Resilience: Why are some children resilient and others are not? (Part 1)

This week’s blog continues to focus on influential child psychiatrist Michael Rutter –  this time examining his work on resilience. Today I will attempt to define ’resilience’ before exploring some of the underlying mechanism that give rise to it. Next week we will consider how resilience might be developed, especially in young people in OoHC and YJ settings.

Defining Resilience

Rutter defines resilience as an interactive phenomenon that is inferred from findings indicating that some individuals have relatively good outcomes despite having experienced serious adversity. The research question is: what are the attributes or situations of people who suffer adversity but still experience positive outcomes?

The ‘Inoculation Model’ or the ‘Steeling Effect’

‘Inoculation model’ is borrowed from medical science and underpins the rationale for immunisation. Immunisations, also referred to as vaccines, work by stimulating the body’s defence mechanisms against infection.  However, there are some studies that show that this immunisation or ‘steeling effect’ works in the social realm as well as the medical one. For example, children who experienced brief happy separations from their parents (such as sleepovers or staying with relatives) were able to cope with the more complicated, multiple stresses of hospital admissions. In animal studies, research suggests that adverse effects result from uncontrollable but not controllable, stress experiences. Thus, Rutter states:

Resilience may be fostered by exposure to manageable challenges or small doses of a stress experience, rather than by avoidance of the environmental hazard. The promotion of competence implies that outcomes are determined by a balance between risk and protective factors, but resilience findings show the very important finding that some risk factors may actually be quite ‘steeling’ or strengthening if they occur in a way and at a time when the individual can cope successfully.

The inoculation or steeling effect makes intuitive sense. But what are the psychological processes that underpin resilience? First, we must discuss the role of genetics.

Gene-Environment Interactions (GxE)


The role of genetics in determining human behaviour is a controversial issue. Rutter is a long-time exponent of the so-called GxE hypothesis – an example of which is the so-called ‘warrior gene’ (technically the MAOA gene) hypothesis. Children who have the MAOA gene are more likely to exhibit anti-social behaviour, but only when coupled with harsh parenting. In this case, the harsh parenting is the environmental effect. Children who have the MAOA gene but do NOT experience harsh parenting, are not at increased risk of anti-social behaviour. Thus, the genetic effects are mediated by the environmental context.

Rutter argues that it is likely that there are genetic effects associated with resilience, but the exact mediating mechanism (i.e. harsh parenting in the MAOA example) are yet to be determined.

Psychological Factors

One  psychological factor in the development of resilience is the capacity for self reflection. Rutter states:

A style of self-reflection to assess what worked or did not work for them and a sense of agency or determination to deal with challenges and self-confidence in being able to do so successfully.

In this context, planning is not a formal skill but a propensity to plan all of life’s decisions.

A study of institutionally-reared girls showed that they tended to lack a sense of control over what happened to them and, in addition, lacked both planning and a sense of agency. However, the study demonstrated that outcomes were significantly better for those that did possess these skills.

Self Control

A well-known longitudinal study (called the Dunedin Study) showed that poor self-control was associated with a wide range of physical, psychological and social outcomes. Whilst the study did not include interventions to improve self-control, it was clear that  improvements in self-control were associated with better outcomes.

Knifing Off from the Past and Opening Up Opportunities in the Future

‘Knifing off’ refers to situations where an external event changes a person’s life trajectory and either removes risk factors or increases their capacity to deal with adversity. For example, American GI’s returning from World War 2 were offered places in colleges or universities under the GI Bill. Those GI’s who came from the slums and were at risk of delinquency could now ‘knife off’ their past because of the opportunity to go to college. This in turn gave them employment options other than a ‘life of crime’. Rutter argues that military training by itself (i.e. without going to college) was also a ‘knifing off’ point.

Likewise, marriage can be considered a ‘knifing off’ point. A longitudinal study into juvenile offenders showed that a successful marriage cut ‘slum kids’ off from their past. Marriage worked in two ways: firstly, the requirement to provide for a family resulted in a change in behaviour and secondly, the marriage provide them with a supportive partner (see social relationships below).

Social Relationships

Another study observed that maternal warmth, sibling warmth and a positive atmosphere in the family, as assessed between the ages of 5 and 10 years, were significantly protective against the effects of bullying and emotional and behavioural disturbance at 10-12 years.

Yet another study looked at the impact of maternal warmth on identical twins. Remember that identical twins have (for all intents and purposes) exactly the same genes. This study demonstrated that twins that received more maternal warmth had fewer behavioural problems.

Next week we will look at how we might increase resilience in children and young people.


Rutter, M. (2013). “Annual Research Review: Resilience–clinical implications.” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 54(4): 474-487.

About graemembaird

I am a psychologist with a special interest in improving the outcomes of families, children and young people in the Out of Home Care and Juvenile Justice systems.
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