Families under Stress: What Makes Them Resilient

Article excerpt

This article is based on the 1997American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences Commemorative Lecture delivered by Hamilton I. McCubbin on June 22, 1997, in Washington, D.C.

Abstract: Research on resilience in families has shed light on family protective factors and family recovery factors that appear to play a critical role in promoting the family's ability to maintain its established patterns of functioning after being challenged by risk factors and in fostering the family's ability to recover or bounce back quickly from misfortune and family crises. The nature of family risk factors, the central concepts of family resilience, and research findings demonstrating the variability in family protective and family recovery factors are presented and discussed.

It is no accident that family scholarship devoted to the study of families under stress would emerge and find support under the aegis of the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences (AAFCS). This national organization has encouraged social and behavioral scientists to advance our understanding of family life, its trials and tribulations, and all that is good about it. The family system, its durability, and its well-being have been cornerstone elements in the foundation of AAFCS and its mission combined with the long and rich history of continuous commitment to the family associated with the name American Association of Home Economics. Our current focus on resilience in families emerges out of this same deep and meaningful history.

The definition of resilience in the Random House Webster's Dictionary (1993) may be paraphrased to apply to the family system as: 1. The property of the family system that enables it to maintain its established patterns of functioning after being challenged and confronted by risk factors: elasticity and 2. The family's ability to recover quickly from a mis fortune, trauma, or transitional event causing or calling for changes in the family's patterns of functioning: buoyancy. How is the study of family resilience related to studies on resilience in children at risk? In what ways have child resilience studies contributed to the study of resiliency in family systems? How is resilience research connected to family stress research?

Assuming that resilience research on families-the discovery of factors determining the family elasticity and factors determining family buoyancy-has much to offer family life educators, family scientists, and behavioral family scientists in working with families, what have we learned that will shed light on the unique contributions this line of study can offer family scholars?

In this article, the evolution of family resilience research will be highlighted. In addition, lessons learned to date from family resilience research will be underscored for the purpose of advancing research in this area

Context for Family Resiliency Research: Family Systems at Risk

The 21st century will be characterized as the era of family transformation and stress. Diverse family forms such as single-parent households, blended family units, interracial marriages, and what demographers refer to as the new "stepfamily systems" created by cohabitation already have changed the family landscape. When combined with the emergence of intergenerational family responsibilities, care of the chronically ill and disabled, and other pressures on the family system, it is reasonable to assume society expects the family system to be competent and resilient in the face of these challenges. A brief synopsis of the results of national surveys on the American family reveals the major trends shaping the family profile (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 1996; Bumpass & Sweet, 1989; Dart, 1997; Hochschild, 1997; Rawlings & Saluter, 1995):

In 1994 about 85% (versus 90% in 1970) of the 68.5 million family households were maintained by Caucasian householders; 12% (versus 9% in 1970) by African American householders; 3% (versus 1% in 1970) by other races primarily Asians and Pacific Islanders; and 9% (versus 4% in 1970) by Hispanic householders. …