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Resilience Theory in Psychology (Definition & Characteristics)

Resilience theory is the conceptual framework for understanding how some individuals can bounce back in life after experiencing an adverse situation in a strength-focused approach​1​.

What Is Resilience

Natural disasters, crime, war, accident, and abuse are unfortunate but sometimes unavoidable parts of life. Psychologists, psychiatrists and pediatricians have long been fascinated by the striking fact that in the face of adversity, some children come out relatively unscathed while others crumble.

Contrary to popular beliefs, resilience is not a personality trait, but a dynamic process, or a dynamic system to adapt successfully to threats and adversities in life​2​.

boy jumps on bed - resilience theory

Who Developed Resilience Theory

Resilience Theory is a collective resilience model contributed by many researchers. Notable contributors are Norman Garmezy, who initiated the Project Competence Longitudinal Study (PCLS)​3​, and Masten, Tellegen from University of Minnesota.

The roots of resilience studies can be traced back to half a century ago when psychologists studied the outcomes of children who were at high risk for psychopathology.

Among these children, a subgroup of them did not develop any psychopathological disorder and grew up with surprisingly healthy patterns.

In the past, psychology researchers often focused on identifying risk factors and vulnerabilities that could contribute to poor outcomes in children​4​.

This deficit-focused approach in developmental research was replaced by a strength-focused approach when resilience researchers started looking into the positive variables that contributed to good outcomes in at-risk children.

The Resilience Theory was a paradigm shift that explains what and how these promotive factors work to help children overcome the negative impacts of risk exposure​5,6​.

boy bury his head feeling sad, as part of the resiliency theory

Resilience Theory Characteristics

Unlike most other theories, resilience theory is not a set of determined hypotheses or principles.

Rather, it is a framework that keeps evolving over the years as researchers learn more through studies and analyses.

In fact, there have been four waves of resilience research that have continuously refined and redefined resilience theory​7​.

Among the many different models of resilience theory, several common characteristics have emerged and are agreed upon by most resilience theorists.

1. Static Traits vs Dynamic Process

In the early days of resilience research, psychologists focused on identifying the personality traits responsible for the positive outcomes in that subset of children.

The assumption was that resilience was created by some static internal quality of an individual.

Over time, researchers realized that resilience is more than just personality traits. Instead, resilience is the capacity of a dynamic process adapting successfully to disturbances that threaten a child’s function and development​8​.

mother consoles sad boy, asking what is resilience theory

2. Extraordinary Asset vs Ordinary Resources

Early resilience researchers often described children who showed resilient adaptation as invulnerable or invincible as if only certain extraordinary people were able to overcome extremely harsh conditions.

Researchers later found that resilience was actually quite common​9​ in human development when the operation of basic adaptation systems was protected and in good working order. If those systems were impaired during child development, then the risk for developmental problems became much higher.

Resilience expert, Ann S. Masten, called this the Ordinary Magic​10​ because it’s the ordinary resource, not extraordinary quality, that protects us.

Three types of protective factors are found to protect the adaptation systems: individual, family and community.

Although individual assets such as temperament, intelligence and genders do contribute to resilience, factors that reside outside of us often play a significant role in determining whether a person can adapt positively or not.

These are ordinary resources one can draw from family and community, such as parental support, adult mentors, close community and safe neighborhood.

3. Fixed vs Variable

Another new concept about resilience is that it can potentially fluctuate over time and across different domains.

Adaptation is not a fixed system; rather, it is a developmental progression with new strengths and vulnerabilities coming from different life events over time.

Resilience is also not an across-the-board phenomenon.

A child can adapt well in one domain but struggle in another.

mom hugs girl by the window

4. Resilience Theory vs Resiliency Theory

Because resilience is a dynamic process and most protective factors come from outside of an individual, many researchers now refer to it as resilience or resilient adaptation, rather than resiliency or resilient child because the latter implies it is only a quality of the individual.

Father touches a boy's knee, sitting next to a fallen scooter

Final Thoughts On Resilience Theory

Resilience is a simple concept — bouncing back after adversity. But defining resilience, as well as analyzing and understanding it, is a complex subject in psychology. Many resilience models have been developed and the ongoing neuroscience studies have contributed to the understanding.

Despite the research complexity, one thing is obvious and simple for parents: to build resilience, we have to do our part to connect with our children and provide good parenting.


  1. 1.
    MASTEN AS, OBRADOVIC J. Competence and Resilience in Development. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Published online December 1, 2006:13-27. doi:10.1196/annals.1376.003
  2. 2.
    Southwick SM, Bonanno GA, Masten AS, Panter-Brick C, Yehuda R. Resilience definitions, theory, and challenges: interdisciplinary perspectives. European Journal of Psychotraumatology. Published online October 2014:25338. doi:10.3402/ejpt.v5.25338
  3. 3.
    Masten AS, Tellegen A. Resilience in developmental psychopathology: Contributions of the Project Competence Longitudinal Study. Dev Psychopathol. Published online April 17, 2012:345-361. doi:10.1017/s095457941200003x
  4. 4.
    Zimmerman MA. Resiliency Theory. Health Educ Behav. Published online July 17, 2013:381-383. doi:10.1177/1090198113493782
  5. 5.
    Fergus S, Zimmerman MA. ADOLESCENT RESILIENCE: A Framework for Understanding Healthy Development in the Face of Risk. Annu Rev Public Health. Published online April 21, 2005:399-419. doi:10.1146/annurev.publhealth.26.021304.144357
  6. 6.
    Fraser MW, Galinsky MJ, Richman JM. Risk, protection, and resilience: Toward a conceptual framework for social work practice. Social Work Research. Published online September 1, 1999:131-143. doi:10.1093/swr/23.3.131
  7. 7.
    Wright MO, Masten AS, Narayan AJ. Resilience Processes in Development: Four Waves of Research on Positive Adaptation in the Context of Adversity. In: Handbook of Resilience in Children. Springer US; 2012:15-37. doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-3661-4_2
  8. 8.
    Masten AS. Global Perspectives on Resilience in Children and Youth. Child Dev. Published online December 16, 2013:6-20. doi:10.1111/cdev.12205
  9. 9.
    Bonanno GA. Loss, Trauma, and Human Resilience: Have We Underestimated the Human Capacity to Thrive After Extremely Aversive Events? American Psychologist. Published online 2004:20-28. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.59.1.20
  10. 10.
    Masten AS. Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist. Published online 2001:227-238. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.56.3.227

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is an author, Founder, and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University). Learn more


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