Resilient Children

Emmy E. Werner
Research has identified numerous risk
factors that increase the probability of
developmental problems in infants and
young children. Among them are biological risks, such as pre- and perinatal
complications, congenital defects, and
low birthweight; as well as intense stress
in the caregiving environment, such as
chronic poverty, family discord, or
parental mental illness (Honig 1984).
2. In a 1979 review of the literature of
children's responses to such stress and
risks, British child psychiatrist Michael
Rutter wrote:
There is a regrettable tendency to focus
gloomily on the ills of mankind and on all
that can and does go wrong.... The
potential for prevention surely lies in
understanding of the reasons why some
children are not damaged by deprivation...
(p. 49)
3. For even in the most terrible homes,
and beset with physical handicaps, some
children appear to develop stable, healthy
personalities and to display a remarkable
degree of resilience, i.e. the ability to
recover from or adjust easily to
misfortune or sustained life stress. Such
children have recently become the focus
of attention of a few researchers who
have asked What is right with these
children? and, by implication, How can
we help others become less vulnerable in
the face of life's adversities?
The search for protective factors
4. As in any detective story, a number
of overlapping sets of observations have
begun to yield clues to the roots of
resiliency in children. Significant
findings have come from the few
longitudinal studies which have followed
the same groups of children from infancy
or the preschool years through
adolescence (Block and Block, 1980;
Werner and Smith 1982). Some
researchers have studied the lives of
minority children who did well in school
in spite of chronic poverty and
discrimination (Clark 1983; Shipman
1976). A few psychiatrists and
psychologists have focused their
attention on the resilient offspring of
psychotic patients (Anthony, 1974;
Werner and Smith, 1982) and on the
coping patterns of children of divorce
(Wallerstein and Kelly, 1980). Others
have uncovered hidden sources of
strength and gentleness among the
uprooted children of contemporary wars
in El Salvador, Ireland, Israel, Lebanon.
and Southeast Asia (Ayala-Canales 1984;
Rosenblatt 1983). Perhaps some of the
most moving testimonials to the
resiliency of children are the life stories
of the child survivors of the Holocaust
(Moskovitz, 1983).
5. All of these children have
demonstrated unusual psychological
strengths despite a history of severe
and/or prolonged psychological stress.
Their personal competencies and some
unexpected sources of support in their
protected them against the adverse
effects of stressful life events (Garmezy,
1984). Some researchers have called
these children invulnerable (Anthony,
1974); others consider them to be stress
resistant (Garmezy and Tellegren, 1984);
still others refer to them as superkids
(Kauffman et al. 1979). In our own
longitudinal study on the Hawaiian island
of Kauai, we have found them to be
vulnerable, but invincible (Werner and
Smith, 1982).
6. These were children like Michael for
whom the odds, on paper, did not seem
very promising. The son of teen-age
parents, Michael was born prematurely
and spent his first three weeks of life in
the hospital, separated from his mother.
Immediately after his birth, his father
was sent with the Army to Southeast
Asia for almost two years. By the time
Michael was eight, he had three younger
siblings and his parents were divorced.
His mother left the area and had no
further contact with the children.
7. And there was Mary, born to an overweight, nervous, and erratic mother who
had experienced several miscarriages,
and a father who was an unskilled farm
laborer with only four years of education.
Between Mary's fifth and tenth birthdays,
her mother had several hospitalizations
for repeated bouts with mental illness,
after having inflicted both physical and
emotional abuse on her daughter.
Resilient children tend to
have temperamental
characteristics that elicit
positive responses from
family members as well as
8. Yet both Michael and Mary, by age
18, were individuals with high selfesteem and sound values, caring for
others and liked by their peers, successful
in school, and looking forward to their
adult futures.
9. We have learned that such resilient
children have four central characteristics
in common:
• an active, evocative approach toward
solving life's problems, enabling them to
negotiate successfully an abundance of
emotionally hazardous experiences;
• a tendency to perceive their experiences
constructively, even if they caused pain
or suffering;
• the ability, from infancy on, to gain
other people's positive attention;
• a strong ability to use faith in order to
maintain a positive vision of a
meaningful life (O'Connell-Higgins,
Protective factors within the child
10. Resilient children like Mary and
Michael tend to have temperamental
characteristics that elicit positive
responses from family members as well
as strangers (Garmezy, 1983; Rutter,
1978). They both suffered from birth
complications and grew up in homes
marred by poverty, family discord, or
parental mental illness, but even as
babies they were described as active,
affectionate, cuddly, good natured, and
easy to deal with. These same children
already met the world on their own terms
by the time they were toddlers (Werner
and Smith, 1982).
11. Several investigators have noted
both a pronounced autonomy and a
strong social orientation in resilient
preschool children (Block, 1981; Murphy
and Moriarty, 1976). They tend to play
vigorously, seek out novel experiences,
lack fear and are quite self-reliant. But
they are able to ask for help from adults
or peers when they need it.
12. Sociability coupled with a
remarkable sense of independence are
characteristics also found among the
resilient school-age children of psychotic
parents. Anthony (1974) describes his
meeting with a nine-year-old girl, whose
father was an alcoholic and abused her
and whose mother was chronically
depressed. The girl suffered from a
congenital dislocation of the hip which
had produced a permanent limp, yet he
was struck by her friendliness and the
way she approached him in a
comfortable, trustful way.
13. The same researcher tells of another
nine-year-old, the son of a schizophrenic
father and an emotionally disturbed
mother, who found a refuge from his
parents' outbursts in a basement room he
had stocked with books, records, and
food. There the boy had created an oasis
of normalcy in a chaotic household.
14. Resilient children often find a refuge
and a source of self-esteem in hobbies
and creative interests. Kauffman et al,
(1979) describes the pastimes of two
children who were the offspring of a
schizophrenic mother and a depressed
When David (age 8) comes home from
school, he and his best friend often go up
to the attic to play. This area ... is filled
with model towns, railroads, airports and
castles.... He knows the detailed history of
most of his models, particularly the
airplanes.... David's older sister, now 15,
is extraordinarily well-read. Her other
exploration. She is currently working on a
computer program to predict planetary
orbits, (pp. 138, 139)
15. The resilient children on the island
of Kauai, whom we studied for nearly
two decades, were not unusually talented,
but they displayed a healthy androgeny
in their interests and engaged in hobbies
that were not narrowly sex-typed. Such
activities, whether it was fishing,
swimming, horseback riding, or hula
dancing, gave them a reason to feel
proud. Their hobbies, and their lively
sense of humor, became a solace when
things fell apart in their lives (Masten,
1982; Werner and Smith, 1982).
16. In middle childhood and adolescence,
resilient children are often engaged in
acts of "required helpfulness" (Garmezy,
in press). On Kauai, many adolescents
took care of their younger siblings. Some
managed the household when a parent
was ill or hospitalized: others worked
part-time after school to support their
family. Such acts of caring have also
been noted by Anthony (1974) and
Bleuler (1978) in their studies of the
resilient offspring of psychotic parents
and by Ayala-Canales (1984) and
Moskovitz (1983) among the resilient
orphans of wars and concentration
Protective factors within the family
17. Despite chronic poverty, family
discord or parental mental illness, most
resilient children have had the
opportunity to establish a close bond
with at least one caregiver from whom
they received lots of attention during the
first year of life. The stress-resistant
children in the Kauai Longitudinal Study
as well as the resilient offspring of
psychotic parents studied by Anthony
(1974) had enough good nurturing to
establish a basic sense of trust.
Most resilient children
establish a close bond with
at least one caregiver from
whom they received lots of
attention during the first
year of life.
l8. Some of this nurturing came from
substitute caregivers within the family,
such as older siblings, grandparents,
aunts, and uncles. Such alternate
caregivers play an important role as
positive models of identification in the
lives of resilient children, whether they
are reared in poverty (Kellam et al.
1975), or in a family where a parent is
mentally ill (Kauffman et al. 1979), or
coping with the aftermath of divorce
(Wallerstein and Kelly, 1980).
19. Resilient children seem to be
especially adept at actively recruiting
surrogate parent. The latter can come
from the ranks of babysitters, nannies, or
student roomers (Kauffman et al. 1979);
they can be parents of friends (Werner
and Smith, 1982), or even a housemother
in an orphanage (Ayala-Canales, 1984;
Moskovitz, 1983).
20. The example of a mother who is
gainfully and steadily employed appears
to be an especially powerful model of
identification for resilient girls reared in
poverty, whether they are Black (Clark,
1983) or Asian-American (Werner and
Smith, 1982). Maternal employment and
the need for sibling caregiving seems to
contribute to the pronounced autonomy
and sense of responsibility noted among
these girls, especially in households
where the latter is permanently absent.
21. Structure and rules in the household
and assigned chores enabled many
resilient children to cope well in spite of
poverty and discrimination, whether they
lived on the rural island of Kauai, or in
the inner cities of the American Midwest,
or in a London borough (Clark, 1983).
22. Resilient children also seem to have
been imbued by their families with a
sense of coherence (Antonovsky, 1979).
They manage to believe that life makes
sense, that they have some control over
their fate, and that God helps those who
help themselves (Murphy and Moriarty,
1976). This sense of meaning persists
among resilient children, even if they are
uprooted by wars or scattered as refugees
to the four corners of the earth. It enables
them to love despite hate, and to
maintain the ability to behave compassionately toward other people (AyalaCanales, 1984).
Protective factors outside the family
23. Resilient children find a great deal of
emotional support outside of their
immediate family. They tend to be wellliked by their classmates and have at
least one, and usually several, close
friends and confidants (Garmezy 1983).
In addition, they tend to rely on informal
networks of neighbors, peers, and elders
for counsel and advice in times of crisis
and life transitions.
Resilient children find a
great deal of emotional
support outside of their
immediate family.
24. Resilient children are apt to like
school and to do well in school, not
exclusively in academics, but also in
sports, drama, or music. Even if they are
not unusually talented, they put whatever
abilities they have to good use. Often
they make school a home away from
home, a refuge from a disordered
household. A favorite teacher can
become an important model of
identification for a resilient child whose
own home is beset by family conflict or
dissolution (Wallerstein and Kelly,
25. In their studies of London schools,
Rutter and his colleagues (1979) found
that good experiences in the classroom
could mitigate the effects of considerable
stress at home. Among the qualities that
characterized the more successful schools
were the setting of appropriately high
standards, effective feedback by the
teacher to the students with ample use of
praise, the setting of good models of
behavior by teachers, and giving students
positions of trust and responsibility.
Children who attended such schools
developed few, if any, emotional or
behavioral problems despite considerable
deprivation and discord at home (Pines,
Early childhood programs and a
favorite teacher can act as an important
buffer against adversity in the lives of
resilient young children. Moskovitz
in her follow-up study in
adulthood of the childhood survivors of
concentration camps, noted the pervasive
influence of such a warm, caring teacher.
27. Participation in extracurricular
activities or clubs can be another
important informal source of support for
resilient children. Many youngsters on
Kauai were poor by material standards,
but they participated in activities that
allowed them to be part of a cooperative
enterprise, whether being cheerleader for
the home team or raising an animal in the
4-H Club. Some resilient older youth
were members of the Big Brothers and
Big Sisters Associations which enabled
them to help other children less fortunate
than themselves. For still others
emotional support came from a church
group, a youth leader in the YMCA or
YWCA, or from a favorite minister,
priest, or rabbi.
The shifting balance between
vulnerability and resiliency
28. For some children some stress
appears to have a steeling rather than a
scarring effect (Anthony, 1974). But we
need to keep in mind that there is a
shifting balance between stressful life
events which heighten children's
vulnerability and the protective factors in
their lives which enhance their resiliency.
This balance can change with each stage
of the life cycle and also with the sex of
the child. Most studies in the United
States and in Europe, for example, have
shown that boys appear to be more
vulnerable than girls when exposed to
chronic and intense family discord in
childhood, but this trend appears to be
reversed by the end of adolescence.
There is a shifting balance
between stressful life events
which heighten children’s
vulnerability and the
protective factors in their
lives which enhance their
As long as the balance between
stressful life events and protective factors
is manageable for children, they can
cope. But when the stressful life events
outweigh the protective factors, even the
most resilient child can develop
problems. Those who care for children,
whether their own or others, can help
restore this balance, either by decreasing
the child's exposure to intense or chronic
life stresses, or by increasing the number
of protective factors, i.e. competencies
and sources of support.
What then are some of the
implications of the still tentative findings
from studies of resilient children? Most
of all, they provide a more hopeful
perspective than can be derived from
reading the extensive literature on
problem children which predominates in
clinical psychology, child psychiatry,
special education, and social work.
Research on resilient children provides
us with a focus on the self-righting
tendencies that appear to move some
children toward normal development
under all but the most persistent adverse
Faith that things will work
out can be sustained if
children encounter people
who give meaning to their
lives and a reason for
commitment and caring.
3l. Those of us who care for young
children, who work with or on behalf of
them, can help tilt the balance from
vulnerability to resiliency if we
• accept children's temperamental
idiosyncracies and allow them some
experiences that challenge, but do not
overwhelm, their coping abilities;
convey to children a sense of
responsibility and caring, and. in turn,
reward them for helpfulness and
• encourage a child to develop a special
interest, hobby, or activity that can serve
as a source of gratification and selfesteem;
• model, by example, a conviction that
life makes sense despite the inevitable
adversities that each of us encounters;
• encourage children to reach out beyond
their nuclear family to a beloved relative
or friend.
32. Research on resilient children has
taught us a lot about the special
importance of surrogate parents in the
lives of children exposed to chronic or
intense distress. A comprehensive
assessment of the impact on siblings,
grandparents, foster parents, nannies, and
babysitters on the development of high
risk children is elaborated upon in
Werner (1984).
33. Outside the family circle there are
other powerful role models that give
emotional support to a vulnerable child.
The three most frequently encountered in
studies of resilient children are: favorite
teacher, a good neighbor, or a member of
the clergy.
34. There is a special need to strengthen
such informal support for those children
and their families in our communities
which appear most vulnerable because
they lack—temporarily or permanently—
some of the essential social bonds that
appear to buffer stress: working mothers
of young children with no provisions for
stable child care; single, divorced, or
teenage parents; hospitalized and
handicapped children in need of special
care who are separated from their
families for extended periods of time:
and migrant or refugee children without
permanent roots in a community.
35. Two other findings from the studies
of resilient children have implications for
the well-being of all children and for
those who care for them.
(1) At some point in their young lives,
resilient children were required to carry
out a socially desirable task to prevent
others in their family, neighborhood, or
community from experiencing distress or
discomfort. Such acts of required
helpfulness led to enduring and positive
changes in the young helpers.
(2) The central component in the lives
of the resilient children that contributed
to their effective coping appeared to be a
feeling of confidence or faith that things
will work out as well as can be
reasonably expected, and that the odds
can be surmounted.
The stories of resilient children
teach us that such a faith can develop and
be sustained, even under adverse
circumstances, if children encounter
people who give meaning to their lives
and a reason for commitment and caring.
Each of us can impart this gift to a
child—in the classroom, on the
playground, in the neighborhood, in the
family—if we care enough.
Emmy E. Werner, Ph.D., is Professor
of Human Development and Research
Child Psychologist, University of
California at Davis, California.