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Stefan Vanistendael: «Resilience is not built at any cost; it always has an ethical dimension»

Stefan Vanistendael (Utrecht, 1951) is a sociologist and demographer at the University of Leuven in Belgium

Stefan Vanistendael (Utrecht, 1951) is a sociologist and demographer at the University of Leuven in Belgium

Vanistendael, a proponent of the concept of resilience, participated in the Second Symposium on Victimology

Vanistendael, a proponent of the concept of resilience, participated in the Second Symposium on Victimology

09/05/2011

Entrevistes

Stefan Vanistendael (Utrecht, 1951) is a sociologist and demographer at the University of Leuven in Belgium. He has worked as a researcher at the Centre for Population and Family Studies in Brussels and since 1979 he has held various different positions at the International Catholic Child Bureau (BICE) in Geneva. Vanistendael, a proponent of the concept of resilience, participated in the Second Symposium on Victimology (De-victimization and repair: Fostering resilience and preventing secondary victimization) held at the University of Barcelona’s Paranymph Hall on 5 May. He is the author of numerous publications in this field of study, including the major Happiness is Possible. Awakening Self-confidence in Abused Children: Building Resilience (2002), “The Realism of Hope” (2004), and “Children’s Rights and Resilience” (2010).

 

There has recently been much talk of the concept of resilience, but it seems that experts conceptualize the term differently. Some understand it as an “ability”, others as a “process” or even as a “result”. How do you define resilience?
There is no universally accepted definition of resilience, but I don’t see this as a serious problem. The same holds true with concepts such as “time”, “love” or “humour” and yet we understand them well. It is often more important to see the concept’s link to reality. According to the Argentine psychologist Ramon Lascano, resilience appears on those paths in life that surprise us for the better, and this observation is the starting point for any discussion of resilience. A pragmatic definition would be that resilience is the ability of a person or group to overcome great difficulties and grow through or with them in a positive manner. This capability can be latent or visible, and is never absolute; it is always variable and is constructed in a process of interaction with the environment. It is often an unconscious process that takes place over a lifetime. Sometimes professional support is needed, but often it is not. An important issue that tends to be unfairly forgotten is that resilience always has an ethical dimension and that it is not constructed at any cost, because it is often unclear what “positive” growth entails. Hence, ethical reflection is very important.
 
You have stated before that resilience has three dimensions: a dimension of resistance, of construction or reconstruction of life, and even one that is close to what psychologists call sublimation. Is this correct?
Yes, but I prefer to use simpler words. So I say – for the third dimension – that what happens is the transformation of a difficult reality to a very good reality. This would be the case, for example, of the testimony of a person who says after a serious illness that the disease has made them a better person.
 
You designed the “house model” to demonstrate the components that make resilience possible. What is it exactly?
At first, the house was simply a communication tool to present some of the key elements that contribute to resilience in an easily understandable way. But groups and individuals in many different situations and countries began using the house as a tool to accompany the process of building resilience. Thus, the house has been transformed into a qualitative model for elements of resilience, such as the fundamental acceptance of the individual, constructive humour, the search for meaning, and so on. It is a small house consisting of several floors and rooms. Each room relates to an area of possible intervention for the construction or maintenance of resilience. The foundation represents basic material needs such as food and healthcare. The basement is composed of networks and relationships. The ground floor comprises the ability to search for meaning and sense in life. The first floor has several rooms: self-esteem, personal and social skills and sense of humour. The attic houses an empty room ready for new experiences to be discovered.
 
In terms of professional intervention, what basic conditions must be created to be able to really speak of a state of resilience?
It is important to accept that a technically correct intervention is important but not sufficient; the human quality of that intervention is also necessary. Typically, practitioners can build and conduct their interventions better if they integrate the resources of the person (victim) and his or her environment. The question is how we, in our diagnosis, can see beyond the problems and be aware of the resources of the person and how to mobilize those resources. The answer is simple: the professional must work with the patient. Although victims hold no responsibility for what has happened in the past, they do have their share of responsibility in this process for the future, along with the professionals who work to help them.
 
Do you think today’s Western society favours the processes of resilience in children?
It is impossible to give a global response. The relationships of acceptance and trust are as important to resilience as friendship and formal and informal support networks. We certainly live in a sometimes hostile climate, with highly conditional, competitive, or indifferent relationships: “You can do whatever you want, I don’t care.” This indifference is almost worse than a conflict. It is like saying, “You don’t exist for me.”
 
What guidelines can families give to help children develop resilience behaviours when faced with difficult situations?
I don’t know if we can talk about guidelines, but it is important that children – and adults as well – feel accepted and supported by their families, particularly in difficult situations, and that they can learn from their mistakes. It is not a case of promoting over-protection, which could stifle the individual, but we must try to always look on the bright side of things – without denying or ignoring problems – because that is how we can build. It is also important that each person develop self-esteem. Furthermore, in situations of extreme danger or distress it is crucial that the adults who are with the children remain calm, if at all possible. Studies show that this provides a much higher degree of protection for children.
 
In an interview you once said that the three graces of life are humour, beauty and love. Why?
Basically, because these three elements transport us a little beyond what we can control and they can help us to accept life in a very constructive way. They let us break free from the utilitarian ethic that is so strong in Western society and which I think is very harmful. Everything useful is important, but it’s not enough to live on. We can see, for example, that beauty (art, nature), although not strictly useful, is extremely valuable for many people working through difficult problems. In the case of humour, it has to be constructive, unlike the perverted humour of sarcasm, which is very dangerous.
 
Can you work with and enhance the sense of humour in children?
Indirectly yes, but it is important to create a climate of trust. If not, humour can quickly become aggressive. We can enhance the sense of humour through games, positive jokes, pleasant surprises, or through funny stories or movies, but we must always bear in mind that there are certain limits which must not be exceeded and that nobody can laugh about everything. One or two individuals with a good sense of humour in a group of children are often enough for the whole group to have fun. However, the sense of humour is developed to a large extent according to the age and abilities of the child, and learning can begin early if a trusted person plays with the baby.
 
 
 
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