Family Institute Course: Temperament and Resilience

In this session, we looked in depth at dimensions of temperament, to see how we would structure therapy differently depending on the traits we see in our client — whether a child, adolescent, or adult.

In adolescents and adults, characteristic ways of interacting with the world are usually labeled as part of personality, whereas temperament is the term used when referring to these characteristics in children.  When we speak of temperament, we’re highlighting the inborn nature of how a person characteristically participates in interactions with the world.  When we speak of personality, we’re making room for the impact of life experience and the self-organizing nature of the psyche, in combination with what was present at birth.

We saw that extreme variations in dimensions of temperament can constitute risk factors — elements of a person’s situation that pose challenges to healthy development.  Risk factors can be either internal (such as extremes of temperament, neurological vulnerabilities, genetic loading for certain forms of psychopathology, to give just a few examples) or external (such as family discord/violence, poverty, exposure to trauma, and so on).

A person with a pronounced preference for one pole of a given dimension of temperament (for instance, extremely high or low regularity/predictability; extremely high approach to or withdrawal from novel stimuli; extremely strong tendency to positive or negative mood) may be at a disadvantage as they confront the complexity of human experience.  This disadvantage is a risk factor that we, as therapists, will try to offset in how we structure therapy sessions, develop our therapeutic relationship, and devise interventions to move the work along.  In the language of resilience theory, we are setting out to marshall protective factors that can offset the risk factors, thereby building the capacity for resilience in this person’s development.

The article from the New York Times Magazine that Marci mentioned — the story of two sisters who responded quite differently to difficult early experiences, reflecting specific inborn (including genetic) factors — can be found here.  This is one instance in which we can best make sense of the case material by using the concepts of temperament and resilience together.

Resilience — the individual’s ability to meet developmental milestones even in the face of significant adversity —  depends on the relative balance between risk and protective factors.  Some dimensions of temperament constitute risk factors for a person; some constitute protective factors.  Some of our characteristics make for difficulties in living, some help resolve difficulties in living — and some promote healthy living and flourishing!  These internal factors are not all that define resilience, but they are among the critical dimensions that play a part.

A good overview of resilience and its sources can be found in the work of Emmy Werner, including this four-page summary of the Kauai study.  If you have only a few minutes to invest in additional reading on this topic, make this your top choice!  Whenever we talk about resilience throughout the year, it’s Werner’s insights and findings to which we’ll be referring.  You might also be interested in researcher Ann Masten’s description of resilience as “ordinary magic,” and resources on resilience that can be found on the site of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma.

We talked about the therapist’s role in promoting resilience in a client’s life.  Some dimensions of resilience are internal to the individual — attitudes and beliefs, personality and its expression, behavioral repertoire, interpersonal patterns, and capacities such as self-reflection and the ability to make and follow through with choices are a few that come to mind.  In our therapeutic work, there is no doubt that part of our effort will go into supporting resilience at the individual level — both to reduce the impact of risk factors, and to enhance the effectiveness of protective factors.

Additionally, as therapists we work to help the client marshall critical external resources from the family, social network, and community.  These contribute significantly to resilience, a quality that does not reside “within” the person, but in the profound synergy of the person and her/his world that comes with the human condition.  Think of all the sources of help that might play a part in supporting a person’s healing and growth, and the role we can play in making those connections!  Referral to other professionals or self-help resources, encouraging the search for companionship and friendship in the family and/or community, supporting the client’s exploration of new directions to develop talents and skills . . . the list goes on and on.

In the language of resilience, we can think of our therapeutic work as being a resource in the client’s life, as orchestrating resources available in the client’s world, and as helping the client cultivate the resources to be found within her/himself.  That’s a powerful map of intervention strategies from which we can draw!


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Filed under Individual Differences, Overview, Resilience, Therapeutic Implications

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