The Science of Resilience

Why some children can thrive despite adversity

By Bari Walsh, on March 23, 2015 2:57 PM
The Science of Resilience: Why some children can thrive despite adversity #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

When confronted with the fallout of childhood trauma, why do some children adapt and overcome, while others bear lifelong scars that flatten their potential? A growing body of evidence points to one common answer: Every child who winds up doing well has had at least one stable and committed rela­tionship with a supportive adult.

The power of that one strong adult relationship is a key ingredient in resilience — a positive, adaptive response in the face of significant adversity — according to a new report from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, a multidisciplinary collaboration chaired by Harvard’s Jack Shonkoff. Understanding the centrality of that relationship, as well as other emerging findings about the science of resilience, gives policymakers a key lever to assess whether current programs designed to help disadvantaged kids are working.

“Resilience depends on supportive, responsive relationships and mastering a set of capabilities that can help us respond and adapt to adversity in healthy ways,” says Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard. “It’s those capacities and relationships that can turn toxic stress into tolerable stress.”

Physical Implications

As a growing body of research is showing, the developing brain relies upon the consistent “serve and return” interactions that happen between a young child and a primary caregiver, the report says. When these interactions occur regularly, they provide the scaffolding that helps build “key capacities — such as the ability to plan, monitor, and regulate be­havior, and adapt to changing circumstances — that enable children to respond to adversity and to thrive,” the report continues. The developing brain is buffered by this feedback loop between biology and environment.

But in the absence of these responsive relationships, the brain’s architecture doesn’t develop optimally. The body perceives the absence as a threat and activates a stress response that — when prolonged — leads to physiological changes that affect the brain and overall systems of physical and mental health. The stress becomes toxic, making it more difficult for children to adapt or rebound.

Notable Consequences

The experiences of the subset of children who overcome adversity and end up with unexpectedly positive life outcomes are helping to fuel a new understanding of the nature of resilience — and what can be done to build it.

Here’s what the science of resilience is telling us, according to the council’s report:

  • Resilience is born from the interplay between internal disposition and external experience. It derives from supportive relationships, adaptive capacities, and positive experiences.
  • We can see and measure resilience in terms of how kids’ brains, immune systems, and genes all respond to stressful experiences.
  • There is a common set of characteristics that predispose children to positive outcomes in the face of ad­versity:
    • The availability of at least one stable, caring, and supportive relationship between a child and an adult caregiver.
    • A sense of mastery over life circumstances.
    • Strong executive func­tion and self-regulation skills.
    • The supportive context of affirming faith or cultural traditions.
  • Learning to cope with manageable threats to our physical and social well-being is critical for the development of resilience.
  • Some children demonstrate greater sensitivity to both negative and positive experiences.
  • Resilience can be situation-specific.
  • Positive and negative experiences over time continue to influence a child’s mental and physical development. Resilience can be built; it’s not an innate trait or a resource that can be used up.
  • People’s response to stressful experi­ences varies dramatically, but extreme adversity nearly always generates serious problems that require treatment.

Additional Resources

  • Read Part II of our exploration of resilience, about the public policy implications of our new understanding of the science of resilience.


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Faculty in this article

Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D.

As director of the Center on the Developing Child, Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D., is using the science of early childhood development to drive innovation in policy and practice, with the goal of transforming life outcomes for disadvantaged children and reducing the consequences of early adversity.