They can learn it—and we can help
December 8, 2023 By: Mary K. Alvord, Ph.D. Read time: 8 min
A few decades ago, I met a 6-year-old girl from Russia. For her privacy, I’ll call her K. I saw many Russian-born children in my practice as a clinical psychologist because Russian was my first language, and I have ties to the international adoption community. In her home country, K’s early life was filled with trauma. She was neglected as a child, separated from her younger sister, and after her mother died by suicide, taken to an orphanage. Then, American parents adopted her, and she moved to the United States. Certainly, her challenges were severe.
But K is intelligent, hardworking, and has an easygoing disposition. She had a supportive family, and several of her school environments were a good fit, helping her form friendships and build self-confidence. Today, K is in her early 30s and reports being happy and successful, with children of her own to nurture.
What enabled K to overcome such difficult obstacles? How did she successfully adapt despite the challenges of fending for herself, early abandonment, and changing cultures, languages, and families? How did she cope? She is persistent, proactive, resourceful, and empathic. When faced with problems, she takes action rather than being passive or feeling like a victim, and she was always able to come up with a plan after her setbacks. For example, when one school was not meeting her needs, she advocated for changing to another. She continues to be open to help from others and seeks out opportunities to further develop her personal and professional skills. Facing learning challenges, in college she changed her major to education to best match her abilities. She is now an elementary school teacher, a profession that allows her to apply her strengths: patience, creativity, empathy, and an understanding of child development.
Some would call K stress resistant or invulnerable. Some say she has sheer grit. These days, however, we’d be more likely to call her resilient.
Put simply, resilience is the ability to deal with stress and adapt to big and small challenges throughout life. It involves using various characteristics and skills to positively adapt to traumatic situations, natural disasters, social struggles, learning disabilities, and mental and emotional disorders. This does not mean that resilient people don’t experience grief, sadness, or other strong, difficult emotions, nor that they can control all aspects of their lives. It means that they are proactive about what they can control. People can bounce back from severe adversity if they are resilient or learn to apply resilience. That’s right. While we may be resilient in some areas of our life, we can also build it in other areas. And we can help our children learn it and build it in themselves.