Families Under Stress: What Makes Them Resilient
1997 AAFCS Commemorative Lecture

Hamilton I. McCubbin, Marilyn A. McCubbin, Anne I. Thompson, Sae-Young Han, and Chad T. Allen

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

Hamilton I. McCubbin is dean, School of Human Ecology, and director, Institute for the Study of Resiliency in Families, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Marilyn A. McCubbin is a professor, School of Nursing, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Anne I. Thompson is assistant dean, School of Human Ecology, and associate director, Institute for the Study of Resiliency in Families and Center for Family Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Sae-Young Han is a doctoral student in Child and Family Studies and a research assistant at the Institute for the Study of Resiliency in Families, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Chad T. Allen is a research associate, Center for Family Studies, University of WisconsinMadison Center for Excellence in Family Studies, School of Human Ecology.

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 misfortune, 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.
  • Married-couple families accounted for 55% of all households in 1994; this is well below the 71% recorded in 1970.
  • There were 11.4 million single parents in 1994, representing about 31% of all parent-child arrangements (one-parent and two-parent situations combined). These numbers have been increasing in the 1990s by about 3.9% per year.
  • In 1994 single parents accounted for almost two thirds or 65% of all African American family groups with children present (3.6 million, up from 3.1 million in 1990), versus 25% among Whites.
  • About 1.6 million single parents were persons of Hispanic origin, compared with 1.3 million in 1990. The number of Hispanic single parents has increased by an average of 8.2% per year since 1990. Single-parent families accounted for about 36% of all Hispanic family groups with children present in 1994.
  • During the period of 1976 to 1996, the number of children growing up without a father at home has increased by a significant 36%, from 10.9 million to 17 million. There has been an even greater and even more dramatic growth of 220% in the number of children living with only their fathers in the home, from 863,000 to 2.8 million.
  • Overall, 1.3 million married couples are interracial, up from 310,000. Even as early as 1985, interracial marriages for Japanese (40.6%) and Native American (53.7%) women were practically normative, whereas such behavior was rare among African American women (1.2%) and African American men (3.6%).
  • At least half of all marriages end in divorce. Since 1970 the number of currently divorced people has quadrupled. In 1970 there were 4 million divorced persons; in 1994 this number soared to 17 million.
  • Although the rate of pregnancy among adult women has declined in the past 25 years, pregnancy among adolescents in the United States is one of the highest among advanced nations. Teens account for two thirds of births outside of marriage.
  • Preschool children spend a large amount of time in day care or other organized activities. In 1993, 9.9 million children under age 5 needed child care while their mothers worked. With welfare reform, the demands for child care and the number of children in child care are expected to increase.
  • The percentage of families with a fourth-grade student scoring below basic reading level in 1994 was 41%. The percentage of families with a fourth-grade student scoring below basic mathematics level in 1992 was 41%.
  • Between 1985 and 1993, the percentage change of low-birth-weight babies was 6% for the worse.
  • Between 1985 and 1993, the percentage change in teen violent death rate, ages 15-19 (deaths per 100,000 teens), was 10% for the worse.
  • Between 1985 and 1993, the percentage change in the juvenile violent crime/arrest rate, ages 10-17 (arrests per 100,000 youths), was 66% for the worse.
  • Between 1985 and 1993, the percentage change of teens not attending school and not working, ages 16-19, was 9% for the worse.
  • Today, almost 34 million people over the age of 65 and nearly 17% require assistance with everyday undertakings like cooking, bathing, and shopping. It is estimated these individuals will constitute one-fifth of the population in the year 2030.

Resilience: A Family Systems Perspective

The concept of resilience has a recent but rich history embedded in the longitudinal research on resilience in children (Werner, 1984; Werner & Smith, 1982), the study of resiliency in children at risk to adverse developmental outcomes (Garmezy, 1991a. 1991b; Rutter, 1987; Rutter, 1990), the investigations on children's competence as a protective factor in the face of risk situations (Garmezy, 1987; Garmezy & Masten, 1991; Luthar & Zigler, 1992), and the study of resilience in inner-city adolescents (Luthar, 1991; Luthar, Doernberger, & Zigler, 1993).

Predictably, the concept of resilience would find a valued place in the field of Family Sciences. Child-focused studies have pointed to the importance of the family system in fostering resilience. Baldwin, Baldwin, and Cole (1990) point to the importance of parental supervision and vigilance, while Conrad and Hammen (1993) emphasize the value of maternal social support to children. Hetherington's 1989 study of 144 middle-class families, half of which were divorced, noted the importance of structured parenting. A study by Richters and Martinez (1993) of 72 low-income children living in a violent neighborhood pointed to the salience of a stable and safe home environment, while a study by Wyman, Cowen, Work, and Parker (1991) of 313 children highlights the importance of parenting with consistent discipline and an optimistic view of the children's future. An additional study by Wyman et al. (1992) of 626 parents of children in grades 4-6 reveals the importance of nurturing relationships with primary caregivers and stable, consistent family environments. Werner and Smith's 1992 summary of both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies also emphasizes the importance of family environment factors such as a self-confident mother who values her child, supportive alternate caregivers, and a supportive spouse. Of importance to future investigations and theory building, Cohler (1987) calls attention to the complex interaction among protective factors within the child, the family environment and the larger social context. Werner and Smith (1992) conclude there is "a shifting balance between the stressful life events that heighten children's vulnerability and the protective factors that enhance their resilience. This balance not only changes with stages of the life cycle but also varies with the sex of the individual and the cultural context in which he or she matures."

In spite of the proliferation of research on resilience in children and youth and the mounting evidence pointing to the family milieu as a generic but central protective factor in the three component equations (Cohler, 1987) for predicting child resilience and child developmental outcomes, focused investigations on what makes the family system resilient in the face of normative transitions as well as catastrophic life events have emerged at a slower pace. Most investigations have been conducted under the umbrella of the family stress and coping paradigm with protective and recovery factors examined as resistance resources and regenerative factors.

We are pressed to examine the family system and its resiliency in the face of both normative and non-normative conditions that place the family unit at risk or propel it into a crisis. We seek to learn why some families endure with few if any adjustments and why some families falter but bounce back and adapt by changing their patterns of functioning as well as the conditions in which they live. Other family units fall prey to the situation and deteriorate to a state of dysfunction, never to recover. We are compelled to learn about family protective factors (FPF), which shape the family's ability to endure in the face of risk factors. We are also encouraged to isolate and examine family recovery factors (FRF), which, in combination with protective factors, play a unique role in promoting the family's ability to bounce back from a family crisis situation involving disorganization and decline in functioning. Finally, we can examine and identify those general family resiliency factors (GRF), which serve the family by playing a role in the family's ability to both endure in the face of risk factors and adapt in the face of crisis situations.

While most child-focused studies have focused on protective factors, family scientists have chosen to advance two lines of scientific inquiry (see Figure 1), with a particular interest in the study of the FPF in families under stress across the family life cycle (Olson et al., 1983; McCubbin & McCubbin, 1986; McCubbin, Thompson, Pirner, & McCubbin, 1988). Concomitantly, family scientists have focused on the identification of (FRF) that promote the family's ability to "bounce back" or recover from adversity. The longitudinal investigations of family coping strategies and recovery factors that emerged in the face of the trauma of war and having a member unaccounted for or a prisoner of war (McCubbin, Dahl, & Hunter, 1975; McCubbin, Dahl, Lester, Benson, & Robertson, 1976) as well as the study of family adaptation following the return of a member held prisoner of war (McCubbin, Dahl, Lester, & Ross, 1975; McCubbin, Dahl, Lester, & Ross, 1977) foster family resiliency research by pointing to the importance of both protective and recovery factors in explaining and predicting family outcomes. Family studies have also pointed to the importance of family typologies or patterns of functioning as having dual functions--as a protective factor in the face of risks and as a recovery factor in promoting family adaptation in the face of family crises precipitated by a childhood chronic illness (McCubbin, 1989), family economic losses (McCubbin & Thompson, 1989), and family developmental transitions (McCubbin, Thompson, Pirner, & McCubbin, 1988).

Central Concepts in Family Resilience

Family resilience and its two components, FPF and FRF, are viewed as positive counterparts to family vulnerability and family crisis. Family vulnerability denotes the family system's susceptibility to deterioration and dysfunction in the face of risk factors, which are biological, economic, social or psychosocial hazards that increase the likelihood of a negative outcome in a group of families. Family crisis denotes the family susceptibility to continued instability, disorganization and dysfunction. Crisis-producing events are those normative and non-normative life events that disrupt the family system and that precipitate changes in, or the necessity for changes in, the family's patterns of functioning, thus placing the family system at risk for continued decline in functioning leading to dysfunction.

Within the Family Resiliency framework (McCubbin & McCubbin, 1993, 1996) resilience is viewed as involving two distinguishable but related family processes: (1) adjustment, which involves the influence of protective factors in facilitating the family's ability and efforts to maintain its integrity, functioning, and fulfill developmental tasks in the face of risk factors, and (2) adaptation, which involves the function of recovery factors in promoting the family's ability to "bounce back" and adapt in family crisis situations. Consequently, family resilience research has focused on addressing the central and complex issues of determining what protective factors are critical to family adjustment in the face of specific risks or cluster of risk factors as well as what recovery factors are critical to family adaptation in the face of specific family crisis situations.

A brief synopsis of research findings of two national surveys of family stressors and strains over the family life cycle conducted by or in collaboration with family scientists of the Family Stress, Coping, and Health Project at the Center for Family Studies and the Institute for the Study of Resiliency in Families at the University of Wisconsin-Madison would contribute to clarifying the distinction made between family protective and recovery factors. As depicted in Table 1 and based on two national surveys of families over the life cycle (Olson et al.,1983; McCubbin, Thompson, Pirner, & McCubbin, 1988), families face risk factors throughout the family life cycle and over time. The investigations focus on the identification and understanding of the protective factors and processes involved in the the family's ability to manage developmental transitions and changes over time and in its effort to continue to promote family harmony and balance.

Briefly, the most prominent family protective factors (see ) that Table 1 have sustained value over all stages of the family life cycle are family celebrations; family hardiness; family time and routines, and family traditions. If we also define importance as a protective factor having value in three out of the four categories of family life cycle stages, then family communication, financial management, and personality compatibility gain prominence. To complete the scenario, family accord is important at the couple and childbearing/school-age stages; health emerges at the couple and empty nest and retirement stages; support network is vital at the childbearing/school-age and teenage/young adult stages of the family cycle; and shared values around the use of leisure time emerges as vital to the couple stage of the family cycle.

While these national studies of nonclinical families, often referred to as "normal" families, are helpful in identifying general protective factors, the investigation and isolation of the "protective" nature of these factors can best be determined when studied in the context of families faced with specific risk factors known to place the family system in jeopardy demanding the family system to stretch and to make adjustments. Specifically, the investigation of families representing a cross section of families from different social classes, representing different ethnic groups, at different stages of the family life cycle, and who also have been exposed to a cluster of risk factors known to increase the vulnerability of families faced with the situation, has the greatest potential of identifying which protective factors are important under what circumstances and for which group of families. In a study of a representative sample of 1,000 families in the military system located in a potentially high risk (to the family and the soldiers) overseas war zone of operation, the investigators (Lavee, McCubbin, & Patterson, 1985; McCubbin, Patterson, & Lavee, 1983) reveal the importance of protective factors within family members, from within the family system, and from the community. The family protective factors vary in their importance by life cycle stage and by ethnicity (McCubbin, 1995; McCubbin & Lavee, 1986). Specifically, couples without children draw from the protective factors of social status and occupational status, problem-solving coping skills, mutual family member to member support, and support from the community and the work/occupation unit with whom they were affiliated. In contrast, families in the preschool and school-age stage of the life cycle point to the protective factors of religious programs in the community, community support, and the sense of coherence of fitting into the larger community of which they feel a part. Families at the adolescent and launching stages of the family cycle point to the protective factors of status and income, mutual support from the family and spouse, family cohesiveness and bonding, and fitting into the larger community of which they feel a part. Finally, the families in the emptynest stage of the family cycle accentuate the protective value of coping skills, family cohesiveness and bonding, and community support from the work/occupation unit to which they belong.

When race and ethnicity are factored into the equation, the findings do indicate differences in the value and importance of protective factors for both Caucasian and African Americans in this study. Caucasian families have a broader and more comprehensive repertoire of protective resources at their disposal: family cohesiveness, coping skills, coherence, community support, intrafamily mutual support, sense of control, employment, involvement in the community, friendship support, neighborhood support, family time together, spouse commitment to the lifestyle of the work/occupation and a sense of family-to-work/occupation fit. In sharp contrast, African American families found protective factors to be important but more limited in range and scope. Specifically, African American families pointed to the protective value of family time together, spouse commitment to lifestyle, neighborhood support, involvement in the community, spouse employment, sense of control, spouse education, and a sense of fitting into the work/occupation lifestyle (McCubbin & McCubbin, 1988).

The search for family recovery factors presents a formidable challenge to family scientists. One could argue that when you study protective factors, you have studied it all and thus there is no need for a second line of inquiry focusing on recovery factors. Investigations do not support this narrow if not parochial line of reasoning. Families can and often are overwhelmed and challenged severely in the face of adversity, and they do stumble, experience disharmony and imbalance, and sometimes even deteriorate in the face of a family trauma. This condition, more commonly referred to in the literature as a family crisis (Hill, 1949; Burr, 1973), is most often successfully negotiated by the family using its own resources, capabilities, and recovery factors. Families do bounce back and adapt to the situation by changing their patterns of functioning and changing the aversive condition that has placed or maintains the family system in its current problematic predicament. The search for recovery factors as an integral part of resiliency investigations has also been legitimated and affirmed (McCubbin & McCubbin, 1996). Thus, in addition to calling upon and using family protective factors families are also called upon to draw from, develop, and use recovery factors to facilitate their adaptation or bouncing back in the face of a crisis situation.

Three investigations of families in crises reveal the relative importance of family recovery factors and renders clarity to their distinction when contrasted with protective factors. Longitudinal studies of families faced with the long term care of a child with cystic fibrosis (McCubbin, Patterson, McCubbin, Wilson, & Warwick, 1983; McCubbin, Thompson, Thompson, & McCubbin, 1993) and of families faced with the prolonged war-induced separation of a military member held captive or missing in action (McCubbin & Dahl, 1976; McCubbin, Dahl, & Hunter, 1975; McCubbin, Dahl, Lester, Benson, & Robertson, 1976; McCubbin, Dahl, Lester, & Ross, 1975) reveal the family's need for and use of recovery factors that facilitate their adaptation. In the context of families managing the long-term care of a child with cystic fibrosis, a cluster of four family recovery factors have been identified as having a direct relationship to promoting the successful developmental and physiological changes in these chronically ill children. The critical family recovery factors are:

  • Family integration. The mother's and father's efforts to keep the family together and maintain an optimistic outlook are important in promoting the child's health.
  • Family support and esteem building. The mother's and father's efforts to get support from the community and friends and to develop their self-esteem and self-confidence are important in promoting the child's health;
  • Family recreation orientation, control, and organization. The family's emphasis on an active recreation orientation toward participating in various recreational activities and sporting activities is positively associated with improvements in the child's health over time. Furthermore, the greater the family's emphasis on control and family organization, rules, and procedures, the greater the improvement in the child's health.
  • Family optimism and mastery. The greater the family's efforts to maintain a sense of order and optimism, the greater the improvements in the child's health status, Families that also make a commitment to master the medical regimen that carries over into the home environment increase the family's understanding of the medical situation and the adaptation process to the situation.

In the face of the traumas of war, while struggling to manage a prolonged absence of a member coupled with ambiguity as to his or her return, families reveal a host of recovery factors that are distinctly different from the normal protective factors identified in earlier investigations. Specifically, four recovery factors were isolated:

  • Self reliance and equality. Family crisis situations include the family's deliberate effort to effect change in the family's own patterns of functioning as well as change in the social, psychosocial, and economic conditions (McCubbin & Dahl, 1976; McCubbin, Dahl, & Hunter, 1975). Central to these family changes is the degree to which family members, particularly adult members, are able to act independently in the family's best interest as well as the degree to which these family members are self reliant.
  • Family advocacy. The degree to which families are able to adapt in the context of crisis situations is determined, in part, by the family's involvement in and/or support of the collective efforts of families in similar situations to effect changes in the social, economic, and political milieu (Powers, 1973). All too often, policies, programs, and practices are not supportive of families in crisis situations and may curtail the family's ability to bring resources and solutions to bear on their situation and on the family's behalf. Changing the milieu, the social and economic context to foster family adaptation appears to be a vital part of the family's proactive effort and is an important recovery factor.
  • Family meanings. In the face of adversity and a family crisis, the family unit is called upon to change--to make the necessary accommodations in establishing viable patterns of functioning designed to promote stability, harmony, and balance in the face of adversity (McCubbin, Thompson, Thompson, & McCubbin, 1994; McCubbin & McCubbin, 1996). Oftentimes, in these situations families are called upon to give new and viable meanings to the crisis in an effort to (1) render legitimacy to the changes in the family's pattern of functioning; (2) achieve harmony and acceptance among family members to the changes in family patterns; and (3) place the crisis situation into a broader context of experiences to lessen the pain and trauma associated with the crisis and the changes needed to adapt to the situation.
  • Family schema. We have come to appreciate the fact that families, over time, create an internally regulated sense of shared values, beliefs, expectations, and rules that guide and shape the major domains of family functioning: work-family relationships, disciplining and raising children, the marital relationship, and intergenerational responsibilities, to name a few of the more prominent family paradigms for functioning (McCubbin, Thompson, Thompson, & McCubbin, 1993; McCubbin & McCubbin, 1995, 1996). This collective set of values, beliefs, and rules, referred to as the "family schema," plays a vital role as a recovery factor in promoting family harmony and balance in the context of a family crisis. Inclusive of the family's ethnic identity, beliefs, and values, family schema appears to be a valuable resource used to guide family behavior and adaptation in the face of family crises.

General Resiliency Factors

In the 25 years of research on families under stress, the names of the variables may have changed, but the focus of this cumulative work we have been privileged to pursue remains essentially the same: the identification, conceptualization, measurement, and validation of the protective and recovery factors operative in family systems faced with family risk factors as well as crisis situations. As work progresses over the years, we continue to engage in an analysis and reanalysis of our findings in an effort to isolate common denominators that appear to be both protective and recovery factors in families struggling to survive and to negotiate life's normative and non-normative changes. Given the opportunity in this manuscript, it might be useful to put forth results of the analysis in an effort to summarize our observations. Because these observations deserve additional verification, we also encourage more work and testing to advance both measurement and theory building. Ten general resiliency factors (protective and recovery) have emerged and deserve brief mention.

1. Family problem-solving communication. In the face of normative and nonnormative life events and changes, family members must communicate. Communication is the very tool through which families can create shared sense of meaning, develop and orchestrate coping strategies, and maintain harmony and balance. Families appear to have at least two basic patterns of communication, affirming (i.e., pattern of family communication that conveys support and caring and exerts a calming influence such as talking things through to reach a solution) and incendiary (i.e., pattern of family communication that tends to exacerbate a stressful situation such as yelling and screaming). All families have both, but in the face of risk factors and crises the incendiary pattern may dominate, causing the resultant imbalance to contribute to family deterioration and undermining the family's ability to adapt. A family system that emphasizes affirmation as its primary pattern of communication increases its potential for recovery and minimizes the family's risk for dysfunction.

2. Equality. The 1995 Beijing Conference on Women pointed to the importance of an international movement to give women greater equality as well as opportunity. This same theme emerges in the context of resiliency research in crisis situations (McCubbin & Dahl, 1976; McCubbin, Dahl, Lester, & Ross, 1975). All too often, policies and programs undermine the family member's ability to act constructively on the family's behalf. Policies may be constructed to empower only select members of the family, such as the husband, and in so doing undermine the independence and self reliance so needed to manage a crisis situation. The importance of self-reliance and independence grounded in equality appears to play a significant role in fostering family adjustment and adaptation.

3. Spirituality. When catastrophic life events occur, families face the reality that their crisis situation cannot be explained by reasoning and logic alone (McCubbin & McCubbin, 1986; McCubbin, Dahl, & Hunter, 1975). Bad things just happen. The family pain and trauma also cannot be ignored, particularly when causes of the trauma or crisis situation cannot be established. Having a member missing, unaccounted for, or killed encourages families to find meaning and even justification through their spiritual beliefs and practices.

4. Flexibility. In the face of risk factors and particularly in the context of family crises, flexibility emerges as an important protective and recovery factor in the family's efforts to maintain stability and recover from adversity (Olson et al., 1983; McCubbin, Thomoson, Pirner, & McCubbin, 1988). Particularly in the face of family crisis, families are compelled to change their patterns of functioning, including roles, rules, meanings, and, in some cases, lifestyles to achieve harmony and balance and to recover (McCubbin, Dahl, Lester, Benson, & Robertson, 1976; McCubbin & McCubbin, 1988).

5. Truthfulness. Ambiguity is an inherent element of family crisis. Not only is there a lack of clarity as to what families can and should do, but society often does not offer the much needed blueprints for managing the situation; such blueprints are necessary for facilitating the family's adaptation in these destabilizing situations (Lavee, McCubbin, & Patterson, 1985; McCubbin, Dahl, & Hunter, 1975). Furthermore, the family may not have all of the facts and information needed to respond as in the case of a child with a chronic health condition or requiring a major at-home care regimen (McCubbin, 1984; McCubbin, 1988). In the context of family crisis situations where the family's patterns of functioning may need to change and the family seeks to change their social, psychosocial, and economic situations, getting the information--the truthful facts--is vital to the family's adaptation process. Crisis situations demand not only truthfulness in the family system but also truthfulness from those social, medical, and political agencies and programs that inform and guide families in these difficult times and circumstances.

6. Hope. The absence of or a cloudy picture of the future often accompanies families faced with threatening or family-system-altering life events and changes. Situations such as the prolonged absence of a member (McCubbin & Dahl, 1976), a death in the family (McCubbin, Dahl, & Hunter, 1975), or a member with a serious chronic illness (McCubbin, 1984) are likely to tax the family's patterns of functioning and, importantly, cast doubt upon the family's future. Family crisis situations that demand changes in the family's typical patterns of functioning are often accompanied by a sense of helplessness and diminished hope. Vital to resiliency and the process of family adaptation is the family's ability to maintain an element of hope; that is, the family must have wishes or desires that are accompanied by a confident expectation of their fulfillment.

7. Family hardiness. There is little doubt that when confronted with risk factors and crisis-producing events, the family system is taxed, oftentimes to the limit. These situations call for the family "troops" to work together and to rally their collective strength to maintain a sense of integrity and purpose (McCubbin, Dahl, & Hunter, 1975; McCubbin, Thompson, Thompson, & McCubbin, 1993; Oe, 1995). This "steeling" quality of family systems is often referred to as family hardiness. Family hardiness is inclusive of a shared commitment to work together to attack and solve the presenting problem; the family reframes and defines the hardships it experiences as challenges. The family views itself as having a sense of control and influence over the outcome.

8. Family time and routine. All family systems work to develop patterns of behavior and functioning with the sole purpose of creating predictability and stability, the milieu for harmony and balance. Families cultivate such practices as having meals together, spending quality time with the children, or just simply "hanging out together," often referred to as family time and routines. Even a simple sharing of a glass of water at bedtime can become a routine, a vital aspect of family living that can give special meaning and value to family relationships. When a family crisis occurs, family time and routines are often disrupted, set aside, or canceled and replaced by a total devotion to the family problem and all of its accompanying hardships. The family's care of a seriously ill member, a disability, or a loss is best accompanied by a companion commitment and effort to sustain some family practices and routines to maintain the family's stability and continuity in the face of adversity.

9. Social support. The family stress and coping literature is replete with emphasis on the importance of social support both as a protective factor and as a recovery factor. In the face of risks, the family draws from a network of relationships to facilitate its durability. In the case of a crisis, the family system not only draws from extant sources of support but oftentimes will seek additional, if not unique, forms of support that will help give meaning to the situation, help develop coping strategies, and, more importantly, foster the family's ability to change (Cobb, 1982; McCubbin, Thompson, & McCubbin, 1996; Olson et al., 1983). Social support emerges as having five dimensions: emotional support (e.g., sharing information of caring), esteem support (e.g., sharing of information affirming the value of family members and what they do), network support (e.g., sharing information that members belong to a larger group to whom they have a responsibility and from which they get something in return), appraisal support (e.g., sharing information of evaluation to give members a sense of boundary), and altruistic support (e.g., sharing of information indicating the importance of giving of one's self for the benefit of others as a means of enhancing once's self esteem and worth.

10. Health. There is little doubt in the minds and reasoning of family scientists that the physical and emotional health and well-being of family members are essential protective and recovery factors in promoting resiliency in family systems. After all, if family members are not healthy, the entire family system becomes vulnerable. Yet the studies confirming this line of reasoning are not conclusive. Because the physical, psychological, and interpersonal well-being of family members is often adopted as the outcome measure of resiliency, seldom are their well-being and health predictors of family system outcomes. Health of family members, therefore, remains a viable protective and recovery factor in explaining the variability in resiliency in family systems.


In his book, The Healing Family, Nobel Prize Laureate Kenzabuo Oe (1997: pp. 10-12) describes his family's plight--challenges, hurts, anger, frustration, and excitement--that resulted when Hikari, his son, was born with a brain abnormality, meaning his mental development would be slower than that of other children. In spite of the difficulties, the Oe family bounced back from the adversity and found meaning and purpose in the situation. In describing resiliency in both the family unit and in Hikari, Kenzabuo noted:

"As Hikari was growing up, it gradually became clear that his mental development would be slower than that of other children, but my wife remembers his sensitivity to music from the time he was an infant. When he was barely 3, he could already recognize a piece of Beethoven ("Bebe") or Chopin ("Unpa"), which we had playing constantly in his nursery.... Mozart and Bach, along with his first loves, Beethoven and Chopin, became his constant companions ... It was not until he began learning the piano with Kumiko Tamura... that he had a chance to compose his own music.
"Sitting nearby with a book, listening to his piano lessons, I can feel the best, most human things in his character finding lively and fluent expression.... I feel in awe of the richness of his inner life....
"I am not someone who believes in any faith, but I find it hard to deny that there is something ... something akin perhaps to 'grace' in this music ... Indeed, listening to Hikari's music... makes me appreciate in it the full meaning of the word: not only 'gracefulness' and 'virtue' but a 'prayer of thanks."'

Kenzabuo's candid account of family life with his handicapped son brings to center stage how families from all walks of life and across all levels of economic earnings face life hardships and catastrophic circumstances; even when they falter, they usually bounce back. It is this ability of the family to face life's challenges and seemingly unfair hardships and endure and recover that will continue to inspire family scholars to pursue this line of inquiry in the future.


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This project was funded by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (#DA10067) (Paul Moberg, Lynn McDonald, Principal Investigators and Hamilton I. McCubbin, Co-Investigator), Center for Health Policy and Program Evaluation; by the Agricultural Experiment Station, the National Network for Family Resiliency, and the Institute for the Study of Resiliency in Families, University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Figure 1: Relationship between risk factors, protective factors, family crises, and recovery factors.

Table 1. Family Protective Factors Across the Family Life Cycle
Family Stages

Protective Factors

Young Adult
Empty Nest
Accord: Balanced interrelationship among family members that allows them to resolve conflicts and reduce chronic strain.XX
Celebrations: Acknowledging birthdays, religious occasions, and other special events.XXXX
Communication: Sharing beliefs and emotions with one another. Emphasis is on how family members exchange information and caring with each other.XXX
Financial Management: Sound decision-making skills or money management and satisfaction with economic status.XXX
Hardiness: Family members' sense of control over their lives, commitment to the family, confidence that the family will survive no matter what.XXXX
Health: The physical and psychological well-being of family members.XX
Leisure Activities: Similarities and differences of family member preferences for ways to spend free time.X
Personality: Acceptance of a partner's traits, behaviors, general outlook, and dependability.XXX
Support Network: Positive aspects of relationships with in-laws, relatives, and friends.XX
Time and Routines: Farnily meals, chores, togetherness, and other ordinary routines contributing to continuity and stability in family life.XXXX
Traditions: Honoring holidays and important family experiences carried across generations.XXXX

X--Important to specific stage of family life cycle.
Adapted from McCubbin & McCubbin, 1988.