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Invulnerables: The Origins of Resilience

Here's a short history of the concept of resilience.

As I noted in a previous blog post on the subject, resilience has been conceptualized in five different ways: As good mental health, as adapting and adjusting to a new situation, as the ability to rise above one’ problems, as the strength to bounce back, and as “ordinary magic” (i.e. resilience being an ability that we all have and routinely demonstrate).1 In this post, I'll discuss the origins of resilience.

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The History of Resilience

According to Fox Vernon, “Resilience science was initially brought forth into psychology as the serendipitous progeny of two parents, child psychiatry and developmental psychology” (p. 14).2

In child psychiatry, it had been assumed that negative experiences early in life give rise to mental illness during adulthood. John Bowlby’s work (on mother-child bond) marked the beginning of the systematic exploration of childhood adversity.

“Bowlby's work had materialized from the earlier roots of child psychiatry, which were planted in the mental hygiene [i.e. mental health] and child guidance movements of the early 20th century” (p. 14).2 Starting in the early 1900s and peaking a couple of decades later, these movements attempted to prevent mental illness in adults by addressing behavior problems in children.

In the 1970s, child psychiatry began to gather data (e.g., Rutter’s study of mother-child separation) on how childhood traumas influence development. Research also began to identify other stressors and risk factors (e.g., poverty) associated with adult mental health issues.

Schizophrenia and Competence

At this point in our story, researchers came across an unexpected finding. To learn more about this finding, we must turn to Norman Garmezy, who is recognized as the pioneer of the psychological study of resilience.3

Garmezy and his collaborator Eliot Rodnick were conducting research on schizophrenia, and they noted that while some patients with schizophrenia stayed in the hospital for many years and could barely function, others did much better—they were able to recover quickly, to hold jobs, and to maintain long-term relationships.

After examining both groups’ backgrounds, Garmezy concluded that those patients who did better often displayed a pattern of competency in many areas of their lives. He then conducted a study of children whose parents had schizophrenia. He found that many of these children were doing surprisingly well given their circumstances.

Garmezy wrote, “In the study of high-risk and vulnerable children, we have come across another group of children whose prognosis could be viewed as unfavorable,” but “who upset our prediction tables and in childhood bear the visible indices that are hallmarks of competence: good peer relations, academic achievement, commitment to education and to purposive life goals” (p. 114).4 He called these children “invulnerables.”

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Resilient Children

To explore how competency develops, Garmezy studied other children who showed competence despite living in stressful situations and poverty. This line of research eventually began exploring qualities which today we call resilience.

Other investigators studying resilience in children have found that children can be quite resilient. For instance, that “even when exposed to the most horrific conditions—including war, incarceration in concentration camps, sexual and physical abuse, and parental drug abuse—50% to 70% of affected children survived, going on to lead developmentally normal lives.” Because of findings like these, investigators “began to focus not just on risk factors and stressors, but on what came to be termed protective factors, the hypothesized building blocks of resilience” (p. 16).2

Competence or Resilience?

Before concluding my short history of resilience, let me briefly explain the difference between resilience and competence, given that competence is often studied in research on resilience.

When asked about the difference between competence and resilience, Garmezy noted that competence is a label for behaviors considered adaptive, while resilience is “manifest competence despite exposure to significant stressors” (p. 7).3 One cannot discuss resilience if there is no stress.

He also noted that while resilience is often studied in people who have been exposed to great stressors (e.g., war and bombings), resilience is also relevant to the study of people living in poverty because for these people, the summation of the stressful experiences associated with poverty points to maladaptation and dysfunction. A person who grew up poor but managed to become competent in many areas in life has shown considerable resilience.


1. Aburn, G., Gott, M., & Hoare, K. (2016). What is resilience? An integrative review of the empirical literature. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 72, 980–1000.

2. Vernon, R. F. (2004). A brief history of resilience: From early beginnings to current constructions. In C. S. Clauss-Ehlers & M. D. Weist (Eds.), Community planning to foster resilience in children (pp. 13-26). New York, NY: Kluwer Academic.

3. Rolf, J. E (2002). Resilience: An interview with Norman Garmezy. In M. D. Glantz & J. L. Johnson (Eds.), Resilience and development: Positive life adaptations (pp. 5– 14). New York, NY: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.

4. Garmezy, N. (1971). Vulnerability research and the issue of primary prevention. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 41, 101-116.

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