Nothing is black and white, and no one -- not even the most fortunate among us -- makes it through life unscathed. So what questions do we need to ask ourselves in order to find that invisible line between too little and too much focus on a painful past?
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Troubled families can make their children feel powerless and bad about themselves. Growing up with one or more parents who abuse alcohol or drugs certainly makes one a card-carrying member of this not-so-exclusive club, as does growing up with mental illness, parental abuse or neglect. I have much info on my HuffPost blog on growing up with addiction that speaks to these issues. But how is it that some kids seem to do well in life in spite of this sort of trauma and drama within the home while others do not? How do some children find ways to feel good about themselves and life in spite of the powerful influence of their parents?

According to studies, resilience seems to develop out of the challenge to maintain self-esteem. Resilient kids seem to somehow soak up positive feelings from their environment almost "surreptitiously" and reach out for more. Understanding what makes up resilience helps to counter what researchers refer to as the "damage" model -- the idea that if you've had a troubled childhood, you are condemned to a troubled adulthood or you are operating without strengths. (Wolin and Wolin 1993) In fact, adversity can actually develop strength if we learn to mobilize and make use of the supports that are at our disposal.

While it is indeed critical to go back and rework significant issues that block our ability to be present and productive in the here and now, focusing exclusively on the negative qualities of ourselves, others and the damage they wreak on our lives can sometimes have the adverse effect of weakening the self and our relationships rather than strengthening them. Nothing is black and white, and no one -- not even the most fortunate among us -- makes it through life unscathed. So what questions do we need to ask ourselves in order to find that invisible line between too little and too much focus on a painful past? Is there some sort of magical number of adverse events or circumstances that become too many to overcome? Can they be offset by positive events or the way in which we handle the difficult cards that life deals us? If the latter, what are the determining factors? Why do some people thrive in, or even grow from, adversity, while others seem more disabled by it?

What Makes for Resilience?

Resilience, say researchers, is a dynamic and interactive process that builds on itself; it is not just a state of self but of self in relationship. The ability of a child to access friends, mentors and community supports is a significant part of what allows one child to do well where another might experience a tougher time. Resilient kids tend to have "protective factors" that buffer bad breaks. Researchers find that two of these resilience-enhancing factors have emerged time and again. They are (1) good cognitive functioning (like cognitive self-regulation and basic intelligence) and (2) positive relationships (especially with competent adults, like parents or grandparents). Children who have protective factors in their lives tend to do better in some challenging environments when compared with children, in the same environments, without protective factors. (Yates et al 2003; Luthar 2006)

Resilient kids appear to have the ability to use the support available to them in their environment to their advantage. A kind neighbor, a grandparent or relative, a faith-based institution, or an unchaotic school environment, along with a child's ability to make positive use of them, can help a child to thrive. Terrible things happen to people all over the world, but interwoven with those terrible things are often the meaningful sources of support that help people to overcome their circumstances and go on to have purposeful and meaningful lives. In working through the pain of a traumatic past, it is important to identify not only what hurt us, but what sustained us.

Creating Resilience Through Recovery

So resilience, it turns out, is not only about personal qualities, but a combination of how what we have within us can interface with available supports in our environment. Key to being a resilient person is realizing that many resilient characteristics are under our control, especially once we reach adulthood; we can consciously and proactively develop them. And the more we develop qualities of strength and resilience, the more insulated we are against the effects of trauma. What we call resilient children tend to show these qualities as adults:

• They can identify the illness in their family and are able to find ways to distance themselves from it; they don't let the family dysfunction destroy them.
• They work through their problems but don't tend to make that a lifestyle.
• They take active responsibility for creating their own successful lives.
• They tend to have constructive attitudes toward themselves and their lives.
• They tend not to fall into self-destructive lifestyles.

How Optimism May Build Resilience

In his presidential address to the American Psychological Association, psychologist Martin Seligman, one of the world's leading scholars on learned helplessness and depression, urged psychology to "turn toward understanding and building the human strengths to complement our emphasis on healing damage." (Seligman 1998, 1999) That speech launched today's positive psychology movement. Seligman also became one of the world's leading scholars on optimism. Optimists, says Seligman, see life through a positive lens. They see bad events as temporary setbacks or isolated to particular circumstances that can be overcome by their effort and abilities. Pessimists, on the other hand, react to setbacks from a presumption of personal helplessness. They feel that bad events are their fault, will last a long time, and will undermine everything they do (ibid).

Through his research, Seligman saw that the state of helplessness was a learned phenomenon. He also realized that un-helplessness could be learned as well. We could, in other words, learn to be optimists. He suggests that we learn to "hear" (and even write down) our beliefs about the events that block us from feeling good about ourselves or our lives and pay attention to the "recordings" we play in our head about them. Seligman also suggests we then write out the consequences of those beliefs -- the toll they take on our emotions, energy, will to act, and the like. He suggests that once we become familiar with the pessimistic thought patterns we run through our heads, we challenge them (ibid). For example, we can challenge the usefulness of a specific belief and generate alternative ideas and solutions that might be better. We can choose to see problems as temporary, the way an optimist would, and that in itself provides psychological boundaries. This new type of thinking can stop the "loop" of negative tapes we run through our heads. Over time, this more optimistic thinking becomes engrained as our default position, and as we choose optimism over pessimism through repeated experiences, we are rewarded with new energy and vitality.

It is entirely possible to go through painful life experiences and process as we go. When we do this, we actually build strength from facing and managing our own reactions to tough situations. We learn from our setbacks and mistakes and sharpen our skills for living successfully. Building resilience also includes processing what might be in the way of it -- what old complexes, that is, are still undermining our happiness? (Crawford, Wright, and Masten 2005; Ungar et al 2007) Actively taking responsibility for the effects that a painful past may have had on us and taking the necessary steps to work through our conflicts and complexes is part of creating resilience in adulthood. But still, that's not the whole story of healing. We also need to adopt the lifestyle changes that will make our gains sustainable and renewable. We need to do all of those things that allow us to remain healthy in body and mind like eat well, sleep well, find meaningful, self-sustaining work and build relationship networks. Twelve-step programs help us to heal from emotional and psychological wounds and give us a safe place to land and begin recovery, particularly if we have grown up with or lived with addiction ( And they can provide a safety net and a relationship network as we take steps to build the life we want to have.

Partially excerpted from The ACoA Trauma Syndrome.


Crawford, E., M. O. Wright, and A. Masten. 2005. "Resilience and Spiri- tuality in Youth." Pages 355-370 in E. C. Roehlkepartain, P. E. King, L. Wagener, and P. L. Benson (Eds.), Handbook of Spiritual Development in Child- hood and Adolescence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Luthar, S. S. 2006. "Resilience in Development: A Synthesis of Research Across Five Decades." In D. Cicchetti and D. J. Cohen (Eds.), Develop- mental Psychopathology: Risk, Disorder, and Adaptation, second edition. New York: Wiley.

Seligman, M. P. 1998. President's Address to the 1998 American Psychologi- cal Association's (APA) Annual Meeting. Published as part of the "APA 1998 Annual Report" in American Psychologist 54(8): 559-562.

Ungar, M., M. Brown, L. Liebenberg, R. Othman, W. M. Kwong, M. Armstrong, and J. Gilgun. 2007. "Unique Pathways to Resilience Across Cultures." Adolescence 42(166): 287-310.

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Wolin S., and S. J. Wolin. 1995. "Morality in COAs: Revisiting the Syndrome of Over-Responsibility." In S. Abbott (Ed.), Children of Alcoholics: Selected Readings. Rockville, MD: NACoA.

Yates, T. M., B. Egeland, and L. A. Sroufe. 2003. "Rethinking Resilience: A Develop- mental Process Perspective." Pages 234-256 in S. S. Luthar (Ed.), Resilience and Vulnerability: Adaptation in the Context of Childhood Adversities. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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