In 1955, researchers Emmy Werner (University of California, Davis) and Ruth Smith (licensed psychologist, Kauai) began a longitudinal study that followed all of the children born on the island of Kauai during that year.

In general, Werner and Smith found that there were a percentage of children in their sample that faced very adverse conditions as they grew: perinatal stress, chronic poverty, parents who had not graduated from high school, and family environments that were engulfed in the chronic discord of parental alcoholism or mental illness. Many of these children developed serious problems of their own by age 10. However, to the researchers’ surprise, about one-third of the children in adverse situations did very well in their lives. Werner and Smith called them the “vulnerable, but invincible.”

The researchers checked in with the study participants regularly until they reached the age of 40. Aside from the “vulnerable, but invincible” children, it was noted that even more of the high-risk children began to do better as they got older. Werner and Smith found that many of the cohort who experienced difficulties when they were teenagers – delinquencies, mental health problems, pregnancies – had become successful, functioning adults by the time they reached their third and fourth decades.

How did these people thrive in spite of their early circumstances? Although surrounded by potentially debilitating “risk factors,” the part of the cohort that showed the most resiliency were those who had access to buffering elements known as “protective factors.” Werner and Smith’s decades-long study showed that, although an innate capacity for resiliency helps, it is never too late to develop protective factors to bounce back from adversity.

Let’s look at some of the most common protective factors and how they can be nurtured and grown even in adulthood.

Reasoning Ability: Being able to problem-solve helped children increase confidence and plan for the future. How confident are you about your problem-solving capabilities? The Mayo Clinic has a simple problem-solving strategy here.

Emotional support outside of the family: Resilient people have at least one friend and a network of supportive people available when they encounter a crisis. For many of the children in the Kauai study who struggled as teenagers, it was the presence of at least one caring, committed adult that made the difference — someone who provided the anchor that helped them weather life’s adversities and taught them how to survive and thrive.

Answer this question: Who would I call if I was in a car accident or my paycheck was delayed at work and I needed a short-term loan? If no one comes to mind, it’s time to step out and develop a caring support network. Not sure how? Here’s another helpful article from the Mayo Clinic.

Inner direction (internal locus of control): The belief that one can impact her own destiny and that events result primarily from her own behavior and actions. Children with a high internal locus of control were achievement-oriented and assertive.

Are you in charge of your fate or is your fate in charge of you? Who is responsible for your life situation – you or something outside of you? To determine your locus of control and learn skills to increase an internal locus, see this article by Mindtools.

Autonomy: Being able to accomplish tasks alone.

Werner and Smith found that, even as toddlers, resilient children “tended to meet the world on their own terms.” How about you? Do you meet the world with confidence or apprehension? To increase confidence, set up a series of small tasks that you know you can do on your own. Celebrate what you accomplish! Then move on to more challenging tasks as you are ready. Does this mean you should always be able to accomplish tasks on your own? No, but it does mean that you make the decision to ask for help and feel good about receiving the help.

Sociability: Skills to elicit positive attention from others and to respond to others in socially acceptable ways. This means that people wanted to help the children because they were likeable and sought help in constructive ways.

Think of the last few times you received attention from other people. Was it because you were funny or helpful or thoughtful? Or was it because you demanded things go your own way and expected people to respond according to your demands? Here are just a few ideas about developing positive sociability:

  • Smile.
  • Be empathic. Listen carefully to the other person.
  • Help others.
  • Be open to learning new things (be an old dog who can learn new tricks).
  • Be a good team member.

High expectations/positive view of the future: Despite the negative issues in their lives, resilient children still could see a positive future for themselves. It also helped when significant adults such as teachers, club leaders, or a Big Brother/Big Sister held high expectations for the child.

Are you able to hold high (not impossible or unrealistic) expectations for yourself? Do you see your future as positive? If you answered no to either question, consider these ideas:

  • Meet with a friend who knows you well and have a frank conversation about your potential. It’s likely that your view of yourself is lower than the one your friend has of you. Discuss together why this difference in viewpoints exists.
  • Talk with a therapist about your self-expectations and learn to develop a sense of self-confidence and hope for the future.

Seizing opportunities: The people in the Kauai sample who started to do better once they were out of their teen years did so mainly due to taking advantages of opportunities that were opening up to them such as higher education, good jobs, and stable life partnerships. Look around you for opportunities to increase your education and life satisfaction. Learn what you need and want in a job that will make a satisfying career for you. Develop relational skills to attract and keep a solid life partner.

Werner and Smith’s study showed us that resiliency – especially the protective factors that facilitate it – can be developed throughout our lifetimes. We can learn a lot from kids!


Werner, E. E. and Smith, R. S. (2001) Journeys from Childhood to Midlife: Risk, Resilience, and Recovery by Emmy E. Werner and Ruth S. Smith. New York, NY: Cornell University Press.