Encountering America

Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self

The Myth of Resilient Children

Resilient children are made, not born.

If you have kids, someone’s probably told you that they’re “resilient.”

We hear this, or say this, most often in response to a concern about how our child’s adjusting to a new sibling or a new childcare situation, to a new developmental phase, or to some major or minor loss. We sometimes say it with the intention of being reassuring, but at the risk of dismissing very serious concerns about a child’s development.

For better or worse, Carl Rogers gave us this idea of resilience when he described our inner motivation to grow. Given optimal conditions, he argued, people will move in wholly be positive, generative, and creative directions. Rogers’s practice of client-centered therapy suggested that if people were deprived of growth-fostering conditions the first time around, they could always be given a second chance.

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The problem with thinking that we’re utterly resilient, that this positive inclination cannot be damaged or destroyed, is that it ignores the possibility of negative events affecting the kind of people we become. Negative events might include missing out on meaningful relationships in our early years, not getting the kind of nurturing we need through a major life transition, or, at the extreme, experiencing abuse or neglect.

In his book on childhood trauma, psychiatrist Bruce Perry illustrates the extremes to which we carry the rhetoric of resilience.

Perry describes a time early in his career when he and his colleague, who was head of a first response team, arrived on a murder scene. There they found three “blood-speckled” children standing in a corner, beholding their mother’s dead body. Horrified, he asked his older, and theoretically wiser, colleague, “What about the children?” To which his colleague replied, “Children are resilient. They will be fine.” Horrified by this response, Perry describes himself as screaming inside.

What his colleague got painfully wrong, Perry argues, is that these children would be forever changed by this event. He goes on to explain the precise ways in which children are actually much more vulnerable to trauma than adults:

Resilient children are made, not born. The developing brain is most malleable and most sensitive to experience—both good and bad—early in life. (This is why we so easily and rapidly learn language, social nuance, motor skills and dozens of other things in childhood, and why we speak of ‘formative’ experiences.) Children become resilient as a result of the patterns of stress and of nurturing that they experience early on in life.

Why then do we so often pass around pithy consolation about the resilience of young children? Why do we insist upon the temporary nature of their negative experiences?

It’s comforting to think of children as immune to negative events. It’s terrifying to think that we might not optimize their brain development, and that we might impair their capacity for emotional intimacy, social harmony, and even genuine happiness.

If we give into the terror, we run the risk of letting our fear spill into every decision we make in a way that might be paralyzing (Can we trust this babysitter? Is she ready for kindergarten? Should I push him to wean or potty train?) But, if we don’t take it seriously, we risk overlooking constructive means of mitigating their distress and possibilities for creating the kind of optimal environment Carl Rogers envisioned.

 

References

Bruce D. Perry and Maia Szalavitz, The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook (New York: Basic Books, 2006.

John W. Reich, Alex J. Zautra, and John Stuart Hall, eds., Handbook of Resilience (New York: Guilford Press, 2012), 99.

Carl R. Rogers, Client-Centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951).

Jessica Grogan, Ph.D. is the author of Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self (January 2013, Harper Perennial).

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