(The article below is an excerpt from my book, Crazy Was All I Ever Knew: The Impact of Maternal Mental Illness on Kids. I have used a pseudonym to protect the privacy of family members.)
Research shows that many children who experience adversity are amazingly resilient.
Why do some children who experience trauma adapt and overcome, while others suffer long-term consequences that hold them back in life? Researchers from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University found that “no matter the source of hardship, the single most common factor for children who ended up doing well is having the support of at least one stable and committed relationship with a parent, caregiver, or other adult.”
As the daughter of a mentally ill mother, I endured multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). For me, my brother, Alec, six years older, functioned as the supportive adult in my life—even when we were both still kids. Once when I was 2, Alec stopped my mother from inflicting serious physical abuse. Another time, when I was 14 and hospitalized for anorexia, he walked me over to a mirror and said, “Look at you. You’re a skeleton. You’re going to die if you don’t eat.” I knew he loved me, and I decided I didn’t want to die.
Throughout the years, Alec tossed me the lifelines I needed to surmount adversity.
According to the Center on the Developing Child, one way to understand resilience is to envision a seesaw: “Protective experiences and adaptive skills on one side counterbalance significant adversity on the other. Resilience is evident when a child’s health and development are tipped in a positive direction, even when a heavy load of factors is stacked on the negative side.” (For a better understanding of this process, you can play Tipping the Scales: The Resilience Game on the Center on the Developing Child website. As explained on the website, the interactive feature is designed to help us learn how the choices we make can help children and the community as a whole become more resilient in the face of serious challenges.)
Some of Center on the Developing Child’s central findings on resilience include:
- “Resilience requires supportive relationships and opportunities for skill-building. Relationships help children develop key capacities—such as the ability to plan, monitor, and regulate behavior, and adapt to changing circumstances—that better enable them to respond to adversity when they face it.”
- “Resilience results from a dynamic interaction between internal predispositions and external experiences. Children who do well in the face of significant hardship typically show some degree of natural resistance to adversity and strong relationships with the important adults in their family and community.” This adds a new dimension to the “nature vs. nurture” issue. As it turns out, the ability of kids to develop healthy brains and resilience depends on both. Interaction between genes and the environment helps shape human development. The emerging field of epigenetics has found that “early experiences can determine how genes are turned on and off—and even whether some are expressed at all,” which influences behavior, health, and capacity for resilience. Another way to look at it: environmental experiences can determine whether certain markers on genes are activated.
- “The capabilities that underlie resilience can be strengthened at any age . . . What happens early may matter most, but it is never too late to build resilience.”
The Special Case of Highly Sensitive Kids
It may seem counterintuitive, but kids who are damaged the most may rebound the fastest. As reported by the Center on the Developing Child, the heightened sensitivity that makes some children fold in the face of adversity may help them rebound faster than other children when help is available.
No Resilience Gene
There is no such thing as a “resilience gene.” As noted by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, contrary to what some people think, it’s a misconception that “individual grit” or “some in-born, heroic strength of character can triumph over calamity.” That’s the stuff of movies. As resilience science tells us, kids overcome adversity by having supportive relationships with adults, exposure to positive experiences, and opportunities to develop effective coping skills.
I am the author of Crazy Was All I Ever Knew: The Impact of Maternal Mental Illness on Kids. My book combines memoir with research. My credentials include contributing articles to a Philadelphia daily newspaper on psychological, medical, family, and career issues. I was also an editor at a daily newspaper in Atlantic City. I live near a small seaside town in New Jersey with my husband Jack and our rescue dog, Maxie.