This article first appeared in the March/April 1997 issue.
I met my first resilient friend when I was 14, although I wouldn’t have used the word resilient then. It was 1963, John F. Kennedy was president, there was no such thing as an “Adult Child of an Alcoholic” and Matthew and I were both students at a small, competitive high school in Boston. Shooting up his hand in class, dancing the cha-cha to records at our weekend parties, Matthew was charged with energy and determination. He wasn’t the best looking boy in our class, but in 10th grade, he got the most beautiful girl in our class to fall in love with him. One spring he organized a whole bus load of us to go to Springfield to hear the Rolling Stones. Matthew was so bright in math that his teacher once showed one of his elegant proofs to a friend who worked for an academic journal. He eventually squeaked into Harvard, where he became captain of the ski team.
This was one layer of Matthew’s life. In our junior year, when I fell in love with him, he let me see another. His mother, he told me one night, was “an alky,” who was sarcastic, mean and dangerous when drunk. His sister spent most of her time holed up in her bedroom, drawing. His two younger brothers were raising themselves on the playgrounds and streets of Cambridge, often staying outdoors past dusk or eating supper with the families of friends. Their father lived in Manhattan, and the kids told him only a fraction of what was going on, because they didn’t want to have to move in with him and give up the friendships that had sustained them since grade school. To the extent that any of the children had a parent, it was Matthew.
One Sunday morning, Matthew told me he’d been up until 3 a.m. at the city emergency room: his mother had driven her car off an embankment, apparently deliberately, and had come close to killing herself. I don’t remember how we dropped the subject, but we did, and Matthew drove me and his brothers off to Plum Island in the family station wagon for a picnic and a day at the beach. He once told me that children from families like his either fell apart or became unusually strong.
Even then, I sensed he had not survived unmarked: there was an urgency to Matthew’s pursuit of good times, and he had a reserved, willful inner core. But he was not cruel to me or to anyone else; he was loyal, disciplined, competent and kind. I never saw him come close to giving up. And he had never seen the inside of a therapist’s office.
When I try to describe him, I am drawn to metaphors from the physical sciences: he was self-righting; he sprang back to his original shape despite the blows of outrageous fortune. I once read, in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, a description of how I think Matthew saw himself. “The world breaks everyone,” wrote Hemingway 32 years before he killed himself. “And afterward some are strong in the broken places.”
Not long ago, after writing for years about the often-devastating effects of trauma, sexual abuse and parental alcoholism, I became curious about resilience. Why had Matthew gone to Harvard when one of our classmates—whose parents had recently divorced—jumped out of a hotel window to her death, and another spent her senior year at McLean psychiatric hospital? Why had he survived when one of his closest friends—whose mother had committed suicide the year before—was beaten to death by drug dealers and his body dumped in the air well of a Boston apartment building? Was Matthew born resilient? Was he lucky? Had hardship tempered him, like steel? Why had he made it when other kids—seemingly as privileged and as severely stressed as he was—had lost their grip on their lives?
Matthew’s survival—better yet, his ability to thrive—challenges our culture’s conventional wisdom: that the nuclear family’s influence is paramount; that early trauma can’t be undone; that adversity always damages rather than challenges; and that children from sufficiently troubled families are pretty well doomed. This view isn’t mere superstition: plenty of retrospective research with clinical populations has shown that children of divorce, violence, alcoholism and incest are over-represented among adults leading damaged lives.
In the 1970s and 1980s, child development researchers, using statistical models drawn from public health and epidemiology, underscored the point by cataloguing a score of “risk factors”—poverty; overcrowding; neighborhood and school violence; parental absence, unemployment or instability—that increase a child’s odds of ending up as a delinquent, addict or chronic mental health casualty. The function is geometric, not linear: the more risk factors, the more astronomically the odds rise. One 1979 study by English resilience researcher Michael Rutter found that children exposed to one of six risk factors fared as well as other children, but those with four risk factors were 10 times as likely to become severely emotionally disturbed. Since many risks are correlated with poverty, the studies are widely used to lobby for social programs to better the odds for vulnerable children
But a growing number of clinicians and researchers are now arguing that the risk-factor model burdens at-risk children with the expectation that they will fail, and ignores those who beat the odds. Broad epidemiological studies, they say, don’t explain why one girl, sexually abused by a relative, becomes an unwed mother or a prostitute while another becomes an Oprah Winfrey or a Maya Angelou. Retrospective studies can’t explain why one man, raised in a harsh, crowded household in impoverished Richmond, California, becomes addicted to crack cocaine and dies of AIDS, while his younger brother—Christopher Darden—graduates from law school, and goes on to prosecute O.J. Simpson. It’s time, they say, to see what the Dardens and Winfreys of the world have to teach.
This debate is the latest version of the long political and moral conflict over the relative importance of nature and nurture and the social policies that flow from such beliefs. The reality that some children beat the odds is attractive to conservatives, because it suggests that inner strengths may be more crucial than expensive government programs. Risk research, on the other hand, leads liberals to argue for changing the odds that children face, rather than making them beat them.
The best new research on resilience has not resolved this old debate, nor older moral questions about free will, destiny and what we owe one another. We cannot yet create resilience artificially, the way a genetically altered bacteria sprayed onto a strawberry plant can make it more resistant to frostbite. But we now have clues to how children become resilient. And those clues challenge not only conservative American myths about stoicism and self-reliance but many unspoken assumptions of the liberal therapeutic culture.
IF THE NOTION OF RESILIENCE DID not exist, we would probably have to invent it to keep from drowning in despair. One in five American children lives in poverty, as U.S. News & World Report noted last November in its cover story on resilience. Divorce and paternal abandonment are widespread. Hundreds of thousands of children spend their nights in homeless shelters or wake up at night to gunfire and police sirens. In middle-class homes, time-starved working parents are run ragged: at about the same rates as children in violent neighborhoods, suburban kids report that they are raising themselves with little parental attention or control.
At a time when many children’s lives are falling down around their heads, we are suddenly, belatedly, curious about resilience. Editors put the word “resilience” into the titles of half a dozen popular psychology books last year. In 1993, the academic journal Development and Psychopathology devoted an entire issue to resilience research. Last March, more than a score of staffers from congressional offices, federal agencies and the Heritage Foundation attended an official congressional breakfast briefing on it. Recent panels at child development conferences have nearly devolved into shouting matches over its implications for social policy. In department stores, Estee Lauder’s Resilience face cream is for sale, and so are Hanes’s Resilience panty hose.
Resilience is still loosely enough defined to cover a multitude of virtues and cause an array of arguments. At its root, the term recognizes that not all people are destroyed by bad events; research shows, for instance, that only about 15 percent of Vietnam combat veterans developed chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. “The expectancy of utter disaster for everyone just isn’t true,” says pioneering resilience researcher Emmy Werner of the University of California at Davis, who, as a child, lived through saturation bombings in Germany during World War II and has spent the past 40 years studying resilient children in Hawaii. “Some go mad, some succumb and some grow up relatively unscathed.”
“Resilience is bouncing back after an adversity, being able to recover your previous shape after you’ve been stretched psychologically. Problems don’t predict how people will do. Something else does,” says psychiatrist and clinical researcher Steven Wolin, whose pioneering 1993 book with Sybil Wolin, The Resilient Self, examined the strengths acquired by children who grow up in the shadow of parental alcoholism or other hardship. “What makes one person choose a pathway that involves beating the odds and getting strength from inside themselves in difficult times is not clear,” adds Wolin, an alcoholism researcher who became fascinated with resilience in the 1970s, when he had to evaluate a control group of families who had not transmitted alcoholism to their children. “It’s a phenomenon we’ve observed over and over again but haven’t really studied much yet.”
Like pornography, resilience is harder to define than to recognize. Psychologist Lillian Rubin, author of The Transcendent Child: Tales of Triumph Over the Past, calls it being able to “fall down seven times, get up eight.” Family resilience researcher Froma Walsh, author of the forthcoming Strengthening Family Resilience, applies the idea not only to individuals but to whole families who bounce back from crisis. Family therapist and researcher Anderson J. Franklin, who is studying resilience in African American men who were born into poverty and racism in rural Mississippi, defines it as the capacity for men in those harsh circumstances simply to survive to the age of 70.
Like “alternative health care,” resilience is more easily characterized by what it protests against. It is a challenge, says Rubin, to “psychology’s notion that what happens from 0 to 5 determines a life.” It is the mental health equivalent of “spontaneous healing,” a reminder that the world offers a myriad of healing turning points, that not all of them occur in therapy and that it’s not over till the moment of death.
At first glance, resilience sounds like another word for stoicism, self-reliance and determination—qualities emphasized by the earliest resilience researchers, by conservative politicians and by some resilient people themselves. “I yearned for a family in which I could belong,” says Lillian Rubin, whose childhood was marked by poverty and her mother’s nearly psychotic rages. “But I knew intuitively that this family was not it, and I would have to find my own way.”
But this is only the most obvious part of the story, the part that fits best with American myths of Horatio Alger and the Western frontier. In the 1980s, data began to emerge from a handful of longitudinal studies that suggested that resilient people do not make it on inborn strengths, fierce independence and rugged individualism alone. What we call resilience is turning out to be an interactive and systemic phenomenon, the product of a complex relationship of inner strengths and outer help throughout a person’s life span. Resilience is not only an individual matter. It is the outward and visible sign of a web of relationships and experiences that teach people mastery, doggedness, love, moral courage and hope.
The best support for this complex interactive model comes from Emmy Werner’s landmark 40-year longitudinal study of 210 resilient children on the Hawaiian island of Kauai—one of only a handful of studies that have tracked resilience in a significant number of children from birth to adulthood. Beginning in 1955, she and other public health researchers evaluated 698 newborns and their parents—almost every child born on what was then a rural, undeveloped volcanic island of rainswept, sharp-edged mountains ringed with beaches and tall green fields of sugarcane. Werner, who had a background in developmental psychology, anthropology and public health, and Ruth Smith, a Kauai clinical psychologist, classified 210 of the children as “high-risk” because they had been exposed before the age of 2 to at least four risk factors: poverty; perinatal health problems or congenital handicaps; mothers with low levels of education; and familial alcoholism, violence, instability, discord or mental illness. The children, who were followed up at 1, 2, 10, 18, 32 and 40 years of age, were mostly born to poor, unskilled sugar-plantation workers of Japanese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Portuguese, Polynesian and mixed racial descent. Some parents were alcoholic or mentally ill, and many had no more than three to five years of formal education.
Werner and Smith found that about 138 of the 210 at-risk children had done about as badly as expected by the age of 18, becoming pregnant as teenagers, needing mental health services or getting in trouble in school or with the law. The remaining 72—one out of three—developed into competent, confident and caring young adults. They were people who, as Werner and Smith wrote in a 1992 book called Overcoming the Odds, “loved well, worked well, played well, and expected well.” In their most recent follow-up of the resilient children in their forties, Werner and Smith discovered that all but two were still living successful lives. Many of them had outperformed Kauai children from less harsh backgrounds: more were stably married, fewer were divorced or unemployed and fewer were financially devastated after hurricane Iniki hit Kauai in 1992.
What had gone right? Werner broke new ground by looking at rarely studied internal and external “protective factors” in the children’s lives—sources of resilience that had apparently counterbalanced their thoroughly studied risks. From the beginning, Werner’s complex multivariate analysis of the data showed, temperament played a part. As babies, the resilient children were significantly more likely to have outgoing, engaging personalities and a sort of “Thursday’s child” likability that promoted good early bonding with their mothers. They weren’t colicky. Their mothers described them as active, cuddly and good-natured. Even as babies, the resilient children’s tests indicated at least average intelligence and at all age levels, more girls than boys overcame great odds.
But from the beginning, social factors also played a significant role. Werner’s research confirmed what psychodynamic theorists have long maintained about the importance of early bonding: few resilient children experienced prolonged separations from their primary caregiver during the first year of life; many were oldest children; none had a sibling born before they turned 2; and all developed a close early bond with at least one caregiver, sometimes a grandmother, older sister or other relative in the extended family.
Other resilience research, however, suggests that even a bad early start is not always a sentence of doom. Child psychologist and leading resilience researcher Ann Masten of the University of Minnesota, writing in 1989 in The Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, described Sara, a foster child who had been abandoned a day after her birth by a mother who was both schizophrenic and a prostitute. At the age of 2, Sara had been brought to a child psychiatric hospital unit for assessment because her pediatrician thought she exhibited symptoms of schizophrenia and autism. She had the stress-related physical condition called “psychosocial dwarfism”—she hadn’t grown since she was 15 months old, when she’d been abruptly removed from her first foster home on the death of her foster father.
Transferred to another crowded and apparently neglectful foster home, Sara spoke little, banged her head, echoed words, tested as developmentally delayed and sometimes stood frozen in place like a statue for as long as 20 minutes. But at the psychiatric hospital where she was sent for evaluation and given the attention of nurses, Sara, an attractive child, began to blossom. When she was adopted by a carefully chosen couple in their thirties who had time to devote to her and had always wanted a daughter, she gained a year’s worth of physical growth in three months. Within a year, Masten reports, she made up for her developmental delays, abandoned her strange postures and echoing speech and except for unusually high anxiety at separation from her adoptive mother, acted like any other first grader.
AS THE KAUAI CHILDREN ENTERED grade school and high school, Werner found something unanticipated: those who were the most adept at recruiting surrogate caregivers and adult mentors were the ones who eventually looked the most resilient and self-reliant. Her findings resonate with one of the Bible’s starkest teachings: “To him that has shall be given, and from him that has not, shall be taken away.” Something about the resilient children made them likable and “adoptable”—good looks or vitality or perhaps a sense of confidence from their experience of early childhood emotional security—or all three. This likability had a multiplier effect: as the children got older, they leapfrogged beyond their troubled homes and became adept “recruiters” of nurturing teachers, coaches and other adult mentors—even of the families of their girlfriends and boyfriends. Their innate endowments and their good early start quickly gave them a different universe of choices from children who’d had it hard from day one.
The resilient children drank up support promiscuously wherever they found it, the way a cut flower drinks water or a transplanted morning glory puts down roots and opens blindly to the sun. They were lucky that the adults they turned to supported, and didn’t betray, them. But they also chose well, thus helping to make their own luck. “These children actively recruited informal support networks in their community,” Emmy Werner told a congressional breakfast briefing in March 1996 “Among the most prominent examples were teachers, especially in the early grades . . . there were youth leaders, especially from 4-H, the Scouts, and mentors from Big Brothers-Big Sisters who played a similar role. . . . These children, despite all of the chaos in their own family, had a sense of coherence, a faith that things could be overcome and that they were in control of their fate.” None of the Kauai children named therapists or mental health counselors among those who made a difference in their lives.
Werner’s research suggests that earlier researchers may have overemphasized the nuclear family and missed the importance of extended family members and other adults in the social network. One study of African American families, for instance, suggests that children do as well in mother-grandmother households as they do in father-mother households; the crucial factor seems to be the presence of a second caregiver.
The finding that outside support can make a crucial difference holds outside Hawaii. In Washington, D.C., the teenage son of two heroin addicts described for Steven Wolin how he had charmed his girlfriend’s mother into allowing him to move into her basement by appreciating her cooking and taking an interest in her opinions. Oprah Winfrey credits a stepmother with whom she went to live after the age of 11, who encouraged her career dreams. The California novelist Sheila Ballantyne, who was raised by a widowed, alcoholic, con-artist father, remembers a high-school music teacher and a literature teacher who took her camping, invited her to tea and encouraged her dreams of college.
Although most of the resilient Kauai children weren’t unusually talented academically, all of them read at least at grade level. The importance of this crucial factor of resilience has been confirmed by other studies, and is especially significant considering that education budgets are continually under political attack. In California today, 40 percent of children read below grade level. Many of the Kauai children developed special hobbies or skills, like carpentry, creative writing, art or hula dancing. This, too, started a positive chain reaction: their hobbies taught them competence and mastery, gave them a place to be other than at home and helped them continue to recruit supportive adults outside their nuclear families. By the time they were in high school, Werner and Smith say, the resilient children were significantly more likely than nonresilient children to have an “inner locus of control”—an optimistic confidence in their ability to shape events. In other words, they had developed both competence and hope.
Even the chaos of their families had a silver lining that paradoxically enhanced resilience: Werner says the resilient children “were often asked quite early, usually by about 8, 9, or 10, to practice what psychologists call acts of required helpfulness.” They were like my friend Matthew, who was parent to his younger siblings; like the 5-year-old child of alcoholics who washes the family’s dishes standing at the sink on a chair; or Vreni, the 12-year-old daughter of a mentally ill mother, described by the Swiss psychiatrist Manfred Bleuler in the mid-1980s, who sacrificed her own education to run the household and keep her younger siblings well-fed, dressed in clean clothes and in school. Such estimable moral acts, often performed by quite young children, may build “self-esteem” far more effectively than compliments.
Kauai’s resilient children didn’t survive unscathed. They struggled to maintain an appropriate distance from their troubled parents and siblings, and Werner says the price they paid ranged from stress-related health problems to “a certain aloofness in their interpersonal relationships.” But on the whole, they chose girlfriends, boyfriends and marriage partners well. The positive experiences that followed further enhanced their self-confidence and hope, making it easier to reach out again. They had entered what some resilience researchers call positive life trajectories. Their self-reinforcing, upward spirals in the outer world apparently reached a critical mass, helping them buffer the effects of alcoholic, violent, impoverished or chaotic conditions within their nuclear families. Like a face beheld in infinite regression in a hall of mirrors, positive internal and external events reflected and magnified one another. “When we look at the interactions between the person and the environment over time, it’s clear it’s not a one-way street,” says Werner, who believes that innate individual differences and external supports both play constant, mutually reinforcing, reflexive and reflective roles.
“To the extent that the young men and women in this study were able to elicit predominantly positive responses from their environments, they were found to be stress-resistant, even when living in chronic poverty or in disorganized homes with disturbed parents,” she wrote in Overcoming the Odds. “To the extent that they elicited negative responses from their environments, they were found to be vulnerable, even in the absence of biological stress or financial constraints.”
Many of Werner’s conclusions are supported by a handful of other studies of at-risk children in London, Philadelphia, Cambridge and elsewhere; all suggest that there are multiple pathways to resilience, and that second chances can occur anywhere in the life cycle. The studies also point to the beneficial effects of the almost invisible web of relationships formed by neighbors, extended family and friends. Changing schools before the age of 10, for instance, was found to be almost as significant a risk factor among the children of Kauai as having a mother remarry and a stepfather move into the home. Social support is also a significant protective factor for adults at risk for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): studies suggest that Vietnam veterans and rape victims with good social supports are far less likely to develop chronic PTSD.
In a pilot study of resilient African American men who grew up in poverty in rural Mississippi, Anderson J. Franklin of the City College of New York found that many who went on to college were not only practically supported by a sister or mother, who fed them and gave them a roof over their heads, but psychically supported by an entire small town. “A drunk who could not stand up would give encouragement,” one of the men told Franklin. “Even though he had not done anything, he was happy to see me doing something.”
Says Franklin, “Each one of my men talks of somebody who stepped in at various points in their lives, took an interest in them and motivated them,” and he cautions that social science researchers miss the boat when they define family support too narrowly. “We can get lost in artificial distinctions,” he says. “When we look closer at those that seem resilient despite disfunctioning families, we often find there’s some kind of surrogate parent or mentor providing the support for self-reliance.”
WERNER’s RESEARCH SUGGESTS that nature and nurture constantly interact, presenting children with new choices and setting them on trajectories that take on a life of their own. Yet nothing is fixed: of the two-thirds of at-risk children who were in trouble as teenagers, fully one-half had “righted themselves” by the time Werner and Smith reinterviewed them at 31; their juvenile delinquency had not led to lives of adult crime, and many had stable marriages and decent jobs.
Most told Werner and Smith that some adult had taken an interest in them at the point where they drifted toward delinquency; they were also significantly more likely to have come from families that were intact when they were children. They credited a major turning point: a good marriage; a stint in the armed forces; satisfying work; or involvement in a highly structured religious group like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Christopher Darden, for example, was a teenage shoplifter still flirting with delinquency when he met an African American Studies teacher at San Jose State University who became his mentor. Says Werner, “The research points to different stages in life where things can still be turned around.”
Mervlyn Swain Kitishima, for example, married at 18 after becoming pregnant and before finishing high school—a destiny often popularly considered to be the first step on the road to lifelong welfare dependency and failure. But at 41, she is a model of family stability. She is still married to her husband, who is now a teacher, she has seven successful children of her own and she is studying for her B.A. at a community college. Like the vast majority of Kauai’s teenaged mothers, she defied the conventional wisdom: by the time they were in their early thirties, 90 percent had obtained a high school equivalency degree, and they had no more children than those who started families later. Werner’s research suggests that the critical sources of resilience for the successful teenage mothers were access to child care and to education through night school or community college—the sorts of supports often provided by social programs that some conservatives, enamored with individualistic notions of resilience, would just as soon forget. But in Kitishima’s case, the child care came from her extended family: she and her young husband went to live with her traditional Japanese American in-laws after their marriage, and her mother-in-law looked after the baby while Mervlyn finished high school.
Kitishima, like other resilient Kauai children, has been heavily involved in the Mormon Church since she was a teenager—another source of resilience whose importance is often overlooked by secular-minded researchers. “I had faith in God,” she says. “I knew that somebody loves me, somebody cares for me. When I felt like life wasn’t worth living, there was a God who loved me and would help me come through.”
Studies of resilient African American families also suggest that religious faith helps people thrive in adversity; this uncomfortable fact forces social scientists and therapists to look at something that makes many of them uneasy. “The tone has always been, especially in research, that religion is the opium of the people, although researchers don’t say quite say it out loud,” says Werner. “We found that religion was an important protective factor in Hawaii with Buddhism, Catholicism, the Church of Latter Day Saints, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, you name it. Religion gives people a sense of structure, mission and salvation. It may be cheaper than 10 years of psychotherapy.”
RESILIENCE RESEARCH RAISES other troubling questions for psychotherapeutic values and assumptions. Perhaps what we now call “prevention”—a network of caring taken for granted in traditional societies and “delivered” by folkways and nonprofessional, indigenous community elders and mentors—may save more lives than expensively educated professionals who pick up the pieces when that network fails. Perhaps therapists might learn a lot if they asked resilient families and people about sources of strength that researchers haven’t even thought to put on their questionnaires.
Franklin, for instance, is asking elder Mississippi men to describe their adaptive strategies in order to “pass their message, to help the younger generation build on their legacy of survival.” He knows what he is talking about: in his own Mississippi farm family, he was repeatedly told that his grandfather had to put up his entire farmhouse, animals and farm equipment—as collateral to borrow enough money to buy a single season’s crop seed. The family story didn’t only teach Franklin about manifest unfairness and racism; it taught him that you need the courage to proceed in any case. “When you look at how other members of your family in previous generations were able to succeed in spite of the odds for their generation, it gives you little excuse to claim that your circumstances are so unique that you can’t overcome them,” he says. “Members of the family took those risks because they believed in themselves; they believed they could overcome even unjust conditions.”
Resilience research also challenges the notion that help can only be delivered by government-funded professionals: in Kauai, at least, most of the adults who saved children’s lives were relatives, teachers and relatively low-paid workers for groups like the 4-H Club. Many who contribute to children’s resilience are not paid at all—like Ramon Lopez, an immigrant from El Salvador who manages an apartment house in the Canal area of San Rafael, California. Two and a half years ago, he started a soccer team for the immigrant latchkey children he saw hanging around the apartment house after school. Since then, it has grown into a volunteer league of 10 teams, involving 150 children and other adult volunteers.
Nobody has studied how many of Lopez’s athletes have avoided Juvenile Hall or the local mental health clinic. But the resilience research suggests that therapists may be more helpful—if less impressive—when they search less for the dramatic insight or the flashy intervention and more for the skills practiced by old-fashioned settlement-house social workers.
A child may be better served by being linked up with a soccer team, Big Sisters, a 4-H inner-city science program, a church, drama club or godmother than by talking about her feelings about her mother and father’s divorce. It may matter less if the therapist becomes an important figure in a child’s life, and more if other adults outside the nuclear family become important, and stay important, long after therapy ends.
For nonresilient adults who are in therapy, it may be too late to have a happy childhood. But it is never too late to build sources of resilience into a life, no matter how desperate: to develop a talent or hobby; to strengthen bonds with an extended family; to join a church or 12-Step meeting; to learn to choose friends and partners well. Therapists might suggest to lonely, divorced or childless clients who feel adrift in a society where communal bonds are breaking down that they could make a crucial difference by giving up a few weekly hours of television or mountain-biking to mentor a vulnerable child. Therapists might also question cultural assumptions—workaholism, consumerism—that make coaching a soccer team seem like an impossible commitment. They might help adults resist the pressures of marketplace and workplace enough to make time to become a godparent or a Big Sister.
Sometimes the problem isn’t so much insufficient time as misapportionment of time: according to the Census Bureau, 25 percent of U.S. households are made up of a (usually stressed) married couple, their children and stepchildren. An equal percentage of households is composed of a childless adult living alone—many of whom are spending too much time watching television, working at the office or working out at the gym. Perhaps the lonely and the frazzled could help each other.
Michael Elkin, a family therapist in the Boston area, often suggests volunteer work to depressed clients, and the benefits flow both ways. A national outcome study by Public/Private Ventures in Philadelphia found that kids enrolled in Big Brothers and Big Sisters were 52 percent less likely to skip school than a matched control group, 33 percent less likely to exhibit violent behavior and 46 percent less likely to try drugs for the first time. Perhaps part of a therapist’s job is to set such upward spirals in motion, while making sure that negative events don’t have the same multiplier effect.
Therapists can also encourage children to develop hobbies and connections with adults outside the family—an approach that Ron Taffel, a family therapist in New York City, adopted intuitively without reading the resilience studies. When he meets alone with children nowadays, he usually begins by asking them what they love to do—a question that often makes them open their eyes wide. One almost mute teenager, Taffel discovered, had a highly developed passion for refurbished 1950s cars, and the boy and his father eventually developed more of a relationship by going together to car shows. Another rather isolated 11-year-old boy, diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Disorder and depression, turned out to be in love with the game Dungeons and Dragons. Taffel linked him up with a Dungeons and Dragons after-school group, and that set an upward spiral in motion. The group eventually became a club, and the boy its grand master. “He started to read, he started to talk to other kids and eventually that moved him into the whole world of computers,” says Taffel. “He just started to grow, and he moved into being a very resilient kid who became an idiosyncratic, but quite healthy, non-depressed young adult.”
“The whole concept of resilience is a corrective emotional experience for therapists,” says Taffel. “It makes us realize that we are in no way the center of the child’s world. It forces us to ask about the many specific details of the child’s life that we normally think of as unimportant. When I was in training, nobody ever said to me that I should find out about, encourage or even know about a hobby, or ask about people in the extended family who could share an interest with the child.”
The new curiosity about resilience is likely to change that. Like managed care, it is yet another challenge to therapy’s once well-protected, self-referential, hothouse world. For 70 years, that hothouse world defined the terms under which people were supposed to transform themselves or respond to the blows of outrageous fortune. In those decades, therapists sometimes raised impossible hopes—that with the right behavioral technology, human beings could perfect themselves and somehow circumvent emotional suffering. Now the naturalistic observations of resilience researchers make it clear that therapy’s favorite tools—the analysis of interaction, the verbalization of emotion and the teaching of communication skills—are only a tiny modern flourish on the long, weather-beaten story of human endurance and change.
The life stories of the children of Kauai, and of my old high school friend Matthew, remind us that in the centuries before therapy, people found their own ways of dealing with life when it knocked them down. As middle-class therapeutic culture absorbs its own blows in the mental health marketplace, those commonsense ways are being brought back into the public conversation, where they are holding their own. The time is right. With the demise of unrestricted third-party payments and managed care’s demand for outcome research, the world of therapy isn’t so protected anymore. By necessity, therapists must take a less narrow, expensive and doctrinaire view of how to help people cope successfully with misfortune. In the short run, resilience research may be yet more cold water in the face of an embattled profession. But in the long run, it can only strengthen both the effectiveness of formal therapy and the age-old effort to face the perils of being human.
“Resilience research reminds us, yet again, that the life of the patient doesn’t revolve around therapeutic sessions,” says Ron Taffel. “This is helping to redefine psychotherapy the way Copernicus looked at the sky and redefined what revolved around what.”
Katy Butler, a former features editor and staff writer for Psychotherapy Networker, is the author of two award-winning books about aging and living meaningfully in life’s final quarter, especially in relation to modern medicine. Knocking on Heaven’s Door (2013) was a New York Times Bestseller and Notable Book of the Year. The Art of Dying Well (2019) is a road map —practical, medical, and spiritual —through the significant passages of life after 55. Katy’s groundbreaking work for the Networker was nominated for one National Magazine Award and contributed to several other NMA awards and nominations. Her writing has also appeared in the The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Tricycle: the Buddhist Quarterly, Scientific American, Best American Essays, and Best American Science Writing. Other honors include first-place awards from the National Association of Science Writers and the Association of Health Care Journalists; a “Best First Book” award; and a finalist nomination for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She lives in northern California and loves to dance in the kitchen to Alexa with her husband Brian.