Trauma to Resilience

“Children need some stress in their lives”

Recently an article was re-published in the e-magazine, Quartz ( by Lucy Maddox that looks at the results of multiple longitudinal studies on resilience in children.1 The primary studies were The Kauai Study that followed children from 700 families from age ten into their sixties, the second was a study done by Dr. Michael Rutter of King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry and Neuroscience which followed Romanian orphan’s after the collapse of Nicolae Ceausescu’s rule, and the third was research done by Eamon McCrory, professor of developmental neuroscience and Psychopathology at University College London that examined how we develop an adaptive process, how our brains, thought processes and behaviors change to help us to cope with adverse early circumstances.

The following points really stood out to me from the article.

  • High risk factors among children were not necessarily a guarantee of a trajectory to a tragic adulthood. Three clusters of protective factors helped children to thrive despite being “high risk”: Aspects of the child’s temperament, someone who was consistent in caring (not always a family member) and sense of belonging to a wider group.
  • Even children who had “gone off the rails” during their teenage year were able to turn things around in their 30’s and 40’s, often without the help of mental health professionals.
  • Relationships of some kind make the primary difference between a healthy viewpoint in life and remaining in trauma, “whether within the context of a larger community—a school, a religion, the armed services—or in the context of one important person.”
  • The greatest danger was faced by children with the classification, “disorganized attachment,” when children experience harm from those attachment figures in their life.
  • It is vital to see resilience as a process, not a trait.
  • Resilience can be circumstantially-specific. You might be resilient in one setting, but not in another.
  • The way to protect children from trauma is similar to immunization. exposure to pathogens builds resistance to them. Children need change, challenge and also continuity. Believing the norm is stability is erroneous and harmful.
  • Professor Eamon McCrory, of Developmental Neuroscience and Psychopathology at University College London, says there are three main areas where there are likely to be differences between resilient children and those who are not: threat processing, brain structure, and autobiographical memory.
  • Autobiographical memory, the brain system involved in thinking about and processing memories of personal history might also be shaped by early traumatic experiences in a way that is adaptive in the short term but unhelpful in the longer term.
  • This follows the research of Martin Seligman and his team as reported in the book, “The Optimistic Child.” Depressed and anxious children tend to overgeneralize situations, personal traits and relationships. For example, “I always wind up in this situation. I will always be stupid. It’s always my fault.”
  • Seligman refers to this maladaptive thinking as “Permanent, Pervasive and Personal.” 2
  • Healthy people are much more specific, for example, “If I keep doing this behavior, I will keep winding up in these situations.” “I didn’t study hard enough on this test to do well.” “I need to study harder next time.” “Some of this is my fault and I need to accept responsibility for those aspects. Some of this was his/her fault and they bear the responsibility for their actions.”
  • Similarly McCrory states, “We know that individuals who have depression and PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] have… an over-general autobiographical memory pattern, where they lack specificity in their recall of past experience … We also know that kids who have experienced maltreatment can show higher levels of this over-general memory pattern. And longitudinal studies have shown that a pattern of over-general memory can act as a risk factor for future disorder.
  • All of the researchers agree that these brain systems are characterized by plasticity and especially during periods when the brain is most pliable (adolescence).
  • McCubbin, one of the researchers involved in the Kauai Study states, “The idea of resilience as an adaptive process rather than an individual trait opens up the potential for other people to be involved in that process. McCubbin sees the importance of relationships as being wider than only protective relationships with people, and she and her team have created a new measure of ‘relational wellbeing’ to try to capture this. ‘We think of relationship as with a person,’ she says. ‘But what we really found was that it was relationship with the land, relationship with nature, relationship with God, relationship with ancestors, relationship with culture.’”
  • McCubbin likes to compare it to the concept of aloha in Hawaii. “A word that is variably translated as ‘love and compassion’, ‘mercy’ and ‘connectedness’ or ‘being part of all and all being part of me.’”


1 “Children need some stress in their lives”: The new science of resilience, this article may be found at by Lucy Maddox, 04, July, 2016

2 The Optimistic Child, A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience, Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., Houghton Mifflin, 1995, pg. 52-62


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