This past week I was thinking about resilience. What enables some to overcome and thrive while others fall into and remain trapped in the pitch black rabbit hole? I thought about what I had written about resiliency in A Fight to Be and after re-reading it I copied it below.
“They are the ‘invincible kids,’ the survivors of horrendous abuse and neglect. They have defied their predicted fate. Unlike children whose troubled adult lives reflect the trauma of their childhoods, these children develop into “well-adjusted adults.” Their ability to thrive despite the adversity of their environment and upbringing was once thought by experts to be mainly the result of being born with certain innate abilities and temperaments. The longitudinal research of child psychologist Emmy Werner is helping us to understand that many children have the capacity to overcome even the most staggering odds. Her results suggested that the developmental outcome was more dependent on the quality of the environment in which the child was raised than the biological or psychosocial risk condition. Werner and Smith studied a cohort of 700 children born on the island of Kauai from 1955-1995. Due to multiple risk factors at birth, approximately one-third of these babies were considered high risk. Of these, seventy grew in healthy ways and developed no severe problems. They appeared to be invulnerable to their life-compromising risk factors. Moreover, Werner’s follow-up of children at age forty suggests that a person who has faced childhood adversity and overcome it may do even better in later life than someone who had relatively smooth childhood experiences. The resilient children reported stronger marriages, better health and little sign of emotional turmoil when compared with those who enjoyed less stressful origins.
I am struck by the parallels between the resilient kids and psychiatric survivors. What are the informed guesses about who will survive and who will thrive? The Kauai study shows that despite highly adverse conditions, the presence of later positive experiences with a caring adult, and circumstances like a safe place where trust can develop, can help the child to grow into a confident, caring, competent adult. I am particularly impressed by how similar buffers (protective factors) are important to both psychiatric survivors and the “invincible kids.
Defying the gloom-and-doom predictions of experts, the psychiatric survivor and the resilient child teach us valuable lessons. With evidence showing that children born into terrible circumstances are able to thrive, and research showing recovery from schizophrenia, we need to direct our efforts at constructing pathways to resiliency. The research indicates that the lessons learned from these nearly invincible kids can teach us how to help all kids to handle the inevitable risks and turning points of life. Instead of exclusively studying children who fail, we can focus on learning from the children who survive and thrive. The same might be said for studying the stories of psychiatric survivors.”
Every soul has to learn the whole lesson for itself. It must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)