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Psychological Society of South Africa. All rights reserved.

ISSN 0081-2463

South African Journal of Psychology, 40(3), 2010, pp. 318-326

The hidden resilience of street youth


Macalane J. Malindi and Linda C. Theron School of Education Sciences, North-West University (Vaal Triangle Campus), Vanderbijlpark, South Africa Macalane.Malindi@nwu.ac.za; Linda.Theron@nwu.ac.za The phenomenon of resilience among street children as a group of at-risk youth goes unnoticed, since they are not typically regarded as resilient. Street children are mostly categorised as vulnerable youth who need care and support, and this deficit view ignores the assets and resources that enable them towards resilience. Nevertheless, street children are remarkably resilient. Using a qualitative approach (semi-structured and focus group interviews), we explore the hidden resilience of 20 street youths in the Free State and Gauteng. The findings transform the popular conceptualisation of street youth as vulnerable and, instead, paint a picture of young people who negotiate resilient trajectories, strengthened in part by personal resources (that are typically unconventional), bonds to their peer groups, and religiosity, to cope resiliently with the multiple challenges of streetism. Keywords: assets, hidden resilience; protective resources; resilience; street youth Street children exhibit powerful signs of resilience, albeit hidden. Hidden resilience (Ungar, 2004) is a relatively novel concept, which refers to patterns of living that may not always fit in with mainstream psychological theories, or community conceptualisation, of socially appropriate behaviour, but that nevertheless encourage youth to bounce back from hardship. Traditionally, street children are not viewed as resilient. Rather, they are conceptualised as vulnerable, deviant, and maladaptive youth who suffer from a range of psychological disorders (Cockburn, 2004; Donald & Swart-Kruger, 1994; Guernina, 2004). Their patterns of living and risk are seen as almost synonymous: in addition to the complex social and familial risks that compel street children to choose life on the streets, on the street, they are vulnerable to all sorts of additional risks such as reckless motorists, inadequate shelter, abusive police officers, drugs, crime, prostitution syndicates, and bigger/older street youth who taunt and intimidate them (Frykberg, 2007; Human Rights Watch, 2003; Mathiti, 2006). More recently, some emerging literature (Bottrell, 2007; Cockburn, 2004; Conticini & Hulme, 2007; Donald, Lazarus, & Lolwana, 2006; Kombarakaran, 2004; Madu, Meyer, & Mako, 2005) has begun to challenge the notion of street children as helpless and hapless beings. This is where we position our article. Drawing on emergent literature that describes street youth as hardy and our work with street children, our aim is to delineate the antecedents of hidden resilience in and among street children and to demonstrate that street children do navigate towards, and negotiate for, resilience resources, albeit in unconventional ways. In this sense, we argue for the recognition of street children as resilient and acknowledgement that their resilience is often obscured by societal attitudes and practitioner expectations that these children are vulnerable. Health care professionals, as well as social service practitioners, will note from this article that street children have individual assets that, combined with ecological resources, enable resilience. As such, our article has the potential to move street children theory away from a deficit approach and to contribute to a transformed perspective of street children (Mertens, 2009). Our findings have the potential to nudge practice away from the traditional medical-model treatment approach that focuses on what is wrong (Duckworth, Steen, & Seligman, 2005; Engelbrecht, 2008; Peters, 2004) towards an asset-based approach (Ebershn & Eloff, 2006) that conceptualises street youth as co-authors of their enablement. Hidden resilience and street youth The concept of resilience has been the subject of vigorous research over the years, but, in essence,

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it refers to positive outcomes despite experiences of adversity (Masten, 2001; Masten & Obradovic, 2008). The role of ecological protective resources (such as supportive families, health-promoting schools, community organisations, cultural rites of passage) in buffering the potentially harmful effects of risk processes is recognised (Armstrong, Birnie-Lefcovitch, & Ungar, 2005; Masten & Reed, 2005; W ard, Martin, Theron, & Distiller, 2007), along with the individuals role in navigating towards, and negotiating for, resilience-promoting resources. In other words, resilience refers to the capacity of individuals to navigate their way towards resources that sustain well-being, the capacity of the individuals physical and social ecologies to provide resilience-promoting resources, and, lastly, the capacity of individuals, families, and communities to negotiate culturally meaningful ways to share resilience resources (Ungar, 2008). At-risk youth, including street children, often demonstrate hidden resilience, which, as noted earlier, involves non-typical pathways to health-promoting resources. These non-typical pathways do not fit in with regnant theories of child development, but they do promote a sense of meaning, purpose, participatory opportunities, belonging and attachment, recreation, financial stability, personal and social power, social support, food, and shelter (Ungar, 2004). At-risk youth often use what society labels problematic as pathways to resilience (Ungar, 2006). For example, it is common knowledge that street children actively adopt unconventional coping mechanisms that include deliberately wearing old, dirty clothes to elicit pity in the public, begging or engaging in petty theft to survive, sniffing glue to numb themselves to lifes hardships, and prostitution. Despite the risks inherent in these mechanisms, they enable street youth to negotiate daily risks, survive street life, and fulfil their needs for self-sufficiency and self-determination (Sauv, 2003). Although these coping mechanisms may be labelled socially 'unacceptable' or 'maladaptive', they cannot be written off, as resilience can be hidden in alternative, marginal, and often destructive behaviours (Bottrell, 2007; Donald & Swart-Kruger, 1994; Kombarakaran, 2004; McAdam-Crisp, Aptekar, & Kironyo, 2005; Ungar, 2004). In other words, adopting streetism is an unconventional expression of independence away from homes that are characterised by conflict, violence and experiences of insignificance, a desire to cope with adversity, and a way of navigating towards resilience resources (Donald et al., 2006; McAdamCrisp et al., 2005; Vogel, 2001). This navigation is fuelled by personal agency and by ecological resources. Street children organise themselves into socially cohesive groups, which offer security and emotional attachment (Awad, 2002). A child who joins street life is adopted and initiated by an experienced group of street peers (Vogel, 2001). The subsequent sense of belonging serves an adaptive purpose, since a sense of helpfulness, a sense of being valued, empathy, resourcefulness, and mutual aid are gained (Awad, 2002; Cheunwattana & Meksawat, 2002; Sauv, 2003). In addition, street children are often ecologically supported towards resilience by kind strangers, social workers, and NGOs (DAbreu, Mullis, & Cook, 1999; Kombarakaran, 2004). Earlier studies noted intrinsic assets that encouraged resilience in street youth, including humour, ingenuity, and tenacity (Evans, 2002). M ETHOD Our method evolved. Initially, we planned to introduce an intervention that might enable street youth. In order to comment on the usefulness of the intervention, we adopted a pre-test, post-test design (Leedy & Ormrod, 2005). In the pre-test, we used the Child and Youth Resilience Measure (CYRM) to measure resilience and discovered that the street youth who completed the CYRM recorded higher levels of resilience than both South African and international resilient youth who participated in the International Resilience Project (IRP, 2006) (see Figure 1). In order to understand this phenomenon, we interviewed 20 street youths. W e report the insights that emerged from this qualitative research.

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Figure 1. CYRM scores Participants Twenty participants (17 boys, three girls, Sesotho and isiZulu) were originally recruited to participate in the intervention study. The ages of the participants ranged from 10 to 17, and all participants attended school. Fourteen participants were from the Free State province and fell into the category of children on the street, meaning street children who spent time on the streets earning some money to supplement family income while maintaining links with their families (Ayuku, Devries, Mengech, & Kaplan, 2004; Pare, 2004). The other six participants were from the Gauteng province and fell into the category of street children in institutional care, meaning erstwhile hardcore children of the street who were accommodated in a shelter or institution (De Moura, 2005; Tolfree, 2003). Originally, we used a non-probability, convenience sampling strategy (Maree & Pietersen, 2007). W e chose participants for practical reasons (McBurney & W hite, 2004): they could assemble at the drop-in centre (as in the case of the 14 children on the street) or at the shelter (as in the case of the six street children in institutional care). These participants were easily accessible to us because we were acquainted with non-governmental organisation (NGO) representatives and social workers who worked with these youth. The NGOs, therefore, served as gatekeepers (Terre Blanche, Kelly, & Durrheim, 2006), mainly because they had vested interests in the rights, welfare, and well-being of the children in their care. The youth were ethically recruited to participate in the intervention study (Strydom, 2005). Following the CYRM results, we re-recruited the participants for the interviews by explaining that we needed them to help us understand resilience among street children. W e explained that there were no foreseeable personal risks or benefits to their participation, but that what we might learn from them would probably make a difference to how researchers and practitioners conceptualised and treated other street youth. They volunteered to take part in our study. Process The individual interviews were semi-structured and conducted with the 14 Free State youth by the first author in Sesotho. The audio-recorded interviews were transcribed and translated into English. The individual interviews lasted between 35 and 45 minutes each. The interviews took place at the drop-in centre after school. The basic questions included:

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W hat do you think you need to grow up well here? W hat kinds of children grow up well under the circumstances you find yourself in? W hat does it mean to you when others succeed? W hat would you say are the main challenges for you growing up here? W hat does it mean when bad things happen to you or those close to you? W hat or who helps you to cope with the bad things that happen to you? Please give me examples of problems you had and explain how you dealt with them? W hat do other people do to cope with the bad things that happen to them? Are there any stories you can tell of people who were in difficult circumstance but are successful in life now? 10. How does your culture help you to cope with difficult situations? After translating the interviews, the second author wanted some of the responses to be clarified or explored further. For this reason, shorter follow-up interviews were conducted with the participants. This exercise gave us the opportunity to probe further so that we could develop more trustworthy data. The first author, furthermore, conducted a focus group interview with the six Gauteng participants (using the same semi-structured questions). This interview was also audio-recorded, transcribed, and translated into English. The interview lasted 105 minutes and took place at the childrens shelter after school. Analysis W e (the first and second authors) read the transcripts independently. After multiple readings we independently labelled relevant parts of the data as they emerged (that is, we assigned inductive codes to data that shed light on participant resilience) (Nieuwenhuis, 2007). W e independently grouped these to form themes that explained our participants resilience (Terre Blanche et al., 2006). Although we focused on what emerged from the data, we were influenced by our knowledge of resilience theory and previous studies of resilient street youth (Bottrell, 2007; Donald & SwartKruger, 1994; Kombarakaran, 2004; McAdam-Crisp et al., 2005). In this sense, our analysis was both deductive and inductive (Merriam, 2008). Following this, we held vigorous consensus discussions during which we compared our coding and revisited the emerging themes (Nieuwenhuis, 2007). W e further heightened the trustworthiness of our findings by returning to some of the participants and asking them to critically comment on our interpretation. W e also engaged in peer debriefing (Creswell, 2009; Nieuwenhuis, 2007) by asking a social worker attached to local NGOs to comment critically on our emerging findings. By seeking divergent perspectives we pursued rigour and attempted to limit bias in our interpretation (Creswell, 2009). W e triangulated the themes emerging from the individual interviews with those in the focus group interviews thereby strengthening the confirmability of our findings (Creswell, 2009). W e searched for rich excerpts to illuminate the emerging themes in an effort to further the dependability of our findings and to guide possible future replication (Nieuwenhuis, 2007). Ethics W e received written permission from the relevant NGOs to conduct the study. This study was also ethically cleared by our institution. W e adhered to the ethical principles as set out by the Health Professions Council of South Africa (2006). We were mindful that street children are vulnerable to abuse as a disenfranchised group and we took pains to explain our study to them in detail. The rights of the participants were paramount to us. The participants volunteered and consented to participating by signing consent forms, which were co-signed by their parents, guardians, and/or caregivers at the drop-in centre and shelter.

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FINDINGS Our street participants attributed their resilience to personal resources (a sense of humour, assertiveness, agency, and self-regulatory skill), to their peer group, and to their religion. Individual resources The participants were strengthened by humour, which they derived from teasing one another: Ja [Yes], you can tease one another and laugh to forget about the bad things. If you have stress and someone cracks jokes you laugh and the bad thing gets out of your mind (Focus Group Participant [FGP] 2). Participants commented that they teased one another to forget about the stresses of street life and to shift their thoughts away from what was worrying or angering them. In this sense, humour appeared to be an adaptive defence mechanism (Carr, 2004) even though teasing is often not considered socially acceptable. Assertiveness is one of the characteristics of resilient people (Ungar, 2008). The participants in our study were likewise assertive and could stand up for themselves. For example, Participant G said: If someone does something I do not like, I immediately tell him that I do not like what he is doing. Sometimes, the participants demonstrated assertiveness in unconventional ways. For example, they related stories of fighting for their rights, especially since they were growing up without protection from adults. In this regard, Participant N said: if someone hits me, I hit him back. At times, fighting included violence: if violence occurs and you cant avoid it, just fight and defend yourself. If the person is bigger and stronger I stab him and as you know that is how you get into even bigger trouble (FGP 4). In other words, some participants relied on unconventional strategies to survive threatening treatment and used violence as a last resort, ever mindful that it could complicate their lives. The participants told stories that demonstrated agency as instrumental to their resilience (Schoon, 2006). They took action to deal with the challenges they faced. Often, this included socially appropriate forms of agency, such as asking for help if needed. Participant H related: Due to poverty at home no one could buy me clothes but I spoke to the care-givers here [at the drop-in centre] and they went to my home and after assessing the situation they provided us with food and clothes. However, all the participants also adopted socially inappropriate forms of agency to provide for their basic needs, including begging and isolated acts of vandalism: They go to town to beg for money while some go to public phones and wait for people to make calls and then vandalise the public phones to get the money to buy food (Participant I). Others were willing to lie to survive difficult circumstances: I realised that I was in trouble then. They [the police] asked me how old I was and I lied and said I was 15 (FGP 3). Their behaviour alludes to hidden resilience: these maladaptive acts facilitated coping with difficult lives (Kombarakaran, 2004; McAdam-Crisp et al., 2005:71). Similar unconventional, agentic behaviours have been attributed to other groups of resilient youth (Ungar, 2004). W e found it interesting that participants related stories that showed skill to regulate themselves socially. This included adjusting their public behaviour: I also agree that we must respect other people or else people might just think we children from the shelter do not respect other people None of us must be seen smoking [sniffing glue] what we smoke [sniffing glue] (FGP 4). In other words, these youth understood that to grow up well in their given community, they needed to demonstrate respect for the communitys values, even if they had a different set of values in private. It also included asking forgiveness when their behaviours had wronged others: I stole my mothers money and she became very angry with me. I went back to her and asked her forgiveness. She forgave me (Participant I). The ability to regulate oneself socially is an important resilience resource (Ungar, 2008). The peer group as resource The benefits of belonging to a group of street youth are seldom recognised by theorists and practi-

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tioners (Donald et al., 2006). Nevertheless, our participants clearly benefited from the sense of belonging that their peer group afforded. In response to a question about what made life difficult, Participant A related: Mothers abandon their children, go to Gauteng and never come back to them they are usually not as happy as children should be . [So] we tell friends [fellow street youth] who then try to cheer you up. These friends cheered one another up in a number of ways, including helping participants to adapt to street life and find good shelters. For example, FGP 6 related: I used to stay at another shelter before now. The care-givers there were bad and did not treat us well. They did not allow us any freedom at all we were not allowed to leave the premises ? I went out for about two hours. When I came back she assaulted me. She did not punish me in a way a parent should, she went to excesses like pushing me hard against walls. I decided to leave and the child I met on the streets told me about this shelter and I came here I feel better now. Another function of the peer group related to sharing coping skills and shaping more acceptable behaviours. Participant H explained: I used to bunk school and join my friends who were not in school and we used to smoke dagga but I stopped smoking dagga last year when I came here [to the drop-in centre] because the street children I now associate with do not smoke dagga. Once adopted into a peer group, participants could rely on their peers for advice and meaningful support: I know that I can rely on my friends here at the centre, they are always available when I need them for anything (Participant L). Such support included assistance with school work: Children here fight sometimes but at school we support each other, even with school work (Participant C). There was a sense of family and a belief that they were unfailingly there for one another. Lived experiences of peer group support were reciprocated by participants, who shared their meagre supplies of food with others and who tried to encourage street children to navigate towards available resources: There are other street children out there and I try to encourage them to come here so that they can also learn to make beads to make a living in future. (Participant H). Religion as resource As in other studies of resilient youth (Dass-Brailsford, 2005), participants reported how their religion enabled resilience, primarily by helping them to feel strong. Prayer was central to their hardiness: Some mothers are alcoholic. They drink and do not provide food for their children, but if such children pray and persevere they will succeed Yes, when life is hard, I pray and I gain power (FGP 2). Prayer also mediated magnanimity to others: My mother then neglected me and did not buy me anything, you see. But I pray that the Lord should help me to succeed in life and I will buy her things when I succeed in life (FGP 6). Their belief in a higher power guiding their lives aided navigation towards community resources (such as shelters): I never thought I would live here at the shelter but I think it was Gods plan for me to be here He removed me from the street and I can see that life has changed for all of us here (FGP 7). Some of the participants related that church attendance helped shape their behaviour and was a source of moral support: I love going to church because there they teach you what is right and wrong and when I have a problem I can talk to the Pastor for advice (Participant D). DISCUSSION Resilience was central to the stories told by the street youth in this study. As such, the findings add to nascent descriptions of street youth as hardy (Bottrell, 2007; Donald & Swart-Kruger, 1994; Kombarakaran, 2004; McAdam-Crisp et al., 2005). Moreover, the findings boost the relatively novel understanding of hidden resilience (Ungar, 2004) clearly street youth bounce back because they are not afraid to navigate unconventional paths.

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Although participants reported many instances of normative resilience-promoting mechanisms (such as asking for help, being assertive, reciprocating support, and making the most of shelters), their resilience was also informed by unconventional practices (including teasing one another in an attempt to provide humorous relief, engaging in violence, vandalising public property, telling lies, bonding with other street youth) and by values not typically associated with street youth (such as religiosity and purposeful regulation of behaviour). As with other cohorts of youth whose resilience are typically overlooked (Bottrell, 2007; Kombarakaran, 2004; Ungar, 2004), participants combined pro-social practices and unconventional mechanisms to rebound. W hile behaviours such as vandalising public property or stabbing an assailant cannot be condoned, they emphasise that street youth possess agency and assertiveness that can be channelled. Stories of street youth adjusting their public behaviour suggest a streetwise savvy, ingenuity, and flexibility. They also contradict perceptions of street youth as unmindful of the norms of society (Cockburn, 2004). In other words, embedded in the unconventional practices recounted by our participants are the seeds of resilience. Rather than judge or stereotype street youth, theorists and practitioners need to acknowledge that these coping mechanisms contain embryonic antecedents of resilience and nurture them. It is not expected that street children are religious (Guernina, 2004). Their religiosity is obscured by prejudice, as is the rich resilience-promoting value of street youths peer group (Donald et al., 2006). The finding that participants resilience was rooted in religion and peer-group belonging warns against traditional stereotypes of street children and their peer groups as deviant and maladaptive (Cockburn, 2004; Guernina, 2004). These findings challenge service providers and mental health practitioners to recognise and build on resilience-promoting values and practices of street youth. All of the above cautions against a charity approach of rescuing street children (Tolfree, 2003). It also militates against the age-old deficit perspective of street children as perennially vulnerable (Kruger & Richter, 2003; Schimmel, 2006; Van Rooyen & Hartell, 2002; Vogel, 2001). Instead, the findings urge recognition of street youths strengths and of the embryonic forms of their resilience and an asset-based approach (Ebershn & Eloff, 2006) to interventions with street youth. The transformed perspective of street youth as resilient young people implies that they should be co-authors of any interventions aimed at enabling them further. Our study has limitations, with implications for further research. The sample size was limited and skewed in terms of gender. Furthermore, all the participants had access to basic resources (for example, schools, meals at the drop-in centre, security at the shelter). More extensive studies with street youth (especially youth who do not have easy access to basic resources) and with female street youth are needed to gain an even deeper understanding of the resilience typically hidden in streetism. CONCLUSION Our findings transform the popular, medically inclined conceptualisation of street youth as perennially helpless, vulnerable and maladapted. In its place, we paint a picture of young people who negotiate resilient trajectories, strengthened in part by personal resources (albeit unconventional), bonds to their peer groups, and religiosity. This strength-based approach is in line with positive psychology, which focuses on unearthing strengths or assets that maintain wellbeing rather than on weaknesses that negate wellness (Duckworth et al., 2005). This does not mean that we whitewash the many challenges street youth face or condone antisocial coping mechanisms. Instead, we urge celebration of their rich ability to bounce back. In a country such as South Africa with its legacy of negative stereotypes and fundamental disrespect for fellow human beings (Jansen, 2009), it is high time that we extend respect to street youth as well and celebrate their resilience while amplifying its antecedents. REFERENCES Armstrong, M.I., Birnie-Lefcovitch, S., & Ungar, M. (2005). Pathways between social support, family

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