Helping Families Enhance Resilience: Supporting a positive self-concept

This is the first article of a 3-part series titled Helping Families Enhance Resilience. The series explores how you (as a person providing social support) can help families deal with transition by developing effective resilience skills.


Resilient families may be defined by a number of characteristics, or categories of resilience. Some of these characteristics are:

  • The atmosphere of the family
  • Collaborative problem-solving and conflict resolution
  • Orientation to the wider community
  • Support for individual development
  • Effective communication and relationship skills
  • Nurturing behaviours, enriching time together
  • Clear family structures, legitimate authority
  • A congruent family story
  • Creating “we-ness”: a mutuality of concern
  • Creation of supportive and celebratory rituals
  • Strong meaning, purpose, and values, with room for the transcendent

If you are supporting a family in transition, you may perceive huge differences between them and the characteristics named above as belonging to resilient families. If so, you may be wondering: “So how do I help move my struggling family down the continuum towards greater functionality?” In these series we will address three principal areas of focus, which reinforce one another:

  1. Supporting a positive self-concept
  2. Encouraging effective parenting
  3. Creating supportive contexts

Any assessment you might make of your supported family would do well to include an examination of both protective traits (those factors which you realise are helping them to be more resilient) and also risk traits (those factors which are making it more difficult for them to respond with resilience). A thorough assessment, and any action plan developed from that, should look at individual, family, and also community factors (roughly relating to the three areas above).

Supporting a positive self-concept

Encouraging success; acknowledging accomplishments: Few would argue that those who perceive themselves as successful and competent will find it easier to maintain a positive self-concept, or that those who feel somehow “failed” or incompetent will find that same self-concept elusive. But what constitutes “success” for one person may be different from what another considers success. And in times of big change in a family, the roles, responsibilities, and ways of being that the members enacted before the change may no longer be relevant or valid. Making the same response to a situation as before may now generate a very different result, with the consequence that members may feel “all at sea”: ineffective with current options for response, but not knowing how to respond to the new challenges effectively.

Too, preoccupation with transitions in a family may mean that the adults – the primary validators – are unavailable to help acknowledge their children’s accomplishments. For all members, but especially for children, the positive but fragile self-concept that they may have been individually holding for a long time can be quickly undermined.

As a support person, you can have a major role in establishing dialogue with various members to ascertain in which areas they now feel challenged, and which achievements within the family or their outer world would help them to feel successful. You can help them to move towards those successes, acknowledging accomplishments that have occurred along the way. Your role as a modeller of validation can help parents, especially, to understand the importance of continuing to find the time/energy to notice and affirm their children.

The crucial thing to note is that, because perceptions of “success” and “accomplishment” can be so subjective, it is important to affirm people for those things that they value, especially in themselves. Otherwise, the validation is likely to feel hollow and be ineffective. Particularly in the case of major absence, such as with FIFO (fly-in, fly-out) or non-custodial parents post-divorce, it is crucial to help the “part-time” parent creatively find ways to emphasise validation when they are home. It will involve them in searching for strengths.

Searching for strengths: When a family is under siege from change, it may be difficult for its members to spot strengths that they have used to cope with the new situation. For example, in the case of a couple divorcing, their ten-year-old daughter may be attuned to her powerlessness to change the fact of Mum and Dad arguing, or Dad going away. As support person, you may be able to help her see that, while preventing the divorce was not within her capabilities, she did much to support the family’s resilience by continuing to do well in school despite all the chaos, and she used both wisdom and compassion in managing to not judge either parent, but continuing to cooperate with both of them.

A new stepmother, similarly, may be validated because she has managed to befriend her new husband’s children: striking that delicate balance between being available as a friend/adviser, but leaving the major discipline to their father. In the chaos of the transition to a remarried family, she may feel overwhelmed and not be giving herself credit for her relational and diplomacy skills. Because we are taught not to “blow our own horn”, you may find that you are able to more easily find hidden strengths in family members by inviting members to help you spot strengths in one another.

Encouraging compassion: When our world turns upside down, it is normal to want to “put things right” and get as quickly as possible back to normal. It often seems that figuring out who is to blame and punishing the offending party will allow normalcy to be restored. When a family is thrown into disarray through transition to a new state, however, what is needed is an extra dose of compassion. Yet an empathetic stance is often one of the earliest victims of change. Your role as helper and support person may be invaluable in encouraging members to reframe what has happened or how they are feeling, to see things in a more compassionate light.

For example, with school-age children adjusting to their FIFO father’s new long-term absences, there may be hurt or disappointment that, when Dad does come home, he is grumpy and tired for a day or two. You may be able to help the children recall a time when they were so tired that they practically couldn’t eat, let alone do anything else, and all they wanted was to drift off to sleep – or else they just wanted to punch their little brother, for no particular reason! Helping them to understand their father’s fatigue empathetically may also reduce feelings of rejection or invalidation that Dad isn’t more available; they may be more willing to let go of the urge to take Dad’s bad mood personally. You can also coach the children’s mother, if that is your principal liaison in the family, to ensure that she can work with the children on this.

In the case of families changing membership (new lone-parent families and heterosexual and gay/lesbian remarried families), there is an ever-present need to advocate for compassion for all of the members. Parents and teachers may complain that children are acting out, but a quiet non-judgmental session listening to the children is likely to reveal a sizable measure of unprocessed grief about the changes that they do not know how to express. Boundaries and rules must still be respected (i.e., homework must still be completed, hitting a sibling must still be resisted), but with the illuminating lens of compassion, all parties can work towards helping the members – especially the young members – find a way to work through feelings, thereby restoring good behaviour and more important, a good self-concept.

Changing negative self-talk: Just as helpers may be able to assist a troubled family member in reframing his or her stance to a more compassionate one, so we as support people may be able to help individuals reframe their self-talk to be more positive and affirming. Particularly when things seem to be exploding in the family, it is easy to begin giving negative messages to oneself which undermine both self-concept and also one’s capacity to resourcefully deal with crises. In a newly-formed stepfamily, for example, a child may find it easy to criticise himself, comparing himself to a similar-aged stepsibling who seems to have it all and be able to do it all. In this case, any self-talk such as, “Jim seems to be so talented; I can’t really do anything special” could be reframed as, “Jim is really talented, but I have my places of skill, too.”

In the case of new lone-parent families due to divorce, children often blame themselves, believing that if they had only been more obedient or helpful, they could have prevented the divorce. As support person, you can give such children – and through them the whole family – a priceless gift by picking up on such a dynamic, and re-routing their thinking. If negative self-talk seems to be running through your supported family (or to prevent it doing so), you may wish to encourage the parent(s) to initiate a “brag session”, say at dinner, in which everyone is invited to name something that happened during the day which helped them to feel good about themselves (children can be helped to understand which of those items probably need to remain within the family, and shouldn’t be talked about outside it). As support person, you can work with parents to help them catch negative self-talk on the part of their children and encourage them to gently invite the children to reframe statements.

In the next article in these series we explore how you can help move a struggling family down the continuum towards greater functionality by encouraging effective parenting.

This article was adapted from the Mental Health Social Support (MHSS) Specialty Program “Supporting Challenged Families”. For more information, visit