Resiliance and Trauma
Building Resilience to Overcome Adversity
Dave Peltzer’s harrowing story of the years of child abuse is one of the most riveting account of survival through childhood trauma. His entire existence as a child was denied by his mother, with her referring to him as an object, an “it”. Yet the goal of his memoir, A Child Called “It”, was not to dwell on the traumatic events suffered at the hands of his mother, but rather to illustrate the inner strength and resilience which Peltzer relied on to not only survive his trauma, but to grow and thrive in spite of it.
Childhood trauma is a significant predictor of several negative consequences as an adult. For instance, over half of surveyed incarcerated adults reported a history of physical abuse as a child. Additionally, experiencing traumatic events, such as witnessing violence, can lead to deleterious health effects, ranging from heart disease, diabetes, migraines, and irritable bowel disease. Early childhood trauma can also lead to a plethora of psychological and behavioral disorders in adulthood.
How can a child such as Pelzer, who underwent such horrors, grow into a functioning and healthy adult? The answer lies in the science of resilience. Simply put, “resilience” refers to a positive adaptation to significant hardship. Essentially, it is the ability to cope with stress in a healthy way. There are a variety of factors that play a role determining the impact of traumatic events on childhood development. Some are biological and cannot be controlled, such as genetic predispositions. Environmental factors, such as a violent home life, poverty, or high crime, can produce a sense of helplessness, ultimately hindering a child’s ability to handle traumatic events.
To better visualize how these factors affect the development of resilience, imagine a seesaw with both positive and negative experiences loaded on either side. The child is the fulcrum, and the position of the fulcrum determines which experiences have the most impact, or weight, on the development of resilience. The idea is that by providing children with appropriate coping mechanisms can change the position of the fulcrum, ultimately tipping the scales towards positive outcomes.
Obviously, we cannot protect children from all negative experiences, but we can buffer their impact on the child. Resilience cannot be built without the experience of some type of adversity, however. What children need is the opportunity to experience stress on their own with supportive adults to provide guidance. Adults need to model appropriate coping skills and encourage activities to build self-confidence and a sense of control. Community-based organizations can also provide activities for children, such as sports, which could help build interpersonal skills and emotional regulation.
We cannot fully control what happens to us. We can only control our response to the situation. When traumatic events occur, we need to be able to cope, adapt, and ultimately rise above adversity.
1. Harlow C. Prior Abuses Reported by Inmates and Probationers (Publication No. NCJ 172879) U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics; Washington, DC, USA: 1999.
2. HuffPost.com. “Childhood Trauma Leads to Lifelong Chronic Illness -- So Why Isn't The Medical Community Helping Patients?”. Published online on July 27, 2016, at https://www.huffpost.com/entry/childhood-trauma-leads-to_b_11154082.
3. Center on the Developing Child (2015). The Science of Resilience (InBrief). Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.