It has been clear for a long time that a child who grows up in an environment dominated by adversity is more likely to enter adulthood scarred psychologically, and as a result is less likely to succeed. This well-described association has in the last few years become a hot button topic. A 2012 American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement alerted pediatricians to their potential role in identifying and managing what is now referred to as “toxic stress” (“Early Childhood Adversity, Toxic Stress, and the Role of the Pediatrician: Translating Developmental Science Into Lifelong Health”).
Although a childhood in which challenges outnumber advantages is often followed by an adult life characterized by failure and dysfunction, there are a few individuals who not only survive a disadvantaged childhood unscathed but somehow manage to thrive in its wake. For example, Joe Rantz, the central figure in Daniel James Brown’s nonfiction best seller “The Boys in the Boat” (New York: Viking Press, 2013) was abandoned several times by his family but emerged to power the University of Washington crew team to victory in the 1936 Olympics. Intrigued by these outliers, a developmental psychologist and clinician from the University of Minnesota named Norman Garmezy began looking for features that may have allowed these exceptional people to succeed and even excel despite incredibly difficult circumstances (“ How People Learn to Become Resilient ,” Maria Konnikova, The New Yorker, Feb. 11, 2016). His search for the characteristics that might have protected these individuals as children from the acute and chronic environmental threats of their disadvantaged childhoods has spawned a breed of developmental psychologists who devote their research to a quality now referred to as “resilience.”
In 1989, Emmy E. Werner, Ph.D., published a study of 698 children on the island of Kauai in Hawaii and identified several elements that might predict resilience (“Children of the Garden Island,” Sci Am. 1989;260:106-11). Not surprisingly, one factor was the good luck of having formed a strong bond with a supportive person such as a caregiver or mentor. However, Dr. Werner also discovered that resilient individuals possessed a set of psychological characteristics that included a positive social orientation prompting them to “meet the world on their own terms.” They were likely to be autonomous and independent and had the attitude that “they, and not their circumstances, affected their achievements.”
These findings lead to the obvious question of whether those attributes that can protect against adversity can be taught. George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University’s Teachers College, found that an individual’s perception of the situation is the key element in resilience. In the New Yorker article on resilience, he was quoted in an interview as saying, “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic.” In his studies he has found that individuals can be taught how to reframe an event in positive terms that was initially perceived as negative. Unfortunately, the reverse can occur, and as Dr. Bonanno also said in the interview, “We can create or exaggerate stressors very easily in our own minds.” Every event is potentially traumatic if we perceive it that way.
Could it be that in some situations our behavior as adults, parents, and professionals creates an environment that transforms an event into one that is more easily perceived by a child as traumatizing? While it is important to be on the lookout for children who have been emotionally traumatized by an unfortunate event such as a school shooting, we must be careful to keep our responses measured and positive. Children should be reminded that it is they who control their own behavior and achievements, not the circumstances in which they find themselves.
Parents should be reminded that hovering and overinvolvement in their children’s lives is preventing the development of independence and a sense of autonomy, two important characteristics of resilience. The trend in education that emphasizes group solutions may be helping some children learn to cooperate with others and function as a team. But, we must also remember to offer each individual child abundant opportunities to learn so that he or she can also rely on himself or herself to solve problems.
Few of us will ever have the capacity for resiliency demonstrated by Louis Zamperini in the nonfiction best seller Unbroken, but we can and should be doing a better job helping children learn that even in the most adverse conditions, they have some control – if not over the circumstance, then at least over their perception of it.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.”