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Learning From Resilient Kids

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In 1955, researchers Emmy Werner (University of California, Davis) and Ruth Smith (licensed psychologist, Kauai) started an amazing 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 was 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 and/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.”

How did these children thrive in spite of their circumstances? It turns out that they all had a set of “protective factors” in common. Let’s look at these factors and see how they also relate to us as adults.

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.

  • 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.

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 great little 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.
    • Help others
    • Be open to learning new things (be an old dog who can learn new tricks.)
    • Be a good team member

We can learn a lot from kids!

Quotations and protective factors were derived from Journeys from Childhood to Midlife: Risk, Resilience, and Recovery by Emmy E. Werner and Ruth S. Smith. Cornell University Press, 2001.


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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.