Predicting Resilience

I define resilience as our ability to handle hard things. It has to do with the thought and behavior patterns that we develop in the face of adversity and hardship. In my article, today, I want to share some general thoughts about the nature of adversity and then explore ways we can predict resilience and even begin developing greater resilience in the face of adversity.

As I’ve said before, we don’t know how resilient we are until tested by stress and hard things. But that doesn’t mean that all adversity is the same. In fact, adversity or stress varies along two dimensions.


The first dimension of adversity is intensity or the emotional, mental, and physical impact of a stressor. Think of intensity as a continuum that ranges from mild to severe.

Although what is mild or severe is subjective and will differ from individual to individual, here are some examples of mild intensity stressors:

  • A spilled glass of orange juice
  • Trouble finding your keys as you’re rushing out the door
  • Bad traffic on the way to work
  • Rain when you were hoping for sunshine
  • Sitting through a boring meeting
  • Listening to negative economic or political news on TV

Moderate stressors might include such things as:

  • Being told about another round of layoffs
  •  Knowing you don’t have money to meet your monthly bills
  • A serious argument in which your partner threatens to leave
  • Getting a poor performance review
  • Dealing with an ADHD child
  • Learning you have a serious illness.

Severe stressors may include:

  • Being fired or laid off at work
  • The death of a loved one
  • Being in a serious accident
  • Experiencing a sexual assault
  • Being in a severe earthquake or hurricane
  • Learning that your child is in jail

Again, what is mild or severe is subjective so don’t get stuck on my examples. My point is that circumstances and events vary in their intensity and so their impact on your immediate mental and physical health will vary. That said, I do want to emphasize that the cumulative effects of moderate or even mild stress, if you have little reprieve, can be severe. It doesn’t have to be severe to have an impact on your well-being.


This brings up the second category of adversity, duration, which has to do with whether the stressor is acute or chronic. Acute stress is a single event such as being in an accident, the passing of a loved one, being assaulted, witnessing a robbery, etc. The story of Jim Arbuckle is an example of resilience in the face of an acute challenge.

Chronic adversity, on the other hand, is ongoing. Think of my cousin Chris. Other examples include living in constant pain, being in poverty, not being able to find a job, caring for an elderly parent or sick child, being in an abusive relationship, knowing that you have a family history of early onset Alzheimer’s disease, and so on. The immediate impact of these chronic circumstances is not as intense as an acute event but their cumulative, day-to-day impact exerts a serious psychological, emotional, and physical toll.

So, know that the impact and harm caused by adversity is due to both of these factors, the intensity of an event and duration of an event or circumstance.

Predicting Resilience by Studying Children

Norman Garmezy, a developmental psychologist from the University of Minnesota, began studying children in 1961 and continued for more than forty years. He would go into public schools in economically depressed areas around the United States and ask the school administrators to help him identify children who were expected to do poorly, due to their socioeconomic and family backgrounds, but who instead thrived or excelled.

Garmezy used to tell the story of a nine-year-old boy whose father had abandoned the family leaving him to be raised by an alcoholic mother. Each day, this boy would arrive at school with the same sandwich: two slices of bread with nothing in between. At home, there was little food and no one to help him prepare his lunch. But the boy didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him or know of the ineptitude of his mother and so he’d walk into school with a smile on his face and his “bread sandwich” tucked into his bag. This boy belonged to a special group of children who were succeeding and even excelling despite incredibly difficult circumstances. Garmezy called these children “resilient.”

Children in Hawaii

Helping us understand this concept even more is another developmental psychologist named Emmy Werner. She studied a group of 700 children, in Kauai, Hawaii, from before birth into their early thirties. That’s a long study. Throughout the project, Werner would monitor their exposure to stress: maternal stress in utero, poverty, problems in the family, and so on.

Here are some fascinating facts from Emmy Werner’s research:

  • Two-thirds of the children Werner studied came from backgrounds that were, essentially, stable, successful, and happy.
  • One third of the children came from unstable backgrounds and were, therefore, qualified as “at risk.” Like Garmezy, Werner realized that not all of the at-risk children reacted to stress in the same way.
  • Two-thirds of the “at risk” children developed serious learning or behavior problems by the age of ten, or had delinquency records, mental health problems, or teen-age pregnancies by the age of eighteen.
  • The remaining one-third of the “at risk” children developed into “competent, confident, and caring young adults.” They attained academic, domestic, and social success—and they were always ready to capitalize on new opportunities as they arose.

So let me ask you. Have you known people who came from really challenging backgrounds, backgrounds that would predict they’d struggle or even fail at life and yet were able to go on and create beautiful lives? I can think of people like this, even siblings who grew up in the same households and yet responded differently.

What Set the Resilient Children Apart?

Well, Werner wanted to know what set resilient children apart. Because she had followed them for three decades, she had a ton of data at her disposal. She (and Garmezy) concluded that two factors predict resilience:

  1. External, environmental factors which she called luck. Luck includes such things as a strong bond with a supportive caregiver, parent, teacher, or other mentor-like figure.
  2. Internal disposition. Disposition includes one’s DNA and also personality factors. Werner noted that resilient children were autonomous and independent, would seek out new experiences, and had a positive social orientation. Although not more gifted than their less resilient peers, these children used whatever skills they had effectively.

So remember these two factors: Luck and Disposition. These two factors distinguish those children who become resilient from those who do not. Of course, you can’t do a lot about luck. But you can do a lot about your disposition. By understanding the dispositional factors and studying the lives of resilient people, you can improve your own resilience. In other words, resilience is not simply a given. It is something that you can intentionally develop.

Predicting Your Resilience

Let me invite you to consider your life today. What are your biggest stressors? Which are acute and which are chronic? How do they vary in intensity? Which stressors do you consider givens? Which can you modify through action? How might you strengthen your dispositional factors so you can become more resilient?

I’ll explore steps you can take to strengthen your resilience in upcoming articles.




  1. Kayla Glover

    Hello Dr. Allen,
    As always, thanks for a fresh perspective and a focus of hope and personal choice.

    I appreciate your work!


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