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What Is Positive Adaptation?

Positive adaptation, sometimes identified with “psychological resilience,” is a psychological system of coping skills employed by persons or families met with traumatic events.

This therapeutic coping system meets adversity and stressful situations with positive adjustment, growth and increased emotional resilience.


Positive Adaptation


Basic Theory

According to Jean Ann Summers, Shirley Behr and Ann Turnbull, in their study “Positive Adaptation and Coping Strengths of Families Who Have Children with Disabilities,” positive adaptation is the process of adapting to a negative situation rather than “fixing” it.

Using positive adaptation methods, an individual or family’s reaction to an emotionally stressful event potentially causes a “marshaling of resources” and puts focus on the positive aspects of a negative situation. As people meet an initial challenge, its solving “becomes a catalyst and improves other aspects of life.” Hamilton McCubbin and Joan Patterson’s book “Social Stress and the Family” calls this upward psychological spiral “bonadaptation,” in contrast to “maladaptation,” or dysfunction as a result of crisis.


Stress Theory

Stress theory, an important foundation of positive adaptation, states that persons or families stand to gain positive effects from undesirable events. In his 1949 book “Families Under Stress,” Professor Reuben Hill (viewed as the founder of stress theory) presents an ABCX formula where “A” represents a stressful event, “B” represents a person or family’s resources, “C” its perception of the event’s importance and “X” its reaction to the event.

The book “Social Stress and the Family” uses stress theory to illustrate that “stress can be productive in some instances” and that a “recipient experiencing stress . . . must adapt [to] reach a steady state [or] recover.”



Summers, Behr and Turnbull define the first step of positive adaptation as “casual attribution.” In this step, a person or family identifies the cause of a problem, thus achieving a sense of control, heightening self-esteem and acquiring a sense of meaning.

The second step, dubbed “mastery,” occurs when a person or family gains enough control over a situation to prevent if from occurring in the future. The third step is the improvement of self-esteem, achieved by selectively responding to the positive aspects and potential benefits of a negative situation and holding oneself in fair and positive esteem against others.



Positive adaptation applies to any situation that causes physical, emotional or mental stress or harm. Common situations addressed by positive adaptation include the death of a loved one, aging, debilitating physical injury, separation, violence, raising children with disabilities, divorce, abuse, loss of employment and natural disasters.



Positive adaptation has the capacity to promote resilience, tolerance, emotional understanding, resourcefulness, strength and professional and personal growth. It causes examination of the “meaning of life,” diverts resources toward prevention strategies, breeds competence under stress, improves self-concept, creates the capacity for trust and encouragement, increases self-reliance and establishes an adaptive system to apply to future catastrophe.

The resilience developed through positive adaptation is not static, but dynamic, an evolving process that adapts based on specific tragedy or threats. Empirical studies conducted by L. Wikler, M. Waslow and E. Hatfield in a 1983 article for Social Work Magazine illustrate positive adaptation, showing that 75 percent of parents of children with disabilities report that their non-traditional parenting experience makes them “stronger” or “much stronger.”


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