Resilient qualities are not only what we’re born with but also the strengths that we build through encountering life’s challenges and developing the personal and interpersonal skills to meet them. It is one of life’s paradoxes that the worst circumstances can bring the best out of us. According to the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) studies performed by Robert Anda (2006) and his team at Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego, we will all experience four or more serious life stressors that may be traumatizing, and according to positive psychology research, most of us will grow from them.
What Do We Mean by Resilience?
Research on resilience used to view resilient qualities as residing exclusively within an individual. Today this research takes the more dynamic view of seeing resilience as an individual’s ability to mobilize supports within a social context. Wong and Wong (2012) write that “In the early days of resilience research, the focus was on ‘the invulnerable child,’ who did better than expected despite adversities and disadvantages . . . [D]evelopmental psychologists were interested in individual differences and the protective factors that contributed to the development of the invulnerable child”. Rutter, however, argues that “resilience may reside in the social context as much as within the individual” (Wong & Wong). “His concept of the ‘steeling’ effect highlights the essence of resilience — the more experience you have in overcoming adversities, the more resilient you will become” (Wong & Wong, 2012).
Wong and Wong propose that certain qualities of behavioral resilience can only be developed from the actual experience of having overcome adversities (Wong & Wong, 2012).
Additionally, they identify at least three prototypical patterns that resilient people appear to display, which may occur in different contexts for different individuals. These are developed as individuals meet life challenges; they are dynamic, constantly evolving qualities rather than qualities residing only within the individual.
Recovery: bouncing back and returning to normal functioning
Invulnerability: remaining relatively unscathed by the adversity or trauma
Posttraumatic growth: bouncing back and becoming stronger (Wong & Wong, 2012, p. 588).
Our Deep Need to Connect: How Early Attachment Can Be Life Enhancing or Traumatizing
Our highest and most evolved system, our social engagement system, is activated through our deep urge to communicate and cooperate. From the moment of birth, our mind-body reaches out toward our primary attachment figures to establish the kind of connection that will allow us to survive and find our footing in the world. We fall back on our more primitive systems of defense — such as fight, flight, or freeze — only when we fail to find a sense of resonance and safety in this connection (Porges, 2004).
The body of work that researchers Dan Siegel and Allan Schore have developed, which underlies interpersonal neurobiology, postulates that our skin does not define the boundaries of our beingness; from conception, we resonate in tune or out of tune with those around us (Schore, 1999). Through relational experiences that form and inform our sense of self and through our ability to be cared for and care about others, our capacity for empathy is formed and strengthened (Schore, 1999).
Neuroception, a term coined by Stephen Porges (2004), former Director of the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, describes our innate ability to use intricate, meaning-laden, barely perceptible mind-body signals to establish bonds and communicate our needs and intentions. While many of these communications are conscious, still more occur beneath the level of our awareness in that animal-like part of us(Porges, 2004).
Neuroception is a system that has evolved over time to enable humans and mammals to establish the mutually nourishing bonds that we need to survive and thrive. It is also our personal security system that assesses, in the blink of an eye, whether or not the situations that we’re encountering are safe or in some way threatening (Porges, 2004). According to Porges (2004), our neuroception tells us if we can relax and be ourselves or if and when we need to self-protect. If the signals that we’re picking up from others are cold, dismissive, or threatening, that system sets off an inner alarm that is followed by a cascade of mind-body responses honed by eons of evolution to keep us from being harmed. That mind-body system sets off equivalent alerts if we’re facing the proverbial saber-toothed tiger or saber-toothed parent, older sibling, a school bully, or spouse. We brace for harm to our person on the inside as well as on the outside.
When Parents Turn Away
Trauma in the home has a lasting impact. When those we rely on for our basic needs of trust, empathy, and dependency become abusive or neglectful, it constitutes a double whammy. Not only are we being hurt and confused but the very people we’d go to for solace and explanation of what’s going on are the ones causing us pain. We stand scared and braced for danger in those moments, prepared by eons of evolution, ready to flee for safety or stand and fight. If we can do neither, if escape seems impossible because we are children growing up trapped by our own size and dependency within pain engendering families, then something inside of us freezes. Just getting through, just surviving the experience becomes paramount.
Relational trauma impacts all facets of the mind-body social engagement system including limbic resonance, touch, expression, gesture, sign language, and finally words. Consequently, ferreting out just what has hurt us can be a very layered process. A parent who wears a scowl all of the time, for example, and who we couldn’t reach with our attempts at connection or who begrudgingly reached for our hands and dragged us across a street or humiliated us for our small efforts share our feelings to take care of ourselves, can leave a legacy of hurt behind them.
In trauma engendering interactions, “people are not able to use their interactions to regulate their physiological states in relationship . . . they are not getting anything back from the other person that can help them to remain calm and regulated. Quite the opposite. The other person’s behavior is making them go into a scared, braced-for-danger state. Their physiology is being up regulated into a fight/flight mode,” says Porges A failure to successfully engage and create a sense of safety and cooperation or to communicate needs and desires to those people we depend upon for our very survival can be experienced as traumatic. This can set the groundwork for a life long problem with self-regulation.
When Children Withdraw Into Themselves
For small developing children, this refusal of connection can be traumatic if it occurs consistently over time. The child can feel that their needs are somehow incompressible if the parent does not tune into him or her. Small children have little recourse when they are young and dependent. If a parent does not support a comfortable connection, if the parent or caretaker is not available for a caring co-state in which communications on both sides are met with reciprocal attempts to understand and continue to participate in a mutually satisfying feedback loop, the child may feel very alone. They may retreat into their own little world or even dissociate. After all, why continue to try when you are getting nothing back? What about the child who is disciplined not according to their own behavior but by their parent’s mood and left unable to figure out how to act to stay out of trouble? Or how about the kid in a rage-filled home who is told to sit still and listen as the parent dumps a load of pain all over them? What recourse does this child have but to flee internally? When we dissociate, we do not process experiences normally. We do not feel it, think about it, or draw meaning from it.
How Early Relational Trauma Affects Our Relationships
People who have been traumatized in their intimate relationships can find it difficult simply to be in comfortable connection with others. The dependency and vulnerability that is so much a part of intimacy can trigger a person who has been traumatized in their early, intimate relationships into the defensive behaviors that they relied on as children to stay safe and to feel whole rather than splintered. To heal this form of relational trauma, we need to understand what defensive strategies we used to stay safe and then shift these behaviors to be more engaged and nourishing both within our relationships and ourselves. After all, if we constantly brace for danger and rejection, then we are likely to create it. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Long-Term Impact of Parental Addiction
Experiences like growing up with parental addiction and the chaos and stress that surround it pop up over and over again as primary causes of toxic stress. Anda and his team were not looking for the effects of addiction in their research however it consistently emerged as an underlying factor in ACE’s. Not only are the effects of parental addiction devastating for children, but addiction is rarely a factor by itself, it is often surrounded by a cluster of other problems such as abuse and neglect. Alcohol and drugs are often used to mask depression and anxiety in the addict but rather than make depression or anxiety better; addiction makes them worse because the depression and anxiety remain undealt with and the addiction becomes a whole, new problem of its own. And being married to an addict creates pain in the partner which undermines their ability to be a present parent, so kids lose two parents. ACEs or adverse childhood experiences tend to cluster; once a home environment is disordered, the risk of witnessing or experiencing emotional, physical, or sexual abuse actually rises dramatically (Anda, et al., 2006).
During one of his lectures, Dr. Anda described why ongoing traumatic experiences such as growing up with addiction, abuse, or neglect in the home can have such tenacious effects: “For an epidemic of influenza, a hurricane, earthquake, or tornado, the worst is quickly over; treatment and recovery efforts can begin. In contrast, the chronic disaster that results from ACEs is insidious and constantly rolling out from generation to generation” (personal communication). If the effects of toxic stress are not understood so that children can receive some sort of understanding and support from home, school, and community, these children simply “vanish from view . . . and randomly reappear — as if they are new entities — in all of your service systems later in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood as clients with behavioral, learning, social, criminal, and chronic health problems” (Anda, et al., 2010).
Growing up is painful; families are only human after all. We will inevitably get hurt. But we need to repair that hurt in some way, and if repair doesn’t happen at or near to the moment of the pain, it will need to happen later. When emotional pain remains split off, it becomes somehow invisible to the naked eye, and it emerges as if it a whole new problem with whole new people. But we need to embrace the challenge as adults of understanding our own childhood ACE-related pain and cleaning up its effects so that it doesn’t become the pain pump for today’s problems.
The idea of growth through suffering or pain is not a new one. The systematic study of it is. Post-traumatic growth (PTG), a phrase coined by Drs. Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun — editors of The Handbook of Post Traumatic Growth — describes the positive self-transformation that people undergo through meeting challenges head-on. It refers to a profound, life-altering response to adversity that changes us on the inside as we actively summon the kinds of qualities like fortitude, forgiveness, gratitude, and strength that enable us to not only survive tough circumstances but also thrive. Facing childhood pain and dealing with it rather than acting it out or medicating is part of post-traumatic growth and part of how we create resilience today.
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Written by Tian Dayton, PH.D. and Senior Fellow at The Meadows