Extraordinary Resilience

Psychiatrist Stuart Hauser answers questions about his new book, Out of the Woods, which chronicles four emotionally disturbed teenagers

"A resilient person is performing competently while in the midst of adversity," says Stuart Hauser, author of Out of the Woods: Tales of Resilient Teens. Courtesy Harvard University Press

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.

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?

No, that's part of what's fun about doing research: you get surprised. When we went back at age 25, 11 years after we began, some of the interviewers came over to me and said how surprised they were that this or that person was doing well, that they never would have thought he or she was a former psychiatric patient. That put the bee in my bonnet to want to understand it better. The psychiatric medical model is around disease processes, what's gone wrong, what hasn't worked out. A colleague of mine many years ago said, “You psychiatrists have it easy studying what goes wrong, you really need to study how come anybody does well in the world, given what we face in our lives.” It was a wonderful question, and one that had always plagued me.

Who did you write the book for?

Parents, teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, religious groups, ministers and others that have to help kids in trouble, just so they could recognize that kids can get out of trouble. It's so easy to write a kid off as a bad. This is a book about optimism. We really wanted people to see the reason to have hope.

What lessons should they take away from the book?

Don't label kids, be optimistic that kids can be fluid. Recognize it's the kiss of death to think of a kid as a bad seed or trouble. Understand the incredible importance of relationships—the worst thing a person can do is cut off relations with a kid when he does the wrong thing. When a parent makes a mistake, take responsibility for the mistake and don't hold the kid at fault, and help kids learn how to take responsibility.

How should your study influence public policy?

Try to steer people in the getting-help direction rather than the getting-punished direction. When kids go to prison early it gives them the identity of being trouble and a failure rather than possibility. You put the label on, you put the kid in a bad environment, that makes the label stick even more. Do everything possible not to confirm a kid as delinquent. You can spot kids that are having trouble with social competence, and really try to help them learn those skills, not make them special ed or isolate them in any way, but develop their strengths in friendship and connecting with kids as well as adults. I've now seen enough beleaguered schoolteachers that have trouble being optimistic, because they just see so many impossible kids. We need to better train teachers and to have more teachers.

In the book you talk about how modern adolescent lives are dangerously overscheduled. What should the ideal adolescent life look like?

Kids should have time to think and plan and do things in their lives. A lot of parents are so eager to do the right thing that they really try to have the ballet lessons, the sports, and all of that, and there's just no time for a kid just to be by himself or to be inventive. The ideal life would be to have these enriching activities but not to overdo it. Having all these different lessons and classes to go to doesn't get a kid a chance to experiment, to try out new things. A kid also needs to have available adults—not hovering over him, but just adults around to help. It's not a neglectful life, but not an overprotective one either. You get very worried when kids don't have any room to move around and be able to think about things.

You finished this part of your study a while ago—how old are the kids now?

They're in their early forties.

Have you gotten any news from them? Are they still doing well?

Yeah. For one of the kids, Rachel, everything's worked out as she expected it to. Her kid's in college and she's in a profession helping people with the very kinds of issues she had, so it's wonderful. She constructed all that at age 16. I'm being a bit vague because of confidentiality, but she's in exactly the profession she said she wanted to be in, so that's really remarkable, to see that happen. I recently called a bunch to ask if they would be willing for us to do new studies, and to my surprise they were all quite enthusiastic and positive about it.

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