Why do some children who endure traumatic experiences develop in healthy ways while others are harmed?
One answer is resilience. And in a new collection of videos and working papers, Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child looks at what resilience is; how to build resilience in children; and how public policy can help promote resilience.
“We define resilience as a good outcome in the face of adversity,” Jack Shonkoff, the director of the center, says in an introductory video. That adversity can include having a mentally ill parent, living in a poor community, attending a weak school, or being exposed to violence.
“It’s tempting to think about children as either having this resilient quality — or not. But resilience is built over time; just as and in parallel with how the architecture of the brain is built over time,” Philip A. Fisher, a University of Oregon psychology professor, says in the video.
“It’s not just in the person,” Shonkoff explains about resilience. “It’s in the interaction between the person and the environment.”
The Development of Resilience
“One way to understand the development of resilience is to visualize a balance scale or seesaw,” a brief explains. “Protective experiences and adaptive skills on one side counterbalance significant adversity on the other.”
Understanding “all of the influences that might tip the scale in the positive direction is critical to devising more effective strategies for promoting healthy development in the face of significant disadvantage.”
Genes play one role in resilience.
“There are certain genes that make a child more sensitive to the effects of maltreatment or parental neglect or witnessing violence,” Dr. W. Thomas Boyce, a medical school professor at the University of California San Francisco, explains in a video on the science of resilience.
But genes can be influenced by children’s environments. For example, learning coping skills and having positive experiences can affect how genes express themselves, and this can help children build resilience.
Building Resilience Through Supportive Relationships
One of the most promising, research-based strategies for building resilience is providing children with supportive relationships.
“Whether the burdens come from the hardships of poverty, the challenges of parental substance abuse or serious mental illness, the stresses of war, the threats of recurrent violence or chronic neglect, or a combination of factors, the single most common finding is that children who end up doing well have had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult,” according to a working paper called, “Supportive Relationships and Active Skill-Building Strengthen the Foundations of Resilience.”
These relationships provide “the personalized responsiveness, scaffolding, and protection that buffer children from developmental disruption. They also build key capacities—such as the ability to plan, monitor and regulate behavior, and adapt to changing circumstances— that enable children to respond to adversity and to thrive. This combination of supportive relationships, adaptive skill-building, and positive experiences constitutes the foundations of what is commonly called resilience.”
The working paper points to the science behind this finding, noting, “Recent discoveries in molecular biology, genomics, and epigenetics provide remarkable new insights into the underlying causal mechanisms that explain how supportive relationships build the capacities to deal with adversity.” This rapidly advancing research “demonstrates that resilience is the result of multiple interactions among protective factors in the social environment and highly responsive biological systems.”
In addition: “As individuals develop over time, they never completely lose their ability to hone these capabilities, but they often must learn how to adapt to new challenges.” In essence, resilience can be developed continuously.
One caveat: “when adverse experiences are extreme or cataclysmic, even the hardiest individual is likely to require therapeutic support at some point. Stated simply, resilience in the face of some hardships does not guarantee resilience in the face of all threatening circumstances.”
Pointing to a gap between scientific knowledge and public policy, the brief notes that “when overcoming the odds is erroneously viewed as simply a matter of individual motivation or grit, the failure to succeed is perceived as the fault of the individual, and ‘blaming the victim’ becomes the most frequent response.”
A better option is if “advances in the science of human development and its underlying biology can be mobilized to inform a new wave of innovative strategies for building the capabilities that help both children and adults thrive in the face of economic and social disadvantage.”
Among this brief’s policy proposals are:
• “Target the development of specific skills that are needed for adaptive coping, sound decision-making, and effective self-regulation in children and adults.”
The brief adds: “Many of these essential capabilities fall within the domains of executive function and self-regulation, which can be built through programs that focus explicitly on their development, beginning in early childhood, and strengthened in adulthood through services that provide appropriate coaching, scaffolding, and practice.”
• “Develop new frameworks for integrating policies and programs across sectors that collectively reduce adversity and build capacity.”
“These could include subsidized parental leave policies, access to affordable and high-quality early care and education services, community recreation and sup- port activities, and home-visiting programs that coach new parents on how to interact positively with their children.”
• Policies should “maximize the ultimate effectiveness of all early childhood policies and programs by focusing collectively on the full range of factors that facilitate resilience.”
“…all prevention and intervention programs would benefit from focusing on combinations of the following factors: (1) facilitating supportive adult-child relationships; (2) building a sense of self-efficacy and perceived control; (3) providing opportunities to strengthen adaptive skills and self-regulatory capacities; and (4) mobilizing sources of faith, hope, and cultural traditions.”
“Resilience is not some magical quality,” as Fisher says in this video. “It’s something that really can be built, even in difficult circumstances.”