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Resiliency is a capacity that is closely linked to a child`s overall development - psychological, emotional and social. A child who shows resiliency at one age may not necessarily continue to be resilient at a later age. Resiliency depends upon a child successfully negotiating the challenges of each stage of his or her development. Each stage of a child`s development builds upon the last, with the result that the early developmental stages are particularly critical for the establishment of the foundations of resilient functioning. Many of the skills critical to the development of resiliency are acquired before the age of 11 (Grotberg, 1997).


Five stages of childhood development

One popular model of development that has been applied to resiliency is Erik Erikson`s psychosocial development model (Grotberg, 1997). According to Erikson, psychological development proceeds from birth through to old age in a series of developmental stages, each of which is partly dependent on successful completion of the prior stages, and each of which is also associated with a developmental `crisis`, a period of more or less acute stress or inner conflict as the person struggles to come to terms with the new developmental demand. Erikson`s model encompasses eight stages. However, the latter three stages occur in adulthood and are not considered here. Resiliency researcher Edith Grotberg has called the successful outcome of each of these five stages as the `five building blocks of resilience`, and believes that, by developing these five attributes, youth can become more resilient to depression. 

Although Erikson referred to these stages as occurring within specific time frames, children who have had difficulties at a particular stage can continue to develop these five `building blocks` at a later age if the right environmental supports are in place.

Stage 1: Trust (vs. Mistrust)

Birth to 18 months

Trust is established in infancy when a baby has the experience that comfort, food, and loving touch are reliably available when needed. This experience forms the foundation for a sense of trust that one can get what one needs emotionally and physically in life, and that others can be counted on for support. It also forms the basis for the sense of trust inoneself, trust that one can do what one needs to do in order to survive, develop satisfying relationships and achieve one`s goals. If trust is not established successfully, a person develops a distrustful attitude that can manifest as a withdrawal from emotional closeness, a tendency to try to control others, and a failure to develop one`s potential, due to the fear of failure (Grotberg, 1999).

Children and adolescents whose trust has been severely damaged can be difficult to engage with, as they tend not to show the reciprocity and warmth that form the basis of satisfying interaction. Their mistrust may manifest as apathy or outright hostility, which can cause others to give up trying to reach them. Yet the establishment of trust is the precondition for the success of any form of intervention. Developing such a relationship may require considerable persistence and patience (Vance & Sanchez, 1998).

Stage 2: Autonomy (vs. Shame)

Age 18 months - three years

Autonomy - the awareness of independence and the separateness of one`s willl from others - begins around the age of eighteen months to two years and continues to around age four. This is the time in which children become increasingly physically mobile and experiment with pitting their will against that of their parents. Children whose parents do not crush their child`s will or shame their child for their mistakes during this time generally emerge with a healthy sense of their own independence and a confidence in themselves which supports them in the face of adversity. On the other hand, children whose autonomy is stifled by over-protective or repressive parents may give up on being autonomous, feel ashamed of their mistakes and develop a doubt in their own abilities.

Autonomy continues to be fostered - or not - through children`s everyday interactions with adults as they grow older. Autonomy is fostered whenever adults encourage children to solve their own problems and persist in the face of initial failure, rather than stepping in with adult solutions. Also critical to the continued development of healthy autonomy is a culture of tolerance for making mistakes.Click here for more information about fostering autonomy.

Stage 3: Initiative (vs. Guilt)

Age three to six years

Initiative - or the capacity and willingness to take action - develops during the late pre-school to early school years, when children engage in much creative play and develop their imaginations. Socially, the child learns to co-operate with others, to lead as well as follow, and to manage peer interactions. If all goes well during this stage, the child will develop the capacity to respond with to situations in life with proactive and creative confidence. If the child fails to negotiate the challenges of this stage, he or she will tend to lack initiative, hang on the periphery of groups, and rely overly on adults. This can occur if adults are overly critical of the child`s efforts and projects, resulting in a sense of guilt and unworthiness. In the longer term, a lack of sufficiently developed initiative is related to passivity, lack of involvement and apathy.

Stage 4: Industry (vs. Inferiority)

Age six to thirteen years

Industry is the capacity to focus diligently on a task. During this stage, children are largely occupied with learning academic and social skills. There is a movement away from the freestyle play of the earlier stage towards activities with a productive outcome. The child learns that they can gain approval through the quality of the work that they produce. Unstructured, imaginative games gradually give way to rule-based, competitive games. Children are required to complete homework and to develop the capacity for sustained concentration and work. The child who successfully learns industry during this stage of development possesses important skills for resiliency. They will not only possess the academic and social competence necessary for success, but they will also have the self-discipline to persist with a difficult task despite the lack of immediate gratification. On the other hand, the child who struggles to master academic and social skills at this stage is likely to develop a sense of inferiority in relation to others.

The critical challenge for parents and teachers during this stage is ensuring that all students reach satisfactory levels of achievement. The capacity to work is only sustained by the expectation of success, which in turn is grounded in actual experiences of achievement. This then becomes the foundation for good self-esteem and self-efficacy. Research indicates that children who attend schools where achievement expectations are high, and there is an emphasis on academic accomplishment, are more resilient.

Stage 5: Identity (vs. Role Confusion)

Age 13 to 20 years

The development of identity during adolescence refers to the establishment of a coherent sense of self, in terms of one`s social, sexual and occupational role. Many of the challenges of adolescence stem from the need to begin to define who one is and will be in the adult world. Identity encompasses:

  • Personal identity. This is the sense of who one is and what one stands for as a person. This may include one`s political beliefs, values, and self-image: "I am a nerd / a sporty person / a social person / someone who loves animals / a practical person" and so on.
  • Sexual identity. This includes both developing a sense of `manhood` or `womanhood` as well as adoption of a sexual orientation.
  • Occupational identity. Although many adolescents (and young adults) are unclear about their ultimate occupational ambitions, adolescents are nonetheless required to make choices about schooling that will clearly limit the trajectory of their future career options.
  • Group identity. This is one`s sense of what social groups or collectives one belongs to, including one`s cultural identification, possibly class affiliation and so on.

Identity is the sum of one`s self concept. During adolescence and young adulthood, there is naturally a degree of uncertainty, confusion and fluctuation in this sense of self as a young person tries to find an identity that `fits`. There is also some latitude given to young people to experiment with different identities as they try to establish themselves as an adult.

If identity is not established during adolescence and early adulthood, the result is role confusion (or diffusion), which is characterised by lack of direction, avoidance of closeness with others, difficulty sustaining work, and sometimes `negative identity`: an identity defined by hostility or opposition to others (delinquency or criminality).

Adults can assist adolescents in the development of a secure identity by:

  • Offering positive, objective statements about how they see the adolescent. This means noticing how the young person behaves, what they are good at and so on, and offering these perceptions. Simple reflective statements such as: "You are obviously someone who cares about other people"; "You are a person who knows his mind" can help young people to develop anchors for their emerging sense of identity.
  • Offering opportunities for meaningful involvement. Adolescents who have opportunities to participate in their communities are more likely to develop a positive, pro-social identity than those who are alienated and feel they have nothing to offer or are not valued by their community.
  • Allowing latitude for experimentation, whilst imposing sensible boundaries.
  • Encouraging adolescents and youth to maintain ties with their families, cultural roots and other foundations of group identity. The destruction of ties with family and culture, such as has been experienced by Indigenous Australians, has a very damaging effect on a person`s ability to develop a healthy and strong identity.
  • Creating a culture of tolerance for difference, in which cultural and individual variations are accepted and welcomed.
  • Encouraging and promoting freedom of self-expression through creative outlets such as art, dance, music, writing etc.