Have we paid adequate attention to all of Emmy Werner’s findings?
By John Hoffman
Psychological science lost a great researcher in 2017, when Emmy Werner passed away. Dr. Werner was, of course, one of the pioneers of the concept of resilience, defined loosely as the ability of people to thrive, or at least adapt well to life in spite of significant adversity. Werner turned the “at-risk” zeitgeist on its head when her 1971 book1, based on the Kauai Longitudinal Study, showed that while most “at-risk” kids did go on to have more than their share of life, health and mental health problems, one third of them actually did pretty well.
It seems timely to look back on Emmy Werner’s work and reflect on its meaning in today’s world, where resilience is clearly one of the key concepts in public and professional discussion of mental health.
Rereading Werner’s 2005 article” Resilience and Recovery: Findings From the Kauai Longitudinal Study,2 it struck me that one of her conclusions has gotten short shrift in mental health prevention. People quickly latched on to the protective factors she identified, in particular that the children who overcame adversity all had a close, supportive relationship with at least one person. I’ve heard that finding repeated more often than any psychological finding I can think of (except maybe the “Marshmallow Test”). It’s widely used to buttress the need to promote healthy relationships between parents (or caregivers) and children.
It’s hard to argue with the importance of supportive relationships in human development. But the Werner finding that has been talked about less is the importance of protective factors within the individual. “Even in infancy, resilient children displayed temperamental characteristics that elicited positive responses from their caregivers… at age two, independent observers described the resilient toddlers as agreeable, cheerful, friendly, responsive and sociable.”2 Clearly, those are all assets that would bestow advantage in human development, including, quite likely, an enhanced ability to attract, seek out and maintain close relationships, and benefit from education.
So what is it about less agreeable, less sociable kids that makes them the way the are? The answer, or at least a large part of it, is almost certainly heightened reactivity to stress, as the work of Boyce and Ellis suggests3. However, Boyce and Ellis showed that kids who are more vulnerable to stress can thrive, even do better than their peers in some cases, given the right circumstances4.
But, in terms of public health policy, promotion and intervention, heightened stress reactivity that a child is born with is a pretty tough nut to crack. Maybe that’s why people have focused so much on relationships. Promoting healthy parent/caregiver/child relationships is relatively easy to do. Moreover, we humans are wired for relationships and most parents are highly, highly motivated to have good relationships with their kids.
But a child who is wired for heightened stress reactivity? That’s a lot harder to fix. Posters, slogans and advice sound-bytes will be of very little help. Even the power of relationships and good education, which, if anything, are doubly important for the positive development of stress reactive children, will be harder to harness for kids whose stress response systems are working overtime5. That constant stress system activity is a constant drain on their energy, leaving these kids with much less internal wherewithal to put towards the kind of thinking and activity that helps them grow: learning, building relationships and the pursuit of happiness.
So what do we do? I think the only answer is to do a better job of understanding and supporting kids with heightened stress reactivity. And that has to happen on an individual level. We have to figure out what stresses each child. That often includes hidden stressors that wouldn’t affect most kids4. And then we have to figure out how to reduce their stress, and perhaps mostly importantly, help them develop the personal stress awareness that will enable them to live with themselves and deal effectively with their unique stress system throughout life5.
We’re not going to accomplish that by promoting healthy relationships, or social and emotional learning programs, or parenting programs that teach positive discipline. Neither can we solve it by raising constant alarms about “toxic” stress. Those interventions all have their place. But our prime directives are understanding the needs of these individual kids who have, as Boyce and Ellis put it, heightened “biological sensitivity to context,” and how best to help each one of them. We have to accept that these kids exist, and that we can’t change the way they are through prevention. But we can understand them better and help them live with themselves. Those efforts will have to be tailored to each child and the people who care about them.
- Werner, E. E., Bierman, J. M., & French, F. E. (1971). The children of Kauai: A longitudinal study from the prenatal period to age ten. University of Hawaii Press.
- Werner, E. (2005). Resilience and recovery: Findings from the Kauai longitudinal study. Research, Policy, and Practice in Children’s Mental Health, 19(1), 11-14.
- Boyce, W. T., & Ellis, B. J. (2005). Biological sensitivity to context: I. An evolutionary–developmental theory of the origins and functions of stress reactivity. Development and psychopathology, 17(2), 271-301.
- Ellis, B. J., & Boyce, W. T. (2008). Biological sensitivity to context. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(3), 183-187.
- Shanker, S., & Barker, T. (2016). Self-Reg. How to help your child (and you) break the stress cycle and fully engage with life, Penguin Random House Canada.