Translating Resilience Research Into Meaningful Knowledge & Skills for Individuals & Families

Family Science Impact: Q&A with NCFR Member Janis Henderson, Ph.D.
/ ONLINE PREVIEW: NCFR Report, Spring 2023

Family Science Impact
highlights how NCFR members are making a difference through their Family Science career and showcases their career journeys. See more about the many careers and professions of Family Science.

Janis L. Henderson, Ph.D.
Janis L. Henderson, Ph.D.

Name: Janis L. Henderson, Ph.D.

Current Job Titles:
—Educator/Consultant, J. Henderson Education Services (Hello, My Name is Resilient)

Tell us a bit about your current work and why it’s important.

My work is grounded in making research-based knowledge about resilience and a strengths-oriented approach to life meaningful on a day-to-day level. Often, people gain knowledge, but they do not know what to do with the knowledge. I work with individuals and families to facilitate knowledge acquisition that becomes integrated as understanding. While many people may understand resilience conceptually, they do not know how to move learned concepts from a surface level to an integrated understanding that allows them to gain related skills.

An example is the directive to “stay positive.” While staying positive is important, telling someone to stay positive does not necessarily translate to the person taking on the act of staying positive. A more helpful approach is to provide opportunities for the person to learn to identify elements that provide a sense of positivity amid struggles. It would also be meaningful and beneficial to develop cognitive skills such as perspective taking or reframing, and to develop emotion-regulation and emotion-management skills.

This work is also important because the impact can extend beyond the client. If I work with a young parent on learning to manage their cognitive and emotional expectations and response patterns, the shift they experience can then translate to their teaching and modeling of the integrated understanding and skills to others. Another example: I worked individually with a sibling pair. During a recent check in with one sibling, they indicated a change in their parent’s response patterns resulting from their own changed approach. It is exciting to see how change in one can impact change in many, including myself.

Although I have done organizational trainings for some time, I have recently begun to work with organizations to develop empowering workplace environments, with a focus on social issues such as inequity or oppression. Through consultation with leadership and staff training events, my goal is to redefine the norm of workplace environments. Organizations interested in this work typically grasp the important connection between organizational success and the mental and emotional well-being of staff.

What was your path to your current role? What shaped or influenced that path?

At 39, having been a stay-at-home mother, I realized my dream of going to college. Not sure of an exact career path, I enrolled in a Human Development and Family Science (HDFS) program and quickly knew I had made the right decision. My goal became to be a tenure-track professor with a practitioner emphasis, to move research and theory to practice.

Midway through my doctoral program, I found myself facing disability due to spinal and nerve damage. I like to joke that I was fortunate that one of my early interests as an undergraduate was resiliency, specifically the processes of developing resilience. My interest stemmed from watching my grandparents deal with the same losses and challenges yet having quite different outcomes in terms of feeling defeated versus having hopeful expectations for the future. From that early interest, I have been fortunate to apply the concepts to my own life and ultimately to facilitate others in doing the same.

How do you use Family Science knowledge or skills in your current work?

Family Science and developmental science are the foundation of my work, including the work I do with organizations. Much of what we know about interpersonal interactions within families translates to our friend-families, friendships, and professional relationships.

Also, I often use the content areas of Family Life Education as a roadmap for designing sessions for individuals or groups. For example, knowledge and understanding might begin at the individual level, then move to exploring the client’s place within societal groups, sprinkling in conversations that address resource availability or the influence of policy on well-being. Or, the work might begin at the group level, then move to an exploration of individual needs.

I find that even in a workplace training, concepts of family (e.g., parent guidance) can be useful as we work on knowledge integration and skill acquisition or development.

What is most rewarding or makes you proudest about the impact of your work?

Although working as a socially just environment consultant to organizations is a newer aspect of what I do, it has become a great passion for me. Facilitating change in how an organization approaches and copes with social issues is an exciting prospect, whether with an organization seeking a more balanced approach to their expectations of work/personal prioritization or seeking to intentionally create an equitable work environment. Recently, I was honored to be asked to work with a local community theater to address sensitive topics from an informed and compassionate lens. It is encouraging to see and be part of the changing norms and expectations of our social institutions.

What do you wish you would have known sooner along your education or career path?

I wish I had a better understanding earlier in my education and career of the value of creative endeavors. Often with clients, I use opportunities for the diffuse mode of brain functioning to facilitate some of the work. For example, I integrate writing one's own life narrative as part of learning to reframe one's perspective. Other forms of creativity integrated might include drawing, music, etc. 

What do you want the world to know about your work, or about Family Science?

There are two primary messages I tend to share in or about my work, and I think both are grounded in what I learned in Family Science. One, we can and should use our challenges to map out new pathways to strength and recovery. I encourage exploration of our struggles, looking to how a challenge can teach us or strengthen us. Exploring the glimmer of good or hope during troubling times can lead us beyond the challenge to recovery. It does not mean the bad is magically good. It is, instead, a shift of perspective. Sometimes the shift is tiny, but that tiny bit of good matters.

That brings me to the second message I tend to emphasize: the value of small. “Smalls” add up to “Bigs”! Consider the low success rate of large, sweeping New Year’s resolutions to understand that big is not always better. It is important to value and celebrate small, meaningful change. For me, those are key!