Sturdy tutors in the school of hard knocks

January 22, 1999

Why are some children resilient in adversity? Julia Hinde discovers that parents do matter.

Why does one child in a poverty-stricken single-parent family thrive, while another terrorises the neighbours and plays truant?

Such questions have been puzzling psychiatrists for the past 30 years. Work now coming out of the United States suggests there is nothing magical about some children's apparent ability to beat the odds - to be resilient in the face of adversity. Alan Sroufe of Minnesota University believes it can be predicted (with 80 per cent accuracy) whether a child of three will later drop out of school. He says the critical factor is not IQ but good early parenting.

Research such as Sroufe's poses huge moral questions for government as it encourages poor parents off benefits and into work. Ann Masten, professor of child psychology at Minnesota University, is angry whenever she reads in a newspaper story that parents need not worry about their kids, "they're resilient". "Big mistake," Masten says. "All the kids I have seen who are resilient have adults in there protecting them. Children don't make it on their own."

Masten should know. This week she reports to the AAAS the results of a ten-year study of children growing up in central Minneapolis. She has compared risk factors in the children's lives with how well they are doing compared with their peers.

Masten suggests that a combination of decent parenting and average intellectual skills is crucial if a child is to overcome stressful early experiences such as family separation and poverty and end up doing "just fine", both socially and at school.

"It looks to me like there is nothing magical about resilient children," explains Masten, who compared children from harsh backgrounds who were doing okay ("resilient" children) with two other groups - those from less stressful environments who were performing as expected for their age ("competent" children), and those from risky environments who were struggling.

"We wanted to see if there was anything special, perhaps in terms of their intellect, about resilient children. But it is striking how similar "resilient" and "competent" children are, not just in outcomes, but in the resources they have," Masten says.

Her group originally thought that resilient children might have higher IQs than competent children. This was not so. "Children with resources can deal with lots of adversity and still make it," she says. "Though resilient children may experience more difficulties while growing up, they appear to have enough protection in place. I think it reasonable to conclude they have had effective parenting, though that may have come from adults other than their parents. It appears to take a combination of poor resources, such as bad parenting and low IQ, coupled with a very hazardous environment to result in maladaptation."

So where does this leave policy-makers trying to ensure that children at risk turn out reasonably well? Masten says: "For a long time we have been studying the negative, the processes by which children become maladapted. We have been missing information about the processes that facilitate recovery. What we are now doing is trying to understand what these might be so that we can foster resilience."

Part of the answer to that question may lie in her study of Khmer-American adolescents. The killing fields of Cambodia and the confines of Thai refugee camps have scarred these teenagers, yet, says Masten, their capacity to recover is astonishing. Their story bodes well for other victims, such as children adopted in the West from squalid Romanian orphanages.

The Minnesota-Cambodian community asked Masten to help their adolescents, struggling with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Years after leaving Cambodia, as many as one in four suffered nightmares and jumpiness.Yet these young people were getting on with their lives - going to school,working part-time - and displaying signs of amazing resilience.

The factors that protected them included the ability to learn a foreign language and the nurturing of cultural beliefs. The ability to learn English, says Masten, was important to how well children adapted to America. Many had learned traditional Buddhist meditation skills and this too appeared to help their recovery. Masten found that children separated from their parents experienced more difficulties.

"These children experienced massive trauma," says Masten. "But the thing that struck us most was the astonishing capacity for recovery. Some continue to have problems, but the big picture is one of impressive resilience."

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