What makes us resilient? Factors that determine who succumbs and who surmounts during a major stressor
Jesse Diggins, Psychologist
About a year ago, a colleague of mine asked me if I could explain why some people triumph through adversity and others never fully recover. That question stayed with me in the back of my mind until I could attain an understanding of why adversity only makes some of us resilient.
There is an important distinction to make between acute and complex trauma. The latter describes an ongoing occurrence of major stressors each compounding the next creating a cumulative impact. Much of the difference between succumb and surmount is attributed to whether the stressor is isolated or in addition to a collection of unresolved traumas.
Many of us will know first-hand accounts of how an individual who had experienced significant hardship used that trauma as an opportunity as fuel for personal growth. Indeed, it can be a badge of honour and a formative experience that alters their life course.
However, for many professionals that work with children and young people that have experienced trauma, resilience is the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, many children are lacking the skill of resilience.
To understand what fosters resilience, we can look to a study that commenced in 1955 which followed individuals from infancy to adulthood.
The Kauai Longitudinal Study, conducted in Hawaii, identified how children that faced multiple stressors were able to display positive adaptation.
Various factors have been identified that explain how individuals who grew up in poverty living in families troubled by chronic discord, went on to finish school and become confident, successful adults.
Family and Community Factors
The study highlights the importance of healthy attachments. Children who thrived amidst adversity always had one competent, reliable, predictable and emotionally stable parent or caregiver who could meet their needs. The opposite of this position is what we see in clinical practice regularly, children and young people that are unbalanced because they do not have the most fundamental human need: unconditional support from their caregiver. Without this cornerstone, the development of resilience is compromised.
At a community level, engaging in groups including sports, school or religion was demonstrated to foster resilience. These groups became a forum for emotional support where coaches and teachers could supplement the support offered at home with mentoring and role-modelling.
Individual Protective Factors
The study found that those that became resilient were affectionate, cuddly and easy to deal with babies, agreeable, friendly and sociable toddlers. As youngsters, individuals who became resilient later in life developed self-help skills earlier on and by age 10, their problem-solving skills were superior to their peers.
The characteristics of resilience found to emerge throughout adolescence included having future aspirations and having a talent that generated pride and a sense of achievement. One characteristic that was unique to individuals who became resilient was a self-belief that the problems they confronted could be overcome by their own actions. This conviction, known by psychologists as an ‘internal locus of control’, is perhaps the most important factor and contrasts an 'external locus of control' which is the belief that events in life are caused by uncontrollable factors.
Though internal locus of control is an important factor, self-belief is not the only ingredient. Positive adaption to major stressors results from grit and a growth mindset to hold it all together (“I can change the situation, rather than assuming it’s fixed”).
How we view a stressor is a huge determinant in how we respond to it. Individuals that identify themselves as a victim of a stressor will respond differently to those that view themselves as a beneficiary of a learning experience. The latter perspective is what is needed to possess resilience.
Sources & Further Reading/Learning:
Kauai Longitudinal Study:
Works relating to resilience theory by Norman Galmezy, Developmental