Resilience and Psychopathology
One of the great questions investigated by human development researchers is the issue of resilience—what determines a child's ability to deal with the inevitable stresses and setbacks of life. It's been shown repeatedly that children with histories of secure attachment are less vulnerable to stress and better able to take advantage of opportunities for growth. Moreover, when these same children go through a troubled period, their prior experience of feeling nurtured isn't erased, so it still influences their response to the new situation.
For example in the MLSRA project, two groups of children were defined who showed consistent, problematic behavior in three assessments between ages 3 and 5. They were viewed as reflecting distinctive developmental pathways, however, because one group had supportive early care and the other didn't. Outcome at age 8 showed that those with early supportive histories had dramatically fewer behavior problems by that point. Note that without historical data, the recovery of these children would seem mysterious. The study found that, at all ages, recovery from periods of trouble could be accounted for largely by the combination of prior history and changes in intermediary stress or support levels.
The group data, and the flow of development, can perhaps be better appreciated by considering just one case from the Minnesota study. When we observed Mike at age 10 at summer camp, he had an interesting mixture of characteristics. He was socially competent, energetic, expressive, and fully engaged, although he seemed to have a chip on his shoulder, and readily asked other boys if they wanted to fight. Five years later, he appeared to be a totally different boy. He was withdrawn, inactive, slouched over, and almost inaudible when he spoke, giving one-syllable answers. Where did this change come from? Where did his smile go? Would it ever come back?
The story of the factors affecting Mike's development is a complex one, but here are some key elements. Mike had a secure early attachment and generally supportive early care. He was a star at the beginning of elementary school. Then his parents went through an ugly divorce when he was in 2nd grade. Once the dust had settled, Mike's father took custody of his older sister, moved away, and never contacted his son again. Mike went on living in a dilapidated house with his mother, who wasn't coping well. She frequently sought his advice and generally relied on his support to an inappropriate degree. When Mike was 11, his mother was killed in a tragic accident and he was reluctantly taken in by his mother's sister. So the signs of adolescent depression we witnessed were completely understandable.
But the story doesn't end there. When Mike got to community college, he caught the eye of a young woman who was attracted to his quietness and tender heart. They married when he was in his early twenties. His wife turned out to be patient, kind, and attentive. Mike is now a warm and nurturing father in a mutually supportive relationship with his wife. His early attachment history didn't disappear during his difficult period; it remained there to be tapped when new opportunities for positive relationships presented themselves.