In 1976, Dr. Stuart Hauser and his colleagues began a study of 67 emotionally disturbed teenagers locked in a psychiatric hospital. As the researchers continued to track the teens' development over the years, they found that most of them remained seriously troubled as adults. But nine were thriving: they had finished school, started meaningful careers, and become responsible parents to children of their own. In a new book about the 18-year study, Out of the Woods: Tales of Resilient Teens (Harvard University Press), Hauser and coauthors Joseph Allen and Eve Golden tell the stories of four people whose extraordinary resilience carried them through tumultuous adolescence.
From This Story
What is resilience?
A resilient person is performing competently while in the midst of adversity or, more often, after the adversity. Many people who are exposed to severe adversity don't do very well in life, so these really are very important exceptions. People evolve to become resilient, and they get there in different ways.
What qualities helped the people in your study evolve resilience?
They were quite reflective about themselves—they could just step back and think about what was going on, so even though they were in the hospital in terrible straits they were able to do a lot of thinking. They were very good planners. The girl we called Rachel, for instance, planned this whole life of hers, to have a baby and a career. She got divorced along the way, but she did every one of the things she said she'd do, and now she's in a profession she planned to be in, and the kid is grown up and in college. They were really quite talented at taking responsibility. Most people in the world don't take responsibility, they see things as other people's fault. But every one of the resilient kids were very, very clear about their contribution to the mess that they were in. The boy we called Pete was expelled from school a million times, and he could tell each time how he kicked someone in the shin or gave some teacher a hard time, and that got him kicked out. He never blamed the school for kicking him out. They had self-confidence. They were also very tenacious—they tended to really hang in there and fight back. Another quality has to do with seeing relationships as something to invest in, and the ability to be empathic, to understand other people emotionally.
The resilient young people in the book were also very interested in relationships, both with peers and adults. Why was that so important?
Almost everybody, long before us, knew that having good relationships is one of the essential things to being able to master major problems in life. As all of us know personally, it's even more important when you're facing huge adversities. Kids who are resilient are very good at recruiting relationships. The kids in the book were able to pull important people into their lives, and often they would bump into those people by accident or by chance, but they were very good at sustaining the relationships. Pete had a school social worker he kept in his life, and he once showed off about how many mentors he's had, and they had been tremendously important. You get social support because you draw it, not because people fall in your lap.
How did the study begin?
We have been doing this study since these kids were 14 years old, when I was just beginning my academic career. I've always been interested in adolescent development, and I was also interested in arrested ego development—what is it that really stops someone from developing in a progressive way? That meant studying troubled people as well as normal people.
You didn't set out to study resilience right from the beginning?