Human development entails a complex process characterized by multidimensional, multi-determined, multi-directional, and other life-long processes. Majority of these factors influencing human development experience both continuous and change qualitative and quantitative aspects of functioning and behavior. Similarly, the current environment plays a key role in influencing the process of human development and factors such as mental illness, minority status, and social upbringing are examples of such factors (Sameroff 1998). Worse still, human development process is impinged when several factors act on a single infant. Majority of research has been undertaken to make individuals understand the factors that hinder the development of children. Findings from such research initiatives have identified a variety of family and child factors that might be responsible for increasing the risk of emotional abuse, neglect, or even contributing to poor outcomes. Coupled with these factors are the myriad ways with which an experience with a form of abuse can increase the vulnerability of these individuals to register negative or poor outcomes (Bowes, and Grace, 2009).
Nonetheless, a considerable portion has been identified with respect to the degree with which experience with emotional abuse, neglect, or psychological maltreatment can be used to predict future psychological functioning (Iwaniec, Larkin, and Higgins, 2005). This includes those factors that determine resilience and risk among children or parents that have experienced past cases of emotional abuse. Examples of early predisposing factors include formative care giving experiences that eventually precipitated into other factors such as the magnitude, occurrence, and longevity of the abuse. Other inherent factors include behavioral and coping strategies, self-esteem, and accessibility of supportive relationships (Bowes, and Grace, 2009). To understand the principal factors that are critical in enhancing the resiliency of the affected children or families, it is necessary to focus on understanding vulnerabilities and protective factors that pertain to each emotionally abused child.
This paper will be limited to the discussion of the ways in which different Australian families operate within their own societies, and as well, identify the factors that enhances their resilience or increases their risk of registering poor outcomes during the child development system.
Risk, Resilience, and Vulnerability
Risk factors during the child development process represent the factors that cause unwanted and non-normative development outcomes. These risk factors have an effect of generating negative change or causing persistent acquisition of unacceptable behavior or function of the child. Many risk factors are acquired through interaction with environmental factors that in turn results to the production of stresses. These stresses create further difficulties to growth, learning, and in causing negative expectancy. Risk factors involve those characteristics or qualities that are measurable and these include interpersonal relationships, child behavior, and their immediate institutions. Majority of these features has an effect of influencing the quality or quantity of the child development process and as such, risk factors increase the probability of the occurrence of a discrete outcome.
Risk factors are more likely to interact or co-occur, and, therefore, the identification of risk factors must be undertaken in such a way that multiple domains of the risk factors are considered. Bowes, and Grace (2009); Iwaniec, Larkin, and Higgins (2005) posits that strategies that can be employed into the process of identifying risk factors include the internalization and externalization of ailments that share the same risk factors, and, this may include the study of socioeconomic risk cases, family and marital conflicts, parent-child relationships, and history of psychopathology among others. Effects from risk factors are cumulative and, therefore, the greater the number of risk factors, irrespective of the absence or presence of risk factors, can increase the vulnerability of children to adversity (McKenzie, Kotch, and Lee, 2011).
Similarly, Resilience represents a pattern of behavior and functioning that indicates positive adjustment with respect to the occurrence of adversity or risk. Simply put, resilience refers normal development under difficult circumstances (Gilligan 2000). It also refers to the risk factors that are either unrealized or those factors that have been averted. Corey & Keyes (2004) argue that children who are at risk are more likely to develop undesirable growth outcomes as compared to those children without or those that have not been exposed to risk factors. According to Gilligan (2000), a resilient child is one who is capable of bouncing to the normal self after enduring an adversity by continuing to perform well even after being continuously exposed to hazardous factors. Risk and resilience are two closely connected issues that provide insight on the causes, mechanisms, and the factors that cause normal developmental consequences such as constancy (Bowes, and Grace, 2009, p.14). It will also provide illumination concerning the rate of change in behavior and normal functioning incase adversity occurs.
Vulnerability encompasses those negative weaknesses and traits that a child can inherit or acquire genetically from his roots or past personality experience. Vulnerability can as well represent the susceptibility of a child to negative developmental outcomes that occur in high-risk situations. This susceptibility can be attributed partly to temperamental factors or partly to genetic factors. This shows that vulnerability represents the exact opposite of resilience. Finally yet important, protective factors for children include those individual characteristics that serve as protective functions brought up in risky development (Bowes, and Grace, 2009). These factors include intelligence, development of ego, and other factors that inhibit the development of negative outcomes in the face of risk or adversities. Resilient children tend to exhibit a higher sense of control over their environmental factors when compared to their counterparts with low levels of resiliency. Additionally, resilient children have strong individual characteristics such as well-developed social problem solving skills and high sense of self-efficacies (Mitchell, 2005). Protective factors are also influenced by environmental factors, which can either ameliorate or diminish the potential negative effects of the risks. Resilience is interconnected with protective factors in the sense that resilient children are more likely to exhibit competent strategies in coping with risks, and the same children as less likely to be depressed or become affected by anxiety (Bowes, and Grace, 2009, Ch. 1).
Models of Risk and Resilience
The Resilience and Risk models assumes that stress or anxiety is a universal phenomenon because an individual’s (or a child’s) success in life is determined by the levels and types of stress that have been experienced during the development process (Corey, & Keyes, 2004). The model also assumes that the ability to cope up with the stressful factors is determined by the nature of available factors for addressing stress. This might include the interaction or combination of risk factors that are critical for the development process, for example, children with difficult temperaments may only be at risk for delinquency when they live in particular contexts such as unsupportive or disorganized families. Moreover, the model also postulates that negative outcomes or undesirable developmental outcomes in life are a direct cause of being exposed to risk factors for a sufficient time. These risk factors include low education, persistent poverty, and poor social skills. According to proponents of this model, children who were brought under difficult conditions such as a life full of risk factors were more likely to develop into competent and healthy adults despite having undergone through adverse circumstances (Corey, & Keyes, 2004). The main characteristics of the resilience and risk model includes the fact that resilience is found the exposure to risk as compared to the avoidance of risk, experiences strengthen protective influences, and that risk factors operate in different ways.
Other models of risk and resilience include the compensatory model, the challenge model, the protective model, and the conditional model (Cohen, & Wills, 1985). The compensatory model argues that personal and stress attributes when combined leads to equal competence. It is based on an ordinary linear regression model that, as the level of stress goes up, the level of competence reduces. In this model, joint influence of diverse resources or assets, such as the effects of their cumulative effect that compensates or thwarts the effects of risk. In turn, it assumes a direct effect of resource factors on an outcome, which can be autonomous from the risk factor (Fergus and Zimmerman, 2005).
The protective resilience model presumes a cooperating relationship between the risk exposure, protective factor, and the outcome. As such, a protective element illustrates the valuable effects primarily for those subjected to the risk factor, but does not necessarily become advantageous those unexposed individuals. It is vital to note that when cumulative effects of increased risks outweigh the protective capabilities of children; susceptibility levels to risks become increased. This means that one risk factor can be worthy on its own, but when there a clustering of risks the chances of significant negative outcomes for children is high (McKenzie, Kotch, and Lee, 2011; Gilligan, 2005). On the other hand, the challenge model argues that a moderate amount of stress enhances a child’s level of competence (Masten and Obradovic (2006). Last, the conditional model argues that personal attributes are responsible for modifying or exacerbating the influence of stress levels towards competence.
The ecological model views the child’s behavior and functioning is examinable from the context of a multiplicity and interconnectivity of different relationships such as family, peers, and the surrounding factors. Bronfenbrenner (1994) argues that it is critical to understand the entire ecological growth system to understand the human development process. He suggested that the ecological system is made up of five socially organized subsystems that are crucial for supporting or for guiding the human growth process (Bowes, and Grace, 2009). The macro system entails the cultural patterns such as culture, economy, and knowledge bodies, whereas the microsystem covers the relationship between the immediate environment (school and family), and the developing child.
The mesosystems encompass the processes and the linkages occurring between two or more settings surrounding the developing child (simply, the Mesosystem is a system of microsystems). On the other hand, the Chronosystem includes a consistency or a change over time of a child’s characteristics and the changes occurring within the environment. Lastly, Exosystem entails the processes and linkages that occur between two or more settings but they do not necessarily have to contain the developing person, but the developing person should be capable of feeling the indirect effects.
The cumulative ecological risk model argues that maladjustment in the child development process is not caused by exposure to a particular risk factor but rather it is caused by the total accumulation of risk factors. Different behavioral trajectories that emanate from the different mixtures of risk and protective factors play a role in the influencing maladjustment among children (McKenzie, Kotch, and Lee, 2011). Gilligan (2000) argues that a reduction in problem areas is more likely to bring a disproportion and decisive impact on the maladjustment levels of a child. Simply put, a child might manage to cope up with one or two adversities but an increase in adversities can lead to maladjustment. Ezpeleta, Granero, De la Osa, and Domenech (2008) postulate that risk is cumulative and therefore, it the process of being subjected to risk follows a linear trend. As such, the higher the ratio of high-risk clusters; the higher the psychopathology and maladjustment.
Case Study: Family Levels
In an Australian family consisting of parents and children with past exposure to risks such as emotional abuse and neglect, there are particular factors that are critical in determining their capability to overcome risks and show resilience. These factors can be divided into three levels; individual, family, and community or environmental factors. From the factors and concepts discussed above, it is evident that emotional abuse increases the vulnerability and susceptibility levels of children to risks. An understanding of possible techniques and processes would be fundamental in assessing their levels of resilience.
Early care giving experiences and attachment security is more likely to enhance the resilience levels of Australian children in case they face maltreatment. Instead, they will be positioned to become adaptive. Similarly, discontinuation of these relationships is more likely to affect their levels of psychosocial attachment and functioning. Second, the type or nature of emotional abuse also determines the extent of a child’s development. Less chronic form of abuse at a tender age is more likely to exert less impact on the development of the child as compared to the type of abuse that is continuously administered until the late teens. The abusive maltreating is likely to cultivate negative self-perceptions thereby bringing negative resilience. Third, attributional style also matters in the determination of protective mechanisms and level of resilience (Iwaniec, Larkin, and Higgins, 2005). For instance, children who attribute their abuse to external factors are more likely to exhibit strong levels of resilience as compared to those children who attribute their source of abuse to internal factors.
Fourth, life chances, genetics, and dispositions are tremendously influential factors in determining the level of vulnerability and resilience of a child (Iwaniec, Larkin, and Higgins, 2005). Genetic factors are crucial in influencing the probability of a child being exposed to abuse and as well, it also determines the extent of environmental factors in exerting the same impact. Simply put, the genetic factors will influence the level of vulnerability depending on the environment. Furthermore, dispositional attributes such as temperamental levels will determine the level of resilience of the child when faced with adversity. If the child has excellent planning attributes, social, bright, and problem-solving skills, he or she would be able to develop positive relationships (Iwaniec, Larkin, and Higgins, 2005). Similarly, withdrawn and irritable children will have low resilience levels. Life chances are critical in determining a child’s life path and in influencing vulnerability of resilience levels. Finally, the availability of supportive relationships can have the influence of controlling resilience levels by protecting children from the effects of emotional abuse, whether from external or internal sources. Supportive relationships exert an element of protective factors to the children being subjected to emotional abuse.
Familial levels and factors
It can be quite challenging to select the family factors that place children at the risk of emotional abuse but it is obvious that these factors are more in families where emotional stressors exceed the level of support that can be provided. As such, the resultant situation would mean that the levels of risks would exceed the amount of protective factors. Example of such family factors and stressors include stressful life events such as parental substance abuse, long-term parental unemployment, and familial violence (Prevatt, 2003). Demographic variables are also capable of increasing the risk for emotional abuse and neglect among the family in question.
Parental unemployment, family violence, and substance abuse increase the probability of children to be subjected to adversities. As explained in the cumulative ecological risk model, the increase in the level of adversities subjects the children to increased negative impacts. For instance, the increase in the level of stressors can reduce their IQ levels over time thereby impeding their chances of coping up with increased adversities. Based on the theory of family systems (Bowes, Watson, and Pearson, Ch. 6, in Bowen and Grace, 2009, p. 93), the interaction of among family members follows a circular pattern, and hence, the disruption of the flow can lead to imbalance in functioning and eventually maladjustment on the part of child development.
Parental personality factor is an example of a family factor that increases the risks of children being subjected to abuse. For instance, an aggressive and hostile parent is more likely to be abusive as compared to a calm and collected parent. Additionally, a parent with frequent emotional disturbances, low–esteem levels, dysthymic symptoms, less engaging, and one with high social anxiety levels is more likely to increase vulnerabilities of children to emotional abuse (Iwaniec, Larkin, and Higgins, 2005). A parent’s history of maltreatment and poor relationships with their caregivers is also critical in influencing the vulnerability and exposure to their children to risks of abuse. Such parents often find it difficult to cope up with stressful situations, thereby minimizing their levels of managing stressful situations. The situation also leads to the development of poor relationships with children, and hence leading to the cultivation of insecure attachment levels among the children (Mitchell, 2005). The children’s maladjustment levels are negatively affected and they may end up performing poorly different areas of their lives. Children can also feel rejected, withdrawn, and adopt diminished roles in various aspects of their lives. These factors can lead to emotional and physical neglect on the parts of children. Substance abuse may upset the children thereby increasing their stress levels and abilities to function effectively both at the internal and external environment. Eventually, their qualities of adaptation and capacity to manage change would be significantly reduced (Bowes, Watson, and Pearson, Ch. 6, in Bowes &Grace, 2009)
Another influential family issue in the determination of abuse levels is the quality of existing family relationships. For instance, those mothers who are leveled as being psychologically abusive tend to develop poor or less affectionate relationships with their families, and they are prone to engage physical aggression and verbal abuse. Closely related is the existence of domestic violence among members of a particular family. Domestic violence exposes children to emotional abuse thereby affecting their growth and development process. Finally, other contributory factors to emotional abuse among the Australian family include divorce, family breakdown, mental and physical illness, substance misuse, poverty, and disability among others.
Community or Environmental factors
These include neighborhood violence, community cohesion, and structural employment characteristics. The first determinant of emotional abuse under this category is the school. Schools often provide children with a good opportunity for gaining the practical and social support that they might be lacking individually or within their families (Iwaniec, Larkin, and Higgins, 2005; Bowes & Grace, 2009). Students can get the opportunity to polish their skills in specific areas, and as well, improve their self-esteem and self-efficacy. Nonetheless, the educational institution can affect the level of emotional abuse suffered by children if they fail to fulfill certain obligations that surround their school life. For instance, failure to perform well in school activities or difficulties associated with getting along with other students can perpetuate negative outcomes among children thereby exposing them to emotional abuse.
Organizational groups and peer relationships among the community plays a critical role in influencing the level of emotional abuse among children within the environment. Children often develop relationships with peers, friends, and other members outside their immediate abusive environment (Iwaniec, Larkin, and Higgins, 2005). Their levels of resilience will be determined by the nature of relationships that they would have developed after associating with individuals from the external environment. Those children without access to the outside environment would be vulnerable to abusive relationships. The availability of community resources can instill a sense of attachment and predictability, in addition to promoting a haven for children to experience consistency and an aura of security outside their abusive environment.
Finally, availability of support within the external environment can play a fundamental role in minimizing the vulnerability of children to risks and as well, in improving their resiliency levels. Availability of support services within the community will boost the level of their protective factors and as well enhance their capabilities of coping up with stress levels or managing the adversities. Support services within the community can be varied and they range from advice from counselors, friendly environment different from their adversarial environment, and peer relationships (Ungerer, and Harrison, Ch. 2 in Bowes and Grace, 2009). If applied appropriately, support services within the community has a higher likelihood of increasing the resilience levels of children while at the same time ensuring that they cope up with the risk factors.
Notably, it is emphatically crucial for all the aforementioned levels to be on the same playing field in order to bring ‘goodness of fit’ or a level of balance in the realization of resilience or protective factors. For instance, a school would be less important in offering supportive services to abused children if the family is dysfunctional. Similarly, all the emotional, physical, and environmental factors should be in the ‘goodness of fit’ state to ensure that abused children cop better with all aspects that surround their lives (Burack, Blidner, Flores, and Fitch, 2007).
Aforementioned, continued exposure to abusive relationships has an effect of influencing a child’s emotional, social, and cognitive development. Furthermore, it increases the chances of the child being vulnerable to long-term damage to her psychological well-being. Additionally, the availability of protective factors within the developing environment is paramount in explaining why some children are more adapted to abusive relationships when compared to others when approached with risks or adversities. Experiences have also proven to be influential in determining the levels of resilience for children. Importantly, when cumulative effects of increased risks outweigh the protective capabilities of children; susceptibility levels to risks become increased (McKenzie, Kotch, and Lee, 2011). Finally, resilience among children can be improved by practicing appropriate and extensive emotional support, intervention, and life chances.
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