Bouncing Back

Once I was delivering a presentation on the academic and psychological difficulties of immigrant Hispanic children. The purpose of the topic was describing the stresses associated with migration and acculturation and generate from the audience possible responses to help these children in their process of coping with their new circumstances. At the moment of the conclusions, one teacher raised his hand and stated “you have not talk about the natural resilience of children, no matter how difficult are their lives, they will always bounce back”.

After a brief discussion by other participants I asked the audience to think: in face of difficult and stressful circumstances, do children need help to readjust to their new circumstances or do they naturally “bounce back” after migration and during the process of acculturation?

Although I thought on this challenge in several opportunities, it was not until the recent tragedy of Japan that my “incomplete homework” came back. The word “resilience” was used practically by each one of the newscasts to qualify and to describe the Japanese community “as people that know how to endure, that tolerate disagreeable things, that is able recover quickly, that knows how to survive, it is they are resilient people.

The term Resilience comes from the field of Physics and means the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress. The Social Sciences appropriated the term and used it to describe the ability to recover from or adapt easily to misfortune or change. However, I not necessarily agree with the former description of what is resilience. My issue with the definition comes from the use of these two verbs: to recover and to adapt. From our psychological perspective the word recover is not a return to the former status but is being able to pull through a situation and regain a better status –cognitively and emotionally. Similarly, the word adapt must include changes to fit the need and to suit the environment which result in a new adapted version or “an alteration” of a previous state of being.

The more comprehensive definition of resilience was given by Gordon (1995). He stated: “Resilience is the ability to thrive, mature, and increase competence in the face of adverse circumstances. These circumstances may include biological abnormalities or environmental obstacles. Further, the adverse circumstances may be chronic and consistent or severe and infrequent. To thrive, mature, and increase competence, a person must draw upon all of his or her resources: biological, psychological, and environmental.” Gordon’s perspective presents a more active role of the person facing the adverse circumstances: “it doesn’t mean you ignore your feelings. When adversity strikes, you still experience anger, grief and pain, but you’re able to go on with daily tasks, remain generally optimistic and go on with your life. Being resilient also doesn’t mean being stoic or going it alone” (Mayo Clinic Staff).

In front of stressful situations, why some people are able to overcome the crisis and other not? Does it has to do with person’s genetic make up –type of activity of the central nervous system or/and individual responses of the endocrine system? Even if we accepts a distinctive innate nature as the origin of the typical resilient conduct we cannot avoid to consider the role played by the history of that people, by the religious and the cultural values conformed via education and socialization training, and previous experiences of the social group confronting and overcoming critical situations.

With regard to immigrant Hispanic children there is no doubt that a good number of them are exposed to chronic or severe stress. I do agree that these children will successfully recover and adapt over time. But, I still believe that these children will need tremendous biological, psychological, and environmental resources in order to do this. These children cannot do it themselves. They need love, care, and support not only from their parents, but from educational personnel and other community adults as well.

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Dr. Gelasia Marquez is an immigrant clinical and bilingual school psychologist. Dr. Marquez has studies, researches, articles, and programs aimed to help immigrant Hispanic children, adolescents and families in their processes of transition after migration