Children who grow up in troubled families often develop skills that help them cope with the adversity in their environment and grow emotionally stronger in the process. Wolin and Wolin refers to this ability to “spring back” as resiliency. They began researching resiliency in 1989, while they were interviewing adults who had grown up in families with parents suffering from chemical dependency, co-occurring disorders, and other family issues. To their surprise, none of their subjects exhibited characteristics typically associated with adult children of troubled families: fear of abandonment, a sense of isolation, co-dependency, and substance abuse. With this discovery, Wolin and Wolin began to focus their research efforts on how these subjects had become resilient.
Resiliency isn't a new concept. In 1955, Werner and Smith began a study that followed nearly 700 children born on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. All their subjects had come from families dealing with issues that included chemical dependency, mental illness, and economic difficulties. Thirty-four years later, Werner wrote:
Risk factors and stressful environments do not inevitably lead to poor adaptation. It seems clear that, at each stage in an individual’s development from birth to maturity, there is a shifting balance between stressful events that heighten vulnerability and protective factors that enhance resilience. (Werner, 1989.)
In 1978, Bleuler, who spent thirty years studying schizophrenics and their families, wrote:
It is surprising to note that their [children of schizophrenics] spirit is not broken, even of children who have suffered severe adversity for many years. In studying a number of the family histories, one is even left with the impression that pain and suffering has a steeling – a hardening – effect on the personalities of some children. (Bleuler, 1978.)
Kagan stated that children should not be viewed as passive objects, but rather be considered active participants in their emotional lives. He goes on to propose that a child’s understanding of what occurs to him or her is more important than what actually happens. He wrote:
The effect of an emotionally significant experience – like a father’s prolonged absence or a bitter divorce – will depend on how the child interprets these events… Rarely will there be a fixed consequence of any single event – no matter how traumatic – or special set of family conditions. (Kagan, 1984.)
Felsman and Vaillant studied seventy-five inner-city American males, all from families that were impacted by chemical dependency, economically disadvantaged, or included a parent with mental illness. They wrote:
Our preliminary indications are that the successful men in our high-risk group are…not free from their difficult early memories. We would speculate that it is their style of remember and feeling that is important… Most do have access to their pasts and are able to bear that pain and sorrow, and in so doing, to draw upon it as a source of strength… [This ability] seems to inform that generative quality in the way they live. (Felsman & Vaillant, 1987.)
The Seven Resiliencies
According to Wolin and Wolin, resilient individuals exhibit specific behaviors, or competencies. They classified these competencies into what they call the Seven Resiliencies: insight, independence, relationships, initiative, creativity, humor, and morality. Each competency has three stages, which develop progressively: the childhood stage, the adolescent stage, and the adult stage. In children, competencies appear as unformed, non-goal oriented, intuitive behavior. In adolescents, these behaviors sharpen and become deliberate. In adults, the behaviors broaden and deepen, becoming a fully integrated part of the individual.
Insight is “the mental habit of asking searching questions and giving honest answers.” (Wolin & Wolin, 1993.) According to Wolin and Wolin, developing insight is an essential foundation for the other competencies, because it allows the individual to think objectively about her circumstance. Sensing, the initial stage of insight, occurs with a resilient child’s realization that her family is different than most, accompanied by an awareness of the antecedents for problems. In the next stage, knowing, a resilient teen develops awareness of the family’s underlying issues. Understanding, the adult stage, involves re-examining childhood memories, as well as developing practical strategies for dealing with a troubled past.
Independence is the purposeful creation of both physical and emotional space between a resilient individual and the troubled family. The first stage of independence is straying. This happens when a resilient child starts to seek physical distance from his troubled family, perhaps by playing in unused corners of the house, spending time at neighbors, or going on secret adventures. Disengaging is the second stage of independence, and begins when a resilient teen starts to stray farther. Some examples of this include getting a job, participating in after-school activities, and spending time at the homes of friends and relatives. During this stage, a resilient teen will also begin to disengage emotionally. In the final stage, separating, a resilient adult establishes strategies to reduce and control interactions with his family, such as moving a significant distance, or limiting contact to phone calls or letters.
Relationships are “connections with other people based on sharing, mutual respect, and openness.” (Wolin & Desetta, 2000.) Connecting is the first stage. A resilient child enters this stage by making tentative steps to engage with non-family members, most frequently an adult neighbor or teacher. A resilient teen moves on to recruiting, the second stage, by actively applying the skills developed in the connecting stage to establish a meaningful relationship with an adult who can serve as a substitute parent. Resilient adults enter the final stage, attaching, by establishing relationships with partners from healthy families, and consciously choosing to not repeat past patterns.
Initiative is a determination to prevail over one’s troubled past experiences or present environment. The first stage is exploring. In this stage, through “conducting trial-and-error experiments that often succeed, resilient children find tangible rewards and achieve a sense of effectiveness.” (Wolin & Wolin, 1993.) In the second stage, working, resilient teens move from random experimentation to participating in focused, goal-oriented activities such as school, community service, and clubs. Having moved to the final stage, generating, a resilient adult exhibits leadership, strong practical skills, and an enthusiasm for planning.
• Creativity and Humor
Creativity and humor are closely related competencies. Both use imagination to relieve troubling emotions and environmental chaos. These two resiliencies also share the first two stages. Playing—the first stage for both—includes all the imaginative activities in which a resilient child engages to escape from real life difficulties. When a resilient adolescent moves to shaping—the second stage for both—playing evolves into the tentative creation of art. In the final stage of creativity, composing, a resilient adult engages in more skilled pursuits of the arts, possibly at a professional or semi-professional level. However, resilient adults are more likely to move into the final stage of humor, which is laughing. At this stage, having developed an awareness of a larger context, a resilient adult discovers the absurdity in situations that seem sad, embarrassing, or stressful.
Morality, the final competency, is doing the right thing even when difficult, and striving to see the strength possible in human nature despite personal adversity. A resilient child enters the first stage of morality, judging, by distinguishing between right and wrong, even as it relates to her own family. A resilient adolescent moves to the second stage, valuing, by developing an understanding of concepts such as decency, compassion, and honesty. In this stage, resilient teens often attempt to apply this growing understanding at home and in the world. In the final stage, serving, a resilient adult is strongly committed to doing what’s right at home and work, and is frequently involved in community service and political causes.
My Adaptations of the Wolin Model
In my own resiliency-oriented work with substance abusing teens, I’ve adapted the Wolin Model in three ways. First, I consider humor a type of creativity. Since I work exclusively with teens and the Wolins define the child and adolescent stages of these competencies as the same, this seems appropriate. Also, humor can serve as an example of ways to be creative beyond the arts, inviting the exploration of of creativity as an approach and not an act.
The second way I’ve adapted the Wolin Model is by referring to the final competency as integrity, not morality. In my experience, the word morality can be highly charged for many people. (As you'll read below, reframing is an important concept in resiliency-work, and I'm well aware of the irony of me avoiding this particular reframing challenge. However, I believe that integrity is an equally valid name for this competency, and thus would rather avoid this clinical roadblock than spend precious treatment time working through it.)
The third way I’ve adapted the Wolin Model is by linking independence and relationships in the new competency of interdependence. I believe adding this competency is especially important with the population I work with because it reinforces key recovery concepts such as needing sober supports, working on family systems challenges, addressing peer group issues, and establishing appropriate boundaries.
Resiliency as a Strengths-Based Practice
Wolin and Wolin stated, “The most important part of a strength-based approach is believing that youth in trouble actually have strengths and can act on them” (Project Resilience, 2004). For youth who grow up in families impacted by chemical dependency or other problems—which is true for the vast majority of the clients I work with—some or all of the competencies often develop naturally. Helping clients identify, explore, and develop their natural competencies should be a part of any treatment strategy.
All youth have strengths or talents, but not all naturally develop resilience. When this is the case, the Wolin Model can provide an effective foundation for fostering resiliency. Wolin and Wolin have identified three closely related steps for doing this. The first step is reframing, or “viewing an old story from a new perspective.” (Wolin, Desetta & Hefner, 2000.) Derived from traditional family therapy practices and cognitive-behavioral theory, reframing focuses on the subjective nature of personal stories to uncover alternative, positive themes that will allow an individual to transform his thinking from that of a damaged victim to that of a survivor with strengths forged from adversity.
The second step identified by Wolin and Wolin is the assumption that everyone who grows up in a troubled family has some degree of natural resilience, even if an individual does not presently exhibit well-developed strengths in all, or even most, of the resiliency categories.
The final core concept is survivor’s pride, which Wolin and Wolin defined as “the well-deserved feeling of accomplishment that results from persisting in the face of hardship or adversity.” (Wolin & Wolin, 2004.) A mixture of pain and empowerment, survivor’s pride can be a powerful motivator, but often remains unacknowledged.
It seems to me that experiential learning methodologies inherently reinforce insight, independence, relationships, interdependence, initiative, creativity, and integrity. In other words, if you’re using experiential learning, you’re fostering resiliency. I suggest, though, that by becoming more intentional about integrating resiliency, we can increase the effectiveness of experiential learning to foster resilience in our clients.
One way to do this is by selecting activities that provide increased opportunities for the practice of the competencies, and then frame the activities to emphasize this. An example is the activity Pressure Pads. In this activity, participants must get from the Starting Line to the Finish Line without touching the ground. To do so, they're given carpet squares, polyspots, or something similar—generally fewer spots than total number of participants.
For me, Pressure Pads is an excellent metaphor for recovery: the task is harder than it initially seems, you start with limited resources, you'll only be successful if you have help from others, many people want to give up along the way. Several of these ideas easily connect to the competencies and the three Core Concepts, including the need for relationships and interdependence, creative problem solving, and reframing what initially might seem impossible. In addition, it is extremely easy to cheat during Pressure Pads, which provides rich opportunities for exploring integrity.
So much to talk about! In fact, it seems to me that when you integrate resiliency-work into any clinical application of experiential learning, you have the opportunityl to exponentially increase the outcome potentials. How can you possibly pass that up?
Here are a few other ideas to assist in being more intentional about integrating resiliency into experiential activities:
• Teach clients the basic concepts and vocabulary of resiliency.
• Use the basic concepts and vocabulary of resiliency when framing, doing, and processing activities.
• Help clients identify and develop competencies they already possess.
• Challenge clients to practice competencies they do not yet possess.
• Connect the competencies practiced during experiential activities to real world situations.
As we’ve seen, the Wolin Model is a method to understand strengths, identify weaknesses, and re-conceptualize a family past troubled by chemical dependency or other dysfunction. This model can also be taught to individuals who do not exhibit natural competencies and experiential learning provides an excellent fit for this. While the Wolin Model cannot change a troubled past, it can provide a source of personal pride and renewed strength to help assure a healthier future.
Project Resilience. (1999). http://www.projectresilience.com.
Wolin, S. & Desetta, A. (2000). The Struggle to Be Strong. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.
Wolin, S., Desetta, A. & Hefner, K. (2000). The Leader’s Guide to the Struggle to Be Strong. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.
Wolin, S.J. & Wolin, S. (1993). The Resilient Self. New York: Villard.