The resilience debate

Resilience can be taught. That was the hopeful message Michele Borba, the educational psychologist, author and Dr. Oz Show contributor brought to a packed auditorium at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital (JPDS-NC) Sunday night.

Borba was the keynote speaker of the school’s first annual Ari Zymelman lecture on parenting. She is an adherent of the positive psychology movement led by Martin Seligman, a Jewish professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a former head of the American Psychological Association.

And she is a star – a telegenic, confident, eloquent and funny speaker who connects with audiences.

But is she right?

What Borba did not tell the JPDS audience – and should have – is that resilience is a controversial field. It emerged as a major theoretical and research topic as recently as the 1980s, and since then it has generated a great deal of dispute and confusion. Bright minds cannot even seem to agree on a working definition of the term.

Some scholars say resilience is the absence of psychopathology. Other experts, like George A. Bonanno, Columbia University professor of clinical psychology, say it takes more than avoiding mental illness to be resilient. Bonanno defines resilience as a life trajectory, “a relatively stable pattern of healthy functioning coupled with the enduring capacity for positive emotion and generative experiences.” In other words, a resilient person, despite day-to-day fluctuations, can love and work.

Borba agrees, defining resilience Sunday as the “emotional equip[ment] to face challenges and bounce back from setbacks.” She argues that if parents give their children 1) unconditional love and acceptance; 2) a structured, nonpermissive environment; and 3) the opportunities to be listened and heard, that they can “plant the seeds of self-esteem” that will enable children to “regulate intense feelings and to manage difficult situations.”

Self-esteem, optimism and hope are the keys to resilience, according to Borba. Fair enough. But Borba went a huge step further Sunday, claiming that these traits are “all teachable.” That surprised me. Rarely do scientists make such bold, unreserved pronouncements.

One of the most respected researchers in Borba’s field, Frank Putnam, M.D., of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, while acknowledging that resiliency can be “enhanced” by personality traits such as “optimism, high I.Q., special talents and physical attractiveness,” argues that these traits are largely accidents of birth and thus “not very modifiable.” In Putnam’s words, therefore, resiliency “is largely a myth.”

Last summer, Putnam and his colleagues at UNC published a paper in the peer-reviewed Journal of Traumatic Stress showing that although people are not at significant risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder or other serious mental illness after experiencing one major childhood adversity (physical abuse or sexual abuse, parental neglect, witnessing domestic violence, among them), the odds of doing so skyrocket after two or more adversities. Putnam’s data suggest that at around three or four major childhood adversities, “most people crumble.”

Putnam’s advice: Precisely because resilience cannot be taught, society’s focus should be on prevention.

As I sit here today, I cannot say which of these experts is correct. Resilience could be a learned behavior, as Borba argues, or it could simply be a numbers game – “a threshold” – as Putnam contends.

But the notions that children should be raised with love, structure, opportunities to be heard and guarded, to the extent possible, from major trauma – who could disagree with that?

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