Shifting the Burden: Childhoods, Resilience, Subjecthood

When the dominant view that children are weak and need protection is combined with resilience thinking (a view that children can autonomously adapt to their circumstances and overcome adversity), even the most well conceived social interventions to help children deal with childhood trauma run the risk of placing the responsibility for the work of forbearance on children themselves.


J. Marshall Beier, “Shifting the Burden: Childhoods, Resilience, Subjecthood,” Critical Studies on Security, vol. 3, no. 3 (2015).


What is this research about?

Children are often viewed by society and scholars as being weak, vulnerable, and lacking political subjecthood, meaning that they are incapable of acting autonomously. However, this view does not consider the conditions that cause children to take certain actions. For example, in the case of child soldiers, young people may be motivated to join by material benefits to them. An incomplete view of children’s subjecthood becomes especially problematic where scholars favour resilience thinking. The purpose of this research is to critically examine the idea of resilience thinking in relation to childhood insecurity caused by external circumstances.

What did the researchers do?

The researcher drew from relevant literature in the field of Critical Security Studies to reflect on the positions occupied by children as child soldiers in war zones and as victims of natural disasters and in other more commonly experienced traumas, such as divorce.

What did the researchers find?

The researcher found that:

  • The dominance of the view that children are weak and vulnerable may move parents to place children in therapy when difficult situations occur, such as divorce, despite the fact that the most effective supports during these periods of adjustment are often non-interventionist ones, such as positive social environments at school and amongst peers. The emphasis on the role of the therapist in helping children adjust may narrow the kind of non-interventionist social support available to children.
  • Resilience thinking may appear to assign children a legitimate subjecthood by asserting that children can act autonomously by adapting to their deplorable circumstances. However, when the dominant view of children is combined with resilience thinking, the logic behind therapeutic interventions becomes such that the child bears practical responsibility for the work of forbearance. Resilience thinking promotes the acceptance of the circumstances by placing the emphasis on adaptation. The effect is to naturalize adversity and place it beyond the focus of the intervention, leaving the child no sense of any means to change his or her current circumstances. This also takes away the responsibility of those who actually have the power to address, remediate, and resolve the issues that the child is facing.

How can you use this research?

This research can help social workers and pediatric specialists to re-examine the current manner of thinking about children's lived experiences and of childhood itself. The issues it raises have significance also for other fields, such as Security Studies, in which resilience has drawn increasing interest in recent years. It is important to reflect on the political possibilities that resilience thinking enables and disables, and for whom, before adopting this view in research and in clinical fields dealing with issues of child trauma, mental health and wellbeing.

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