Learning from Resilient Kids
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.