides an excellent summary of the major methodological and statistical issues in studies on risk and resilience. Commentaries in Part III of the text offer useful analysis of areas for future research, including neurobehavioral and genetic influences. This book is useful for graduate students and researchers alike.

  • Luthar, Suniya S., Dante Cicchetti, and Bronwyn Becker. “The Construct of Resilience: A Critical Evaluation and Guidelines for Future Work.” Child Development 71.3 (2000): 543–562.

    DOI: 10.1111/1467-8624.00164

    This article addresses a number of the major critiques on the construct of resilience and provides a thoughtful perspective on future research.

  • Masten, Ann S. “Ordinary Magic: Resilience Processes in Development.” American Psychologist 56.3 (2001): 227–238.

    DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.56.3.227

    One of the ongoing debates in studies on risk and resilience surrounds the remarkable or unusual nature of resilience. In this highly cited work, Masten challenges the “magical” nature of resilience as the outcome for a small minority, suggesting the normative nature of resilience that can and should be encouraged among all young people.

  • Roosa, Mark W. “Some Thoughts about Resilience versus Positive Development, Main Effects versus Interactions, and the Value of Resilience.” Child Development 71.3 (2000): 567–569.

    DOI: 10.1111/1467-8624.00166

    An excellent discussion of methodological and statistical issues associated with interaction effects central to the study of resilience. This article is best suited to advanced graduate students and researchers.

  • Rutter, Michael. “Resilience Reconsidered: Conceptual Considerations, Empirical Findings, and Policy Implications.” In Handbook of Early Childhood Intervention. 2d ed. Edited by Jack P. Shonkoff and Samuel J. Meisels, 651–681. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511529320

    This is an important book chapter documenting the major shifts in thinking among researchers about the concept of resilience and the implications for future study.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.