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Horrible but True: Early Abuse Can Create Strength

A dangerous home does not always impair a child's functioning

Resilience is a strange phenomenon. The more we understand it, the more surprised we are by how it works. Take, for example, research by Willem Frankenhuis (1) and his colleagues in the Netherlands who found that people with histories of abuse have an uncanny ability to detect threats in their environment, an enhanced capacity to learn new things, and even improved memories when it comes to paying attention to parts of their environment that are the most relevant. Contrary to the belief that early trauma impairs functioning, a growing body of evidence is reminding us that human beings are remarkably adaptable.

I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. It certainly shouldn’t make us lax when it comes to preventing child abuse, but it also gives us hope that even a bad start in life doesn’t seal our fate forever.

Research like this fits into a growing trend in studies of resilience that shows that exposure to early challenges which don’t destroy us may actually enhance our ability to cope with future threats. That’s a profoundly important idea. It reminds us that a traumatized child may have unique abilities that are better than those of their peers, but that we may not see these hidden aspects of resilience because we’re not looking for them.

These patterns are, of course, compensatory. Children are forced to adapt when their environments are threatening. The remarkable thing is that so many do, sometimes at great personal cost. It’s not uncommon to find young people who score high on resilience who have adapted to a bad home environment by becoming hyper-vigilant or emotionally withdrawn. After all, growing up, they had to tune up their memories and modulate their anxiety. They had to remember whether Friday was the day their abusive father went out drinking or worked late. They had to be extra careful to learn how to do their chores and never make a mistake. Failure was not an option for these children, at least if they wanted to avoid a beating.

Neurologically, we now understand that such constant stress creates a certain amount of plasticity. Our cognitions adapt to the instability of our environment. I like to think that our ancestors needed these compensatory skills to survive on the savannah, where it would not have been uncommon for a child to have experienced the death of someone close because of war, an animal attack, or disease. Childhood would have been a short and highly stressful phase of life.

These days, children are far more sheltered from stress. In a horribly twisted bit of irony, abused children develop coping strategies that all children need. If only they didn’t have to experience abuse to develop what I’ve called the “risk-taker’s advantage.” If only their environments created natural and health opportunities for manageable, age-appropriate exposure to stress.

This, then, is the complicated terrain that studies of resilience are now navigating.

It gets even more complicated the better we are at assessing a child’s environment. A post-doctoral fellow working with me at the Resilience Research Centre, Dr. Kristin Hadfield, and I have been analysing data from a study I led of adolescents’ risk exposure in their families, at school, and in their communities, their patterns of resilience, and behaviors like delinquency and school engagement. We, too, have noticed some disturbing patterns.

For example, we divided our sample into kids with and without conduct problems, then asked whether resilience was a good thing or a bad thing in a child’s life depending on the quality of their homes, schools and communities. What we found was not at all what we expected. To explain, let’s consider kids with conduct problems (e.g., they hit people and steal things) living in really supportive families and compare them with children who live in emotionally distant, unsupportive homes. No surprise, when kids have low levels of resilience (e.g., they don’t have healthy relationships, don’t finish what they start, can’t solve problems or name their strengths) it’s the kids from good homes who have fewer behavioral problems. That makes sense. Their homes compensate for the child’s lack of capacity to cope with stress. Kids from worse homes act out more and get into trouble more often.

Now here’s the strange part. When we looked at kids with conduct problems who scored high on resilience we found that the kids from the worse homes had the fewest problem behaviors. Kids from great homes, with high resilience scores, had many more acting out behaviors. How could this be? How could the kids from the better homes with high resilience still show lots of problem behaviors? We expected to find that kids with higher resilience scores from the best homes would be the best behaved. Sadly, that’s not how it works.

Children growing up in challenging, unsupportive home environments are sometimes lucky enough to develop resilience. Somewhere in their lives, maybe at school, or maybe because they have a loving grandparent, they learn to survive. Through these opportunities their brains are wired for success and they learn to cope in a bad situation. It’s as if they know there is no one else around to help them so they compensate and biologically adapt. Put simply, high resilience and a bad home can equal fewer conduct problems. That’s great news as it means that when we help kids from bad homes build resilience, we are helping them develop the behaviors they’ll need to do well in life.

Something very odd happens, though, for the kids from loving homes. Somehow, higher resilience scores make them much, much more likely to act out. They become problem children. The more resilience they report, the worse their behavior is. How can this be?

We can speculate that what happens is that these kids have an inflated sense of their self-importance. They may be well-treated and privileged but they may never be held accountable for their actions. These are spoiled misbehaving kids in gilded cages. It’s the opposite story to that of the abused child. The abused child compensates for a bad environment by developing resilience in order to survive. Children from nice homes show many of the same personal talents as their abused (resilient) peers but rather than needing these talents to survive, these advantages may be fueling an orgy of entitlement, affluenza and bullying.

The lesson from all this is both complex and simple. All the hype about building resilience in every child may be misguided. Children who are vulnerable need to be resilient. But children with lots of advantages at home, school and in their communities need strengths tempered by a dose of reality. Excessive self-esteem, self-efficacy, and a belief in the future, among other aspects of resilience, may actually cause problem behaviors if a child’s environment is wonderfully secure. I’m going to suggest that children from better homes need instead structure and consequences, and a reasonable appraisal of their talents rather than an inflated sense of self-worth.

This means that resilience needs to be understood in context. Bad home or good home? It changes which strengths a child needs to do well, and which will put a child at risk.

1. Frankenhuis, W. E., & de Weerth, C. (2013). Does early-life exposure to stress shape or impair cognition? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 407-412.

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