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Factors of Resilience in Children

Resilience expert Ann Masten shares the factors that prepare kids to be resilient when faced with adversity.

[0:00-0:05]: (Applause)

[0:06-0:29]: Well thank you very much I’m delighted to be here and join this conversation and I want to share with you some of my thinking about resilience. But before I do I’d like to take a moment and have each of you think of somebody from your own life experience who you think has shown resilience. A young person, anybody that you know well and think about what made a difference in that person’s life.

[0:30-0:59]: How are they able to do it? What were the protective factors? I’ve seen a lot of resilience in my life in an end in my work I think resilience is all around us and in the research I do with child survivors of war and natural disaster and many children these days who are living in shelters for homeless families I see children that are doing very well in all the ways you and I might hope that children would be doing well.

[1:00-1:31]: I also see young people who get off track and then get back on track again. This is one of my favorite late bloomers in life and he grew up, his name is Mike Mattis, he grew up in a family that had alcoholism his mother was severely addicted, he grew up in chaos and he had violent people coming and going in his life and not surprisingly by the time he was a teenager he became a juvenile delinquent.

[1:34-1:56]: However, between adolescence and adulthood he turned his life in a completely different direction and grew up to be a surgeon at the University of Minnesota. Here’s another young person from my own personal experience this is a growth chart of a little girl I met her when she was two and a half years old and I was part of a team that was trying to figure out what was going on with this little girl.

[1:57-2:21]: She had basically stopped developing and we were posed with this question should this little girl be adopted or should she be left in an institution that we were kind of flabbergasted by that question but clearly a life-altering decision was about to be made for her and we had to figure out what was going on with her and make a recommendation.

[2:22-2:55]: Well all kinds of medical tests were done and it was clear that there was nothing medically wrong with this little girl but her history was very interesting. When she had been placed into foster care at around the first day of age born to a street person and her life in that first foster home went very well for the first year of her life and there were great records on her because she was in the welfare system and then her foster father to whom she was very attached died abruptly and her foster mother stopped functioning very well.

[2:56-3:13]: And when this little girl was 15 months old she was without any kind of warning picked up by a total stranger and moved to a new home in life with a group of other strangers and left there and she went into a developmental tailspin and she was not recovering very well from it.

[3:14-3:42]: And you can see it in her her ordinary growth chart here well our conclusion was that she needed a new family and I had the only chance as part of this team I’ll probably ever have in my whole life to write a prescription for a new environment and we wrote that prescription you can think about what you would be on your list a wonderful social worker found a great family and she was adopted straight out of the hospital and made a spectacular recovery across the board.

[3:43-4:07]: And you can see it quickly in her rebound onto a normal growth trajectory here there are many pathways to resilience and we’ve heard about a lot of them in the past day and a half and I’ve illustrated some of them here not all of them a few that I think are interesting and you’ll see that I’ve put optimal development at the top here the Blue Zone is doing just fine.

[4:08-4:27]: And then you have the danger zone at the bottom of functioning here and pathway A as we heard about already it’s the stress resistance pathway. People who follow this path, even though they experienced an acute stressor adversity of some sort represented here in time by red arrow, they continue to function well.

[4:28-4:52]: Pattern B is very different. The people on that path encounter this trauma or adversity and they fall apart and stop functioning very well but then they make a recovery. Sometimes that recovery comes about because of intervention, in a case like Sarah, and sometimes it comes about we watch it spontaneously emerge. Another pathway you’ve heard about already is pathway C which is the post-traumatic growth pathway.

[4:53-5:08]: This is widely reported anecdotally. I’ve observed it myself but it is not very well studied in children and I think it’s because it’s quite rare in children.

[5:08-5:40]: Another one we haven’t heard too much about yet is pattern D here and this is a situation where a young person starts off and there’s a heavy load of adversity and chronic severe experiences and we don’t see good development under those situations during those purple arrows might be a child growing up with child abuse and a family or a child in one of those awful Romanian orphanages who’s not getting adequate care and children don’t do well in those circumstances.

[5:41-6:02]: What happens in this pathway is that at time point marked by the green arrow there’s a dramatic improvement in the conditions for human functioning and development there adopted by a loving family for example and then you see a normalization pattern here where resilience begins to emerge over time.

[6:03-6:32]: Well I think that humans have been fascinated with overcoming adversity for a very long time I think that’s reflected in ancient myths and in fairy tales we want to hear stories about people who overcome difficulties but the scientific study of resilience in human development I would date back about five decades ago here are some of the pioneers you’re looking at and they actually started studying risk and adversity.

[6:33-6:49]: This group of people, psychiatrists and psychologists we’re trying to and the origins of mental health problems, mental illness, behavioral problems and they studied children at risk for these problems because they wanted to see how does this develop because I wanted to learn what to do about it.

[6:50-7:18]: But what they found when they started to study these people at risk with that a lot of these children and the so called risk groups who were clearly burdened with all kinds of adversity, growing up in dangerous neighborhoods, growing up in dangerous families, coming out of war zones, coming out of divorced families, whatever it was they were studying they could see that there was were a lot of children who were doing surprisingly well.

[7:19-7:38]: They observed resilience but their great insight at that time was to realize the importance of these children and young people for understanding what we needed to learn in order to promote resilience and other kids when it wasn’t happening naturally, they realized we needed to understand how resilience happens.

[7:39-8:04]: We’d spent so much time studying risk problems and deficits and we didn’t know much about how do you understand positive development, positive outcomes what makes a difference. They propagated the first wave of resilience I would say there’s been four waves we’re in the middle of the fourth wave I think PopTech is a great representation of fourth wave activity.

[8:05-8:24]: But the first wave was descriptive and like many young sciences the first thing you do is try to describe the phenomenon. People tried to figure out you know can we describe these resilient people what makes a difference and then when they’ve got a sense of that they began to look to understand the processes of resilience.

[8:25-8:51]: How does it happen? Because if you’re going to try to intervene and make resilience promote resilience you need to really understand the processes of how it works not just what might make a difference. And that led to experiments to try to promote resilience in children and families people trying to test their theories and intervene and try to help children recover or do better in life.

[8:52-9:12]: And I’m going to talk about the fourth wave at the end when scientists set out to understand resilience they had to do something very much like what you probably did maybe without even any awareness of it when I asked you to think of an example of someone you consider to show resilience.

[9:13-9:38]: They’re really two kinds of judgments involved and if you’re going to study this in science you have to operationalize these ideas on the one hand you have to have some sort of criteria of what good development and adaptation means and how how you think about that and people use different kinds of criteria but you also have to have some understanding of what threatens development and life what are the risks what is the adversity.

[9:39-10:02]: Because if you are just talking or thinking about a person who does well in life and they haven’t had any adversity you might describe them as healthy or adaptive or successful but you probably wouldn’t describe them as resilient. Resilience is something that you describe as happening when there’s been a significant threat to a person’s life and functioning.

[10:03-10:42]: So a lot of research followed in these waves of resilience and what was really striking about the work was over time everybody began to realize that there was an awful lot of consistency in the findings of this research even though people were studying children in very different circumstances all over the world ranging from natural disasters to war to divorce to poverty and they were coming up with the same list of protective factors that seem to make a difference in the lives of young people and here is an example of the list I call it the short list.

[10:43-11:09]: These are the resilience factors that come up over and over again. I’ve heard them over and over again in the past day and a half and day and a half in this room as well and I’m guessing that these this list doesn’t look too surprising to you and perhaps some of the ideas you’ve thought about, what made a difference for that person that came to your mind thinking about resilience appears, on this list.

[11:10-11:51]: And so people began to wonder well what what is the significance of this list? This must have a great deal of meaning that we keep coming up with the same protective factors. Correlates of resilience and I would like to suggest to you that what we’re looking at here represents some basic human adaptive systems. These have come down to us through biological and cultural evolution and I think that a lot of the resilience we observe in young people and in adulthood as well derive from the operation of these human adaptive systems that have evolved over time.

[11:52-12:13]: They promote healthy development but they also in particular promote the you know visit these are the engines of the capacity for resilience in human life and people have done all kinds of research about these systems and you’ll be happy to hear I’m not going to talk about them all here but there’s been research at many levels of analysis.

[12:14-12:47]: We need to understand deeply how these adaptive systems work and I’ve called this ordinary magic because it it looks to me like resilience doesn’t require anything special or unusual, it requires the operation of these basic systems and ensuring that these are available to human life is extremely important and if children, for example, don’t have a parent looking after them, they need to have that as a fundamental protective system.

[12:48-13:27]: The greatest danger in my view is not adversity itself but the damage that can happen to these adaptive systems if your parent is killed, or unavailable, if your brain is injured by maltreatment that will greatly diminish your capacity for resilience, if these systems are not working well for you. They also can be hijacked we heard that before at this meeting, you know drug addiction can hijack the way a parent attachment is working, and so your parent becomes unavailable.

[13:28-14:15]: Gang leaders can hijack these systems. They know how they work and they can enlist these systems to go off and work on negative goals. So I think that the the great lesson here is to think about the role of these systems and how we can protect them in the lives of children. These decades of research have had a transformative effect in my field they’ve transformed not only the science of how we think about human development and what makes a difference in life but they’ve also had a profoundly transformative effect on the way people think about intervention and people have shifted their thinking to a much more positive set of questions.

[14:16-14:53]: They have reframed the goals of their interventions to focus on building resilience or building strengths on protective factors and mobilizing these powerful adaptive systems to try to promote healthy development in human life and to prepare humans for better adaptation under adversity. There’s this framework of resilience suggest there’s three basic strategies for what you might think about doing to promote resilience in one or more people.

[14:54-15:33]: One strategy is to reduce risk exposure. Dose matters, we’ve heard that over and over again at this conference. As well we can also boost resources after the war is over we can build a school to try to help a community and the children in it recover but it’s a good idea to make sure that the landmines have been removed from the ground before you build that school. So some of these are linked and the third basic strategy is to mobilize those most powerful of adaptive systems, those basic human systems to nurture them to protect them and to restore them.

[15:34-16:08]: That’s what we did with little Sarah. The most powerful protective system for a human child is a loving, caring family. When we placed her and connected her to good caregiving, the dynamic interaction between them produced the resilience that you could see in her growth chart and many other aspects of her development. Also, we’ve learned from this research that timing matters, so that there are strategic messages coming out of the resilience literature.

[16:09-16:52]: Just as one example, the preschool window of human development is a very important one for developing a lot of the fundamental cognitive and self-control skills you need to do well in the early grades of school. So I work with colleagues, a team to study executive function skills and their development in young children, and we are we know that this is a window when these skills are forming and that kids can learn these skills and we’re trying to promote executive function skills in children while they’re living in emergency shelters for homeless children and we know that if you improve these skills, kids do better.

[16:53-17:40]: When they go into kindergarten, that’s just one example, there are many other windows of opportunity in human development and michael mattos changed his life in that transition to adulthood. That’s another window what we’re seeing now is the research on human development and resilience as well as I think at pop tech. Here is this huge fourth wave and it’s been created I think by the explosion of new technology of methods for imaging the brain for studying human genetics so we can go deeply into the human organism and try to understand what what is the role of the microbiome or the immune system and the inflammation system in human resilience.

[17:41-18:11]: But we also can go up and to other levels of systems. Human life, an individual child’s life, is embedded in many other systems in their family, their schools, their communities and they’re all interconnected and people are interested in putting together the story of resilience and integrating it and I think that’s what we’re here in many ways doing at this conference and I’ll just leave you both with my my definition of resilience now my favorite at least till this afternoon.

[18:12-18:55]: And leave you thinking about a child. You know we know that there’s a lot of capacity for resilience, that is part of our human legacy of biology and evolution and culture, but there are an awful lot of children out there in the United States now and across the world who are simply overloaded with toxic levels of stress and I think we have a lot of work to do together to improve their lives and they can’t wait for us, this little girl can’t wait for us, to figure it all out. We have to act now based on what we know.

[18:56]: Thank you.

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