Factors that foster resilience in Aboriginal adolescents and implications for early intervention

Christian Young, Australia, November, 2019

Resource Summary

This short article is adapted from the following paper: Young, C., Craig, J.C., Clapham, K., Banks, S., Williamson, A. (2019). The prevalence and protective factors for resilience in adolescent Aboriginal Australians living in urban areas: A cross-sectional study. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 43(1), 8-14. Read the full paper here.

Most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adolescents in Australia grow and flourish in supportive family environments that enable good mental health and social development. For some, however, adolescence is marked by significant threats to mental health that can be caused or exacerbated by experiences of discrimination, low socio-economic environments, and the historic and ongoing marginalisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture (AIHW, 2018; Mission Australia, 2017; Blair, Zubrick & Cox, 2005). Despite these challenges most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people are resilient, showing positive outcomes despite the presence of adversity (Hopkins, Zubrick & Taylor, 2014; Young, Tong, Nixon et al., 2017).

The Study of Environment on Aboriginal Resilience and Child Health (SEARCH)

The Study of Environment on Aboriginal Resilience and Child Health (SEARCH) is a large-scale cohort study that seeks to identify the causes and trajectories of health and wellbeing in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children (aged 0-17 years) and their caregivers. The cohort consists of children and caregivers who reside in urban and large regional centres in New South Wales, Australia (SEARCH, 2010).

What did the researchers do?

The SEARCH researchers investigated what protective factors helped Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people to be resilient. Based on previous SEARCH research, ‘resilience’ was defined as normative social and emotional wellbeing and a ‘protective factor’ was defined as any variable that is associated with better social and emotional wellbeing outcomes (Young et al., 2017).

Interviews with 36 SEARCH Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members revealed a number of individual, family and community factors that they believed fostered greater resilience in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people (Young et al., 2017). These factors included:

  • cultural knowledge
  • weekly exercise
  • adequacy of activities available to young people
  • family encouragement to attend school
  • someone to talk to if there was a problem.

Recently, researchers were able to test the relationship between these five factors and the emotional and behavioural strengths of adolescents who participated in the SEARCH study.

119 urban Aboriginal adolescents aged 12-17 years were asked to rate:

  • their knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture
  • the number of days per week they exercised
  • how satisfied they were with the availability of youth activities in their area
  • how much encouragement they received from their families to attend school regularly
  • if they had someone to talk to if there was a problem.

These adolescents were also asked to complete the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) (Goodman, 1997), which aims to measure children’s emotional and behavioural difficulties (e.g. anxiety, temper), including prosocial behaviour (e.g. empathy, kindness). SDQ scores are used to indicate whether children are at low, borderline or high risk of clinically significant emotional and behavioural problems.

What did the researchers find?

Most adolescents did not score in the high-risk range for emotional and behavioural problems (84%) or for poor prosocial behaviour (92%). After accounting for the influence of age, gender and family income, adolescents who received a high amount of encouragement to attend school regularly were less likely to be at high risk of emotional and behavioural problems. Adolescents who exercised at least once per week and those who had someone to talk to if there was a problem were less likely to show poor prosocial behaviour.

What are the implications of the current study for supporting the resilience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adolescents, as well as that of First Nations children?

This study suggests that most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adolescents participating in SEARCH possess emotional and behavioural strengths that are indicative of resilience. Combined with previous research, the results provide further evidence for the importance of supportive family/peer environments and physical exercise to promote good wellbeing and resilience in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people (Averis, 2003; Dalton et al., 2015; Tsey et al., 2010; Zubrick et al., 2005). Given that this study was conducted with adolescents, it appears that further research is warranted to explore the role of these factors in promoting good wellbeing and resilience in younger age groups (i.e. children aged 0-12 years).

While greater cultural knowledge was not associated with better SDQ scores in the current study, the survey assessed only one aspect (i.e. knowledge) out of a range of cultural factors that are believed to play an important role in the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people (Colquhoun & Dockery, 2012; National Empowerment Project, 2017; Tsey et al., 2010). Examples of other key cultural factors include cultural traditions, identity and pride. Given that previous research has demonstrated the importance of cultural factors as determinants of health and wellbeing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, there is a case for further research into the relationship between cultural factors and resilience in urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and adolescents.

While many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adolescents in the current study did not score in the high-risk range for emotional and behavioural problems, the relatively high proportion who did suggests that more can be done to improve the resilience of First Nations adolescents. Early intervention and family and community empowerment programs that can encourage families to provide greater support, including scholastic encouragement, are likely to increase resilience in at-risk Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people (Tsey et al., 2010).

Similarly, the provision of physical/sporting programs tailored to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people may offer new experiences and challenges that foster greater self-efficacy and self-esteem that can lead to resilience (Averis, 2003; Lee et al., 2008). Holistic programs that can combine all these factors, potentially including sporting activities with counselling and educational services, may have the greatest chance of increasing resilience in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adolescents, and in younger children as well (Tribal Warrior Association Inc., 2011).

Programs that are co-designed with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community in a manner that supports self-determination, are respectful of the autonomy of individual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and can build capacity and strengthen relationships are more likely to be effective long-term, sustainable and to encourage greater participation (Lee et al., 2008; Peralta & Cinelli, 2016; Young et al., 2016). Such programs are also more likely to be successful in enhancing resilience.

Given the current health gaps between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and non-Aboriginal people, a greater commitment from policy makers to provide such programs seems pertinent.

References
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National Empowerment Project. (2017). Cultural, Social and Emotional Wellbeing Program Evaluation 2014-2017. Retrieved from: http://www.nationalempowermentproject.org.au/ 

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Young, C., Craig, J. C., Clapham, K., Banks, S., & Williamson, A. (2019). The prevalence and protective factors for resilience in adolescent Aboriginal Australians living in urban areas:  A cross-sectional study. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health. 43(1), 8-14.

Young, C., Tong, A., Gunasekera, H., Sherriff, S., Kalucy, D., Fernando, P., & Craig, J. C. (2016). Health professional and community perspectives on reducing barriers to accessing specialist health care in metropolitan Aboriginal communities: A semi‐structured interview study. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 53(3), 277-282.

Young, C., Tong, A., Nixon, J., Fernando, P., Kalucy, D., Sherriff, S. … Williamson, A. (2017). Perspectives on childhood resilience among the Aboriginal community: an interview study. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 41(4), 405-410.

Zubrick, S., Silburn, S., Lawrence, D., Mitrou, F., Dalby, R., & Blair, E. (2005). The Western Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey: the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal children and young people. International Journal of Epidemiology, 35, 888-901.