Victim Series 10 - Resiliency

June 24, 2015

Written by: Shawn C. Marsh, Ph.D.[1]

The experience of being victimized can have profound impacts on physiological, psychological and social development, but it certainly is not a guarantee one will experience long-term or even short-term negative outcomes. There can be substantial variance in how people respond to any given adverse event. The capacity for one to cope or even thrive in the face of adversity is called “resiliency.” Research suggests resiliency is a function of risk and protective factors across ecological domains (e.g., individual, family, school, community). There are several models for how risk and protection interact to support resilience, but in general, the fewer risk factors and the more protective factors present the better. So is resilience a stable characteristic – something one “has or has not” – or is it malleable? Research suggests it is a bit of both. Thus, as an important and powerful part of the healing community, judges and courts are well positioned to help identify resiliency factors within victims and work to implement strategies to reduce risk and increase protection.

Although reducing risk is an important part of encouraging resiliency, one should also be mindful that risk in-of-itself is largely unavoidable. In fact, research suggests some risk is actually necessary to introduce stress and set the stage to develop skills to handle adversity. We see in adolescence, for example, a period of development marked by an increase in risk taking. From an evolutionary perspective, this is a critical task occurring during a period of malleability that is conducive to acquiring the skills to survive and thrive independently in the adult world. It is when risk surpasses a “tipping point” that it becomes problematic -- particularly when the risk contributes to victimization that in turn introduces toxic stress or trauma. Ultimately, we can and should seek to reduce risk (e.g., substance abuse), but focusing solely on risk and attempting to eliminate all risk is neither a realistic nor entirely desirable goal.

Enter protective factors as a means to offset risk and nurture resiliency. Throughout this series on victims, and in the context of adversity or trauma, protective factors have been broadly categorized as factors that promote healing: safety, self-determination, and social connectedness. Within this framework exists a constellation of specific protective factors; some dynamic (e.g., parental monitoring) and others static (e.g., intelligence). Embracing and leveraging strengths (e.g., strong sense of spirituality), while seeking opportunities to introduce or enhance external supports (e.g., involvement in therapy), can promote resiliency (for more information on developmental assets, please visit the Search Institute). This focus on assets or strengths, in combination with risk reduction, is an important framework for judges and courts seeking to help victims further avoid or recover from adversity and trauma.

Our justice system, by design, is generally focused on deficits and risks. Much can be learned from the research on resiliency, and much also can be achieved by a dogged commitment to exploring and leveraging individual strengths and introducing protective factors. Judges are indeed uniquely positioned to facilitate this balance of risk management and protection enhancement in an effort to encourage resilience and healing in victims. Click here to watch a short video on resiliency by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

To learn more about victimization, adversity, trauma and approaches to healing, be sure to attend the NCJFCJ’s 78th Annual Conference, July 26-29, 2015 in Austin, Texas.

Click here to read previous entries in the NCJFCJ's Victim Series.

[1] Chief Program Officer for Juvenile Law at the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Points of view or opinions expressed are those of the author and do not represent the official position or policies of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.