Why do some children who grow up in stressful, dysfunctional families turn out to be responsible adults while other children crumble? That question, which focuses on resiliency, has long been debated among social scientists. Previous studies have suggested that girls appear more resilient than boys to negative experiences in childhood. Now a new study also finds that girls have a better chance to overcome such disadvantages but that the odds are stacked against most kids.
The study, by researchers at the University of Washington, looked at 125 children of parents addicted to heroin. The families were recruited between 1991 and 1993, and the children were re-interviewed in 2005 and 2006 when they were an average age of 23. Besides having a drug-addicted parent, many of the children also had a parent who was jailed or mentally ill.
Overall, 62 percent of the children had three or more childhood adversities. When they were re-interviewed in early adulthood, resiliency was defined as either working or being in school, not being a substance abuser and having no criminal record. Girls, the study found, were four times more likely to be considered resilient, mostly because they avoided criminal activity while boys didn’t. Overall, only 30 of the 125 young adults studied were defined as resilient.
The study, published online this week in the Journal of Adolescent Health, also looked at factors that seemed to promote or interfere with resiliency. For example, being very nervous, fearful, anxious or depressed in childhood interfered with resiliency, as did disobedience, bullying behavior and having a bad temper.
The overall picture, said Martie L. Skinner, lead author of the study, was that these children were pretty vulnerable to becoming troubled adults. But, she said, “There are early warning signs, and if children get the attention they need to meet early problems, it can reduce the burden on society later on in caring for them.”