How Children Thrive Through Adversity

Turning Struggles into Strenths

Secrets. We all have secrets that we silently carry around. For Li Ling Chen, she hid her true identity for over 40 years to protect herself. As a nine year old girl, her family left her and her great-grandmother as proof they were coming back to China in order for the rest of her family to flee to Taiwan in the 1950’s. With no family or access to education, she overcame the odds, made a life for herself and rescued a baby girl from human traffickers. That little girl was me.

Resilient women raise strong children who grow up with even more resiliency and grit.

We’re created to learn and fulfill our life purpose, to share with the world our best selves. It’s not a question of if you’ll face adversity, but when.

How you deal with life’s challenges is a decision you get to make. You write the chapters in your life. Our thoughts manifest into actions that become the reality we live in.

How do children from broken families who have experienced trauma find forgiveness, perseverance, resilience, love and choose to turn their struggles into strengths?

“The most prevalent character strengths in very young children are love, kindness, creativity, curiosity, and humor.” (Park & Peterson, 2006a). Journal of Happiness Studies

Is there a secret to resilience from children who have experienced trauma, but yet thrived? I wanted to answer the questions I had of how my mother and others like her who overcame adversity and how it’s impacted me today and the person I have yet to become.

I turned to science and I’d like to share what I found out and how you can use these same tools to work through challenges to live a richer, more vibrant life that brings out the best in who you are and those around you.

Norman Gramezy, a developmental psychologist and clinician at the University of Minnesota, met thousands of children in his four decades of research. But one boy in particular stuck with him. He was nine years old, with an alcoholic mother and an absent father. Each day, he would arrive at school with the exact same sandwich: two slices of bread with nothing in between. At home, there was no other food available, and no one to make any. Even so, Garmezy would later recall, the boy wanted to make sure that “no one would feel pity for him and no one would know the ineptitude of his mother.” Each day, without fail, he would walk in with a smile on his face and a “bread sandwich” tucked into his bag.

The boy with the bread sandwich was part of a special group of children. He belonged to a cohort of kids—the first of many—whom Garmezy would go on to identify as succeeding, even excelling, despite incredibly difficult circumstances. These were the children who exhibited a trait Garmezy would later identify as “resilience.” (He is widely credited with being the first to study the concept in an experimental setting.)

Resilience presents a challenge for psychologists. Whether you can be said to have it or not largely depends not on any particular psychological test but on the way your life unfolds.

Let’s look at the Kauai study by Emmy Werner, she followed 698 infants for 40 years. In her sample she  followed and tested consistently for three decades, Werner had a lot of data. She found a few things that  predicted resilience.

Some things had to do with luck. A resilient child might have a strong bond with a supportive caregiver, parent, teacher, or other mentor-like figure.

However, a large set of elements was psychological, and had to do with how the children responded to the environment. From a young age, resilient children tended to “meet the world on their own terms.” They were autonomous and independent, would seek out new experiences, and had a “positive social orientation.” “Though not especially gifted, these children used whatever skills they had effectively,” Werner wrote.

Perhaps most importantly, the resilient children had what psychologists call an “internal locus of control”: they believed that they, and not their circumstances, affected their achievements. The resilient children saw themselves as the orchestrators of their own fates. In fact, on a scale that measured locus of control, they scored more than two standard deviations away from the standardization group.”

George Bonanno is a clinical psychologist at Columbia University’s Teachers College; he heads the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab and has been studying resilience for nearly twenty-five years. All of us possess the same fundamental stress-response system, which has evolved over millions of years and which we share with other animals. The vast majority of people are pretty good at using that system to deal with stress. Perception: Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as an opportunity to learn and grow? “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic,” “To call something a ‘traumatic event’ belies that fact.” He has coined a different term: PTE, or potentially traumatic event, which he argues is more accurate. Every frightening event, no matter how negative it might seem from the sidelines, has the potential to be traumatic or not to the person experiencing it.

A few years ago, Martin Seligman conducted a study for his book Flourish. He listed 15 of the worst things that can happen in a person’s life: torture, grave illness, death of a child, rape, imprisonment, and more. In one month 1,700 people reported at least one of these awful events. To their surprise, individuals who’d experienced one awful event had more intense strengths and therefore higher well-being than individuals who had none. Those who’d been through two were stronger than those who had one and so on. They were able to turn trauma into growth.

What this all means and how you can become more resilient:

  1. Reasoning ability: Become a better problem solver, it helps increase confidence and plans for the future
  2. Emotional support outside of family: have at least one friend and network of supportive people available. For many of the children in the Kauai study who struggled as teenagers it was the having at least one caring, committed adult that made the difference — someone who provided the anchor that helped them weather life’s adversities and taught them how to survive and thrive.
    1. Answer this question: Who would I call if I was in a car accident or my paycheck was delayed at work and I needed a short-term loan? If no one comes to mind, it’s time to step out and develop a caring support network. Not sure how? Here’s another helpful article from the Mayo Clinic.
  3. Internal Locus of Control: belief that one can impact her own destiny and that events result primarily from her own behavior and actions. Children with a high internal locus of control were achievement-oriented and assertive. Are you in charge of your fate or is your fate in charge of you? Who is responsible for your life situation – you or something outside of you? To determine your locus of control and learn skills to increase an internal locus, see this article by Mindtools.
  4. Autonomy: Being able to accomplish tasks alone. Werner and Smith found that, even as toddlers, resilient children “tended to meet the world on their own terms.” How about you? Do you meet the world with confidence or apprehension? To increase confidence, set up a series of small tasks that you know you can do on your own. Celebrate what you accomplish! Means that you make the decision to ask for help and feel good about receiving the help.
  5. Sociability: Skills to elicit positive attention from others and to respond to others in socially acceptable ways. This means that people wanted to help the children because they were likeable and sought help in constructive ways. Think of the last few times you received attention from other people. Was it because you were funny or helpful or thoughtful? Or was it because you demanded things go your own way and expected people to respond according to your demands? Here are just a few ideas about developing positive sociability:
  6. Smile.
  7. Be emphatic, listen carefully to the other person
  8. Help others
  9. Be open to learning new things
  10. Be a good team member
  11. Meet with a friend who knows you well and have a frank conversation about your potential. It’s likely that your view of yourself is lower than the one your friend has of you. Discuss together why this difference in viewpoints exists.
  12. Talk with a therapist about your self-expectations and learn to develop a sense of self-confidence and hope for the future.
  13. Seize opportunities: Take advantage of opportunities that open up to them such as higher education, good jobs, and stable life partnerships. Look around you for opportunities to increase your education and life satisfaction. Learn what you need and want in a job that will make a satisfying career for you. Develop relational skills to attract and keep a solid life partner.

Resilience Factor by Karen Reivich, Andrew Shattle
Ways to overcome adversity to become happier and more well-adjusted

1) Learning Your ABCs: When confronted with adversity, listen to your thoughts, identify what you say to yourself when faced with a challenge, and understand how your thoughts affect your feelings and behavior. A adversity B beliefs C consequences

2) Avoiding Thinking Traps: Don’t make mistakes that undermine resilience.
3) Detecting Icebergs: Identify your deep, maybe hidden beliefs and determine when they help and hurt you.
4) Challenging Beliefs: Find new problem solving/thinking strategies so as to not pursue the wrong solutions.
5) Putting It in Perspective: Stop thinking about “what if” and perceiving every failure as a catastrophe.
6) Calming and Focusing: Stay calm and focused when overwhelmed by stress or emotion.
7) Real-time Resilience: Change your counterproductive thoughts into more resilient ones.

You are not born with a set amount of resilience, you can cultivate and grow it over time.

It turns out those who have childhoods like my mother who have experienced trauma and lacked the type of support most other children have are unique, special and hard to study. They are not in school and readily able to be studied and lack the basics many children have. In our world today, these children are around us in our community near and far. I had the honor to be raised by a remarkable woman. I hope I can be like her.

Resilience can change over time, but you get to decide how to respond and there are practical ways to refine and grow your resiliency level so when adversity arrives and it will,  you are ready and step into it with confidence, hope, grace, and courage. “Resilience transforms. It transforms hardship into challenge, failure into success, helplessness into power”  The Resilience Factor by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shattle

I’ll end with a poem I wrote:

I can feel it rising up
Fiercer by the day
More expansive by the second
It’s all around, it’s everywhere we go
Courage, hope, determination
Tenacity, grit
Love more, risk more
Choose to believe, to dream big
Choose to put in the hard work
It’s within reach
Let me show you how
Let’s do this

Love, light, & blessings,



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