Family Resilience

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How the concept of resilience can inform our understanding of families as complex systems

When working with individuals who have experienced trauma, who are undergoing challenges with their mental health, or who have a substance use disorder (SUD), the role of the family in treatment and recovery is integral. As therapists, coaches, and healthcare professionals, it is our responsibility to stay informed about the complex and nuanced ways in which family structures form, are challenged, and influence the behaviors and feelings of the individual. This means keeping abreast of recent research developments in this field.

One of the more interesting concepts I have come across recently in the realm of family systems theory is family resilience. Deriving from the concept of resilience more broadly and applying multilevel systems theory to the structure of the family, the notion of a family as resilient – or of resilience being a crucial property of the family system – is extremely useful in the field of trauma research and treatment.

Here I will undertake a brief overview of this fascinating development in the field and offer some insight into how this concept might be used in the treatment of individuals and families who are fighting through a mental health condition or substance abuse disorder.

Resilience and Trauma

Resilience is a well-known concept within the field of treatment and recovery. Over the past two decades, various researchers have been exploring what it means to be resilient and have resilience, resulting in some basic core principles which define resilience in the context of individual mental wellbeing. Generally, resilience is defined as a capacity for withstanding and being able to recover from the disruptive challenges of life. [1] Our ability to cope with traumatic experiences, to internalize and process difficult life events, and to recognize and work on our own trauma all come from our personal resilience.

In recent years, resilience has been a key point of interest for many researchers hoping to unlock the relationship among trauma, the brain, the body, and the self. Intriguingly, evidence has begun to suggest that there are certain genetic and neural mechanisms that govern resilience in the body and that may determine how a person is predisposed to coping with challenging or traumatic experiences. In particular, adaptive changes in several genealogically neural circuits significantly shape how we cope with stress, which is key to our ability to become resilient. [2]

Of course, there is more to the processes of resilience than the mere presence of a specific gene, but being aware of the biological roots of resilience helps inform our understanding of how it functions psychosocially. For example, Drs. Ann Masten and Dante Cicchetti define resilience as “the potential or manifested capacity of an individual to adapt successfully through multiple processes to experiences that threaten his or her function, survival, or development.” [3] 

Key in this definition is the use of the term “multiple processes.” Research has revealed that, whether it be in reaction to a cancer diagnosis, emotional abuse, or a life-threatening natural disaster, resilience is not an individual trait but rather a developed skill that is grounded in social connection and community. This is where the concept of family resilience emerges.

Family Resilience

According to Dr. Froma Walsh, co-director and co-founder of the Chicago Center for Family Health, by applying a family systems framework to the concept of resilience, we can begin to understand how resilience springs from and lives in a broad network of individuals and groups. No one can hope to be resilient without the support of other people around them: our ability to manage our trauma resides in the relationships we have with our family members. [4]

Similarly, taking a resilience-oriented approach to understanding the workings of families helps us identify the members of a family who can and do serve to forward the positive development of at-risk young people outside of the traditional unit. That is, looking at where resilience resides in a family system helps us see that, even in troubled families, positive contributions to a young person’s ability to cope with the difficult circumstances of their lives can come from many different members of that family: grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, or even godparents and close family friends. The notion of family resilience also provides a window into how simply being a part of a family system can help structure coping mechanisms and foster the ability to deal with and recover from traumatic experiences.

As Walsh writes, “resilience entails more than coping, managing stressful conditions, shouldering a burden, or surviving an ordeal. It involves the potential for personal and relational transformation and positive growth that can be forged out of adversity… A family resilience perspective is grounded in a conviction that all families have the potential to build resilience in dealing with their challenges.”

Key Processes in Family Resilience 

Walsh outlines nine key processes in a family resilience framework: making meaning; having a positive outlook; transcendence and spirituality; flexibility; connectedness; social and economic resources; clarity; emotional sharing; and collaborative problem solving. When engaging with family resilience as a therapist, coach, or other healthcare professional working in treatment and recovery, these are very useful during sessions with individuals who are struggling to understand where they might find the resources required for resilience. 

Often, when we talk about family systems in relation to mental health and substance abuse, we look for root causes, or places to assign blame. It is easy, for example, to use a family systems model to identify how a parent is routinely blocking recovery. The notion of family resilience, however, encourages us to ask people who are struggling with a mental health condition or a substance use disorder to examine their family system closely in order to find points of strength and collaborative capability within it. 

This is particularly true of young people who face these challenges. If we encourage children and teenagers to place too much blame on the family system, they will fail to find the resilience that is grounded within the connections among family members. While it is important to establish where there are negative influences in relation to the individual, it is equally – if not more – important to identify where family members can be sources of strength, connectedness, and emotional support and to recognize how those bonds ultimately make up the fabric of resilience to trauma.

Sources

[1] Seiler, A. and Jenewein, J. (2019) Resilience in Cancer Patients. Frontiers in Psychiatry. 10:2018. Apr 5. https://doi.org/10.3389%2Ffpsyt.2019.00208

[2] Feder, A. et al. (2009) Psychobiology and molecular genetics of resilience. Nat Rev Neurosci. 10(6); 446-457. June. 10.1038/nrn2649

[3] Masten, A. and Cicchetti, D. (2016) Chapter 6: Resilience in Development: Progress and Transformation. Developmental Psychopathology, Volume Four. Risk, Resilience, and Intervention. 10 February. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119125556.devpsy406

[4] Walsh, F. (2021) Family Resilience: A Dynamic Systemic Framework. Multisystemic Resilience: Adaptation and Transformation in Contexts of Change, ed. Michal Ungar. Oxford Scholarship Online. DOI:10.1093/oso/9780190095888.003.0015

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