The Myth of the Invulnerable Child

Somewhere there exists a paper by an M. Pines entitled ‘In Praise of the Invulnerables’. It was published in the APA Monitor in 1975 and is probably sitting silently on some dusty shelf in some darkBroken-Doll corner of an academic library. I know it exists because pretty much every academic paper I’ve read on resilience cites it (and I’ve read a great many papers of this kind). The interesting thing about this paper is that both the title and the content appear to suggest that early resilience researchers saw the ability to thrive in the face of severe adversity as something almost magical; a superhuman quality that only the most blessed are bestowed with. It’s an interesting paper because decades of research into resilience have found such claims to be false.

Another of these early researchers was a British psychoanalyst named Elwyn James Anthony (or just James Anthony). Anthony was very much old school psychology, having worked with the likes of Jean Piaget, Anna Freud and John Bowlby – all highly influential in their own right and within their own time.

In order to explain the nature of resilience, Anthony used the metaphor of the three dolls that goes something like this:

I have three dolls: One is made of glass, one of plastic and another of steel. I also have a hammer. If I strike the glass doll with my hammer it will shatter; if I strike the plastic doll it will be severely scarred but not broken, but if I strike the steel doll with my hammer it will emerge relatively unscathed.

The suggestion here is that it is something about the individual that ‘makes’ them invulnerable, something innate and trait-like, something superhero-like that resides deep inside the strands of DNA. However, subsequent investigations have also found this metaphor to be lacking.

The language we use has also changed. Researchers now use the term resilience rather the ‘invulnerable’ because scientific research, by its very nature, leads to greater understanding which, in turn, leads to the casting aside of that which was once deemed ‘true’. To be a good researcher one needs to be able to understand that what is deemed correct today faces the possibility of being overturned tomorrow.

Indeed, Michael Rutter found that resistance to stress is relative, not absolute and that the basis of resistance is both constitutional and environmental – no child (or person) is invulnerable, but they are more or less resilient dependant upon the circumstances. The degree of resistance varies over time and according to life circumstances. Such advancements in research led Ann Masten to describe this ability as ‘Ordinary Magic’ – as simply a natural response to changing circumstances where several factors (both internal and external) combine to produce the illusion of invulnerability.

There is little we can do regarding constitutional factors (and those who say we can have grossly misunderstood the process or are trying to sell you snake oil). Viewing resilience as a trait is problematic as it suggests that we can’t make someone more resilient. Nevertheless, if resilience is both constitutional and environmental then we should be able to manipulate the environment in order to encourage and nurture resilience. The bottom line is that to encourage resilience, look to the environment not to the individual.

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