What Builds Resilience?

March 10, 2020

No matter the source of hardship, the single most common factor for children who ended up doing well

 is having the support of at least one stable and committed relationship with a parent, caregiver, 

or other adult.


—Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University



No Resilience Gene


There is no such thing as a “resilience gene.” Contrary to what some people think, it’s a misconception that “individual grit” or “some in-born, heroic strength of character can triumph over calamity.” That’s the stuff of movies. As resilience science tells us, kids overcome adversity by having supportive relationships with adults, exposure to positive experiences, and opportunities to develop effective coping skills. (We’ll look at interventions for children in later blogs.)

If you are the adult child of a mentally ill parent, should you simply throw in the towel if you are still experiencing the negative consequences brought about by childhood adversity? Hardly.

The picture is not one of gloom and doom. While critical, the first three years of our lives are not make-or-break time. Researchers say that resilience can be built at any age. The science of resilience shows there are pathways to enjoying a happy, productive life despite having the deck stacked against you at the start.

There are numerous pathways for adults, many of whom continue to struggle with the aftermath of childhood adversity. (We’ll examine therapy approaches, relaxation techniques, coping strategies, and the forgiveness debate in later blogs.)



Resilience can be built; it’s not an innate trait or a resource 

that can be used up.


—Bari Walsh, author of “The Science of Resilience: Why Some Children Can Thrive Despite Adversity”





There are numerous resilience quizzes available on the Internet. I’ve included one in Crazy Was All I Ever Knew. You can use a resilience quiz to reflect on your life experiences. It can also be used to prompt conversation that can help prevent you from developing negative outcomes.


What's Your Resilience Score?


This questionnaire was developed by the early childhood service providers, pediatricians, psychologists, and health advocates of Southern Kennebec Healthy Start, Augusta, Maine, in 2006 and updated in February 2013. 

The scoring system was modeled on the ACEs questionnaire. One of the questionnaire developers notes that it is intended to prompt reflection and conversation on experiences that may help most people (about three out of four) with four or more aces from developing negative outcomes.  (From: https://acestoohigh.com/got-your-ace-score/)

1. I believe that my mother loved me when I was little.



Definitely true    Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True


2. I believe that my father loved me when I was little.


Definitely true    Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True


3. When I was little, other people helped my mother and father take care of me and they seemed to love me.


Definitely true    Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True


4. I’ve heard that when I was an infant someone in my family enjoyed playing with me, and I enjoyed it, too.


Definitely true    Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True


5. When I was a child, there were relatives in my family who made me feel better if I was sad or worried.


Definitely true    Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True


6. When I was a child, neighbors or my friends’ parents seemed to like me.


Definitely true    Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True



7. When I was a child, teachers, coaches, youth leaders or ministers were there to help me.


Definitely true    Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True


8. Someone in my family cared about how I was doing in school.


Definitely true    Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True


9. My family, neighbors and friends talked often about making our lives better.


Definitely true    Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True


10. We had rules in our house and were expected to keep them.


Definitely true    Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True


11. When I felt really bad, I could almost always find someone I trusted to talk to.


Definitely true    Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True


12. As a youth, people noticed that I was capable and could get things done.


Definitely true    Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True


13. I was independent and a go-getter.


Definitely true    Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True


14. I believed that life is what you make it.


Definitely true    Probably true         Not sure         Probably Not True        Definitely Not True


How many of these 14 protective factors did I have as a child and youth? (How many of the 14 were circled "Definitely True" or "Probably True"?)   _______


Of these circled, how many are still true for me? ______


(From: https://acestoohigh.com/got-your-ace-score/



Suggested reading: “Putting resilience and resilience surveys under the microscope.” A link to the article can be found on the acestoohigh.com site. 






What Happens in Early Childhood May Matter Most


While critical, the first three years of our lives are not make-or-break time.

Researchers say, “It is never too late to build resilience.”


—Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University



I don’t remember when the beatings began. But my older brother, Alec, does. “You were about two. Mom grabbed you by the wrist and the ankle and began slamming you against the upstairs bannister. I had to stop her. She would have killed you.” 

I don’t remember much about my early childhood, but I know that I was beaten from before I can remember. I grew up to be fearful, a chronic worrier with low self-confidence. As research suggests, I may have been hardwired to develop these traits as the child of a mentally ill mother. If you are the adult child of a mentally ill parent, the same may be true for you. 

It all has to do with the impact of toxic stress on the brain during the first few years of life. 

Researchers at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University explain that prolonged exposure to adverse experiences can cause stress to become toxic as surges in stress chemicals, such as cortisol, disrupt developing brain circuits. Young children who do not have supportive adults in their lives are especially vulnerable to toxic stress. 

Notably, exposure to major adversity in early childhood “can permanently set the body’s stress response system on high alert.” 

The trauma that kids experience can have damaging effects on areas of the brain involved in emotions and learning. A deep dive into brain science reveals that toxic stress and chronic fear experienced in early childhood may interfere with the development of yet another section of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, which controls our ability to follow plans, make decisions, focus attention, and control emotions. 


Long-Term Consequences

For some of us, researchers say, learning difficulties and the inability to engage in everyday types of social interactions, outcomes that can stem from childhood trauma, may persist throughout our lives.

As discussed previously, growing up with a parent with a mental illness is considered an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). It’s important to realize that many children of mentally ill parents are exposed to multiple adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including abuse and neglect. Research from the Center on the Developing Child shows that “adults with more adverse experiences in early childhood are also more likely to have health problems, including alcoholism, depression, heart disease, and diabetes.” 

Fortunately, while what happens in the first three years of our lives is critical, it’s not make-or-break time. Researchers say that resilience can be built at any age.


Adversity’s Gifts


With every adversity, there is an equal or greater gift. Keep looking for the gift.


—Earl Nightingale



Researchers note that children growing up with parents with an SMI (serious mental illness) can also develop valuable personal strengths. In a Social Work Today article, “Reaching Out to Children of Parents with Mental Illness,” psychologist Michelle D. Sherman points out that “adults reflecting on their upbringing in this family situation have described enhanced awareness of their own compassion, sensitivity, resourcefulness, strength, and independence.” 


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