Does Resilience Mean the Same Thing for Adolescents Around the World?

Some teens show resilience despite adverse conditions, but the individual, social, and community factors supporting resilience vary around the globe.

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If we think about a young, pregnant teen in Houston, Texas who finishes high school with a 4.0 GPA, she seems resilient. On the other hand, so would a 12-year-old Syrian refugee who has made a friend at his new school in Turkey. Are we able to compare the resilience of the two? Should we even try?

This was what we sought to uncover in our recent study. Even though many people may think of resilience as people who are strong despite difficulties in life, many researchers view resilience differently. Rather than see resilience as this internal personality trait, it’s more than that: a person has individual traits that matter but they also have supportive networks outside themselves that also help them succeed. Therefore, a person’s resilience includes having:  

  • Individual characteristics, such as knowing one’s strengths and being able to solve problems,
  • Friends who support them and stand by them,
  • Family members who provide for them, care for them and listen, and a
  • Community/context that treats people fairly and has resources for those who need them.

This means that a person is resilient when they have family, friends, and a community they can turn to when they face challenges and barriers. This also means that resilience is a little harder to measure.

Ungar and Liebenberg’s team sought to create a questionnaire that researchers and practitioners could use to understand the resilience of young people no matter where they were in the world. the Child and Youth Resilience Measure (CYRM) contains 28 questions relating to a person’s internal and external supports. Even though the creators developed it using leaders in a dozen countries, it wasn’t clear if the CYRM could or should be used elsewhere. A few other researchers had used it, and we wanted to know what to make of all of the information out there on the CYRM.

To do this, we conducted what’s called a psychometric meta-analysis, a technique that gives us a summary of all of the published work. We pulled information from the studies to see if we should trust it. We also took it further and asked for the data from all of the studies so that we could run our own analyses. Thanks to the generosity of other researchers, we could see if those main four categories (individual, friends, family, and community/context) held up across countries. We could also see if the CYRM was consistent in measuring resilience.

What we found was that the CYRM could be trusted somewhat to measure resilience. All of the information from studies indicated researchers could trust the results, but many studies left out crucial information that made it difficult to have the full picture. When we ran analyses ourselves, we reached three main conclusions:

  • Younger children and adolescents responded to the instrument in the same way as did both males and females. This supports the notion that youth respond similarly to resilience questions. Males and females and individuals of different ages can be compared as long as they come from the same context.
  • We also found that resilience does generally include the aspects mentioned, but we may not need all four categories. Three categories -- individual, social (combining both friends AND family), and community -- would better explain resilience.
  • This measure should not be used to compare youth from different countries or communities. While the CYRM can be helpful in understanding the resilience of individuals, users should not test resilience from different backgrounds. This means researchers shouldn’t try to use it to compare young people in small towns in Iran with others in Oxford or Cape Town or Lima. It doesn’t seem like the idea of resilience is viewed the same way by people across the globe.

This study has major implications for practitioners. Having students take the CYRM, a free and easily accessible instrument that has been translated into many languages, can help parents, counselors, and teachers identify areas of strength and growth for their child. Knowing that resilience is made up of these three aspects can help identify areas of need for students and support the student in specific and concrete ways. The results of the CYRM can also be used to help groups of students. Larger group interventions can be developed for schools or community groups when differences are found between age groups or genders.


Rachel Renbarger is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Duke University’s Talent Identification Program. Her research interests include best practices in providing educational supports for high-achieving and minoritized student groups in K-12 and postsecondary settings.

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