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Promoting Resilience in Distressed Clients during Adverse Times Such as These!

By June Dressler, PhD, MA Counseling

The seismic shift of the COVID-19 pandemic has left in its wake devastating economic and emotional turmoil for unemployed and tenuously employed workers. It is imperative that career practitioners understand what resilience is, what it is not, and how to support client efforts to rebound from obstacles, upset, and adversity. This is the focus of our work, and to do it well we need to sharpen our tools to help others dig out from the rubble. The construct of resilience is such a tool, which has evolved over several waves of resilience research. The purpose of this article is to provide a brief history and critique of resilience research, identify factors and processes that promote resilience, and suggest a line of inquiry based on these research findings.

The first wave of resilience research identified protective factors that promoted resilience. Werner and Smith pioneered a longitudinal study that followed a cohort of 698 Kauai youth from birth to adulthood with a focus on positive adaptation. Researchers noted that one-third of the Kauai young adults in the high-risk category due to childhood adversity nonetheless grew into competent, caring young adults. They found characteristics of high risk individuals who displayed resilience included: positive temperaments, an internal locus of control, assuming responsibility, helping others, having at least one supportive relationship, and possessing religious affiliation and inner faith. Werner and Smith described resilience as an innate self-righting mechanism.

Project Competence researchers Masten and Garmezy organized protective factors into a triad of resiliency which included personality features such as self-esteem, supportive family cohesion with an absence of discord, and external supportive systems (Masten, 2007). Rutter (2013) found that protective factors and positive experiences are not necessarily the same thing. Protective factors are often unpleasant experiences that toughen an individual resulting in steeling effects that often remain latent until activated; whereas positive experiences may have no detectable effect on future stressors.

These observations suggest that two judgments must take place for resilience to occur: first a significant threat or adversity was experienced in the past or present and pose a risk, followed by the second judgement of a good or relatively good outcome.

The second wave of resilience identified protective processes that promoted resilience. Protective processes have been identified prior to and after adversity. Rutter found resilience promoters operating prior to adversity are situations allowing the individual to take responsibility and demonstrate autonomy, and/or cope with a stressful or challenging situation to learn from mistakes and exercise personal agency. Personal agency is demonstrated by effective planning, self-reflection, and taking action, which serve as protective processes for future adversity. Rutter described the goal is not to avoid adversity but rather to leverage hard-earned lessons from past hardship as protective buffers for future adversity, thus making the most of difficult key turning points. He underscored that protection resides not in the evasion of the risk but in successful engagement with it. Rutter also identified resilience promoters that operate after a stressful or traumatic experience. These can include external interventions or personal actions that can lead to new situations that both cut off the past and provide new experiences and opportunities. When these protective processes are functional, individual resilience is common and conversely there is increased risk when any one or a combination of these systems is destroyed or damaged (Masten, 2007).

Walsh (2003) focused on key protective processes to promote resilience informed by a family systems and ecological perspective that reside in belief systems, familial organizational patterns, and clear communication processes. Similar to Rutter, Walsh asserted that key processes learned from previous adversity serve as protective buffers useful for future transitions.

The third wave of research on resilience focused on prevention, intervention, and policy driven by an urgency to care for at-risk populations. The emerging fourth wave of work is characterized by a focus on multilevel analysis and the dynamics of adaptation and change (Masten, 2007).

In critiquing the rapidly expanding interest in the promotion of resilience, Rutter warned against the danger of viewing resilience as a millennium Rorschach where the viewer sees what they want to see. Richardson (2002) developed a metatheory of resilience in contrast to Rutter’s insistence that resilience does not constitute a theory nor should it be equated to positive psychology since resilience involves negative experiences albeit with potential steeling effects. Resilience has been criticized as being too large and unwieldy as a single construct and its overuse as a catch all for recovery, wellness, change, and adaptation. Several early researchers express alarm that resilience now smacks of faddism in need of returning to its sound scientific moorings.

Based on Rutter’s resilience promoters, Masten’s age appropriate competencies, and key processes in family systems advocated by Walsh—today’s career practitioner have solid handrails to form a credible line of inquiry to promote resiliency. The questions below form a line of inquiry based on resilience research findings, is offered as a tool for practitioners to conceptualize their client’s specific case and determine appropriate interventions:

  • How can social and economic resources be more fully utilized?
  • How can negative chain reactions be reduced, especially when they can’t be removed?
  • How can self-efficacy be enhanced rather than diminished during this difficulty?
  • How might it be beneficial to replace rigidity with flexibility?
  • Does the client express future motivation or dwell on past rumination?
  • How is autonomy demonstrated during this difficulty?
  • How can their outlook move towards a more positive hopefulness?
  • Do they share a spirituality or faith tradition to draw upon?
  • Other research based questions to be discussed . . .

At the upcoming workshop “Forming a Line of Inquiry: Credible Handrails to Promote Career Resilience” on May 20th @ noon, June Dressler will continue to discuss how resilience research can inform our work with distressed clients.


Masten, A. S. (2007). Resilience in developing systems: Progress and promise as the fourth wave rises. Development and Psychopathology, 19(03), 921–930.

Richardson, G. E. (2002). The metatheory of resilience and resiliency. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(3), 307–321.Rickwood, R. R., Roberts, J., Batten, S., Marshall, A., & Massie, K. (2004). Empowering high-risk clients to attain a better quality of life: A career resiliency framework. Journal of Employment Counseling, 41(3), 98–104.

Rutter, M. (2013). Annual research review: Resilience - clinical implications. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 54(4), 474–487.

Walsh, F. (2003). Family resilience: A framework for clinical practice. Family Process, 42(1), 1.

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