Children, Youth and Environments
Vol 13, No.1 (Spring 2003)
ISSN 1546-2250

Lessons Learned About Resilience

James Garbarino

Citation: Garbarino, James. “Lessons Learned about Resilience.” Children, Youth and Environments 13(1), Spring 2003. Retrieved [date] from

What have I learned from almost three decades’ experience as a researcher, educator, author, program consultant, and legal expert witness dealing with issues of violence in the lives of children? I have written several books to report on those experiences,1 but I can outline some of what I have learned briefly by speaking about resilience.

Human beings are adaptive and resourceful, but resilience is not unlimited, automatic, or universal. Under conditions of numerous serious threats experienced in hostile environments, no child may escape unscathed, no matter how well-equipped the child may be temperamentally. Every child has limits. Much is made in the scientific literature and the popular press of resilience. Although it is defined in numerous ways, resilience generally refers to an individual's ability to bounce back from adverse experiences, to avoid long-term negative effects, or otherwise to overcome developmental threats. Every one of us knows someone whose life is a testament to resilience. The concept of resilience rests on a key research finding: while experiencing any specific negative influence increases the odds of a particular negative outcome, most children escape severe harm.

However, as the concept of resilience has been promoted in ever-wider circles there has been a parallel concern that the concept may easily be misused or misunderstood. Three such limitations are of particular importance in our conceptual toolbox as we look at the lives of children living with violence. First, we must remember that resilience is not absolute. Virtually every youth has a breaking point. Research conducted by psychiatrist Bruce Perry on the impact of trauma and deprivation on brain development leads him to assert that kids are "malleable" rather than "resilient," in the sense that each threat costs them something. What is more, as psychologist Patrick Tolan points out, in some environments virtually all youth demonstrate negative effects of highly stressful and threatening environments. For example, he investigated African-American, adolescent males facing the combination of highly dangerous and threatening low income neighborhoods coupled with low resource/high stress families in Chicago. His data demonstrated that none of the youths were resilient at age 15 when measured by continuing for a two year period without being more than one grade level behind in school nor requiring professional mental health services to deal with psychological problems.

Second, we must remember that resilience in gross terms may obscure real costs to the quality of an individual’s inner life. Some people manage to avoid succumbing to the risk of social failure as defined by poverty and criminality but nonetheless experience real harm in the form of diminished capacity for successful intimate relationships. Thus, even apparent social success- performing well in the job market, avoiding criminal activity, and creating a family -may obscure some of the costs of being resilient. Though resilient in social terms, these individuals may be severely wounded souls.

This has long been evident in comparing the resilience of boys versus girls. Boys who succumb to the accumulation of risk have long been prone to act out in explicitly anti-social behavior (juvenile delinquency) while girls have been more likely to respond with self-destructive behavior and internalized symptoms such as stomach aches, nightmares, and wretchedly low self-esteem. Does this mean girls are more resilient than boys? A simple accounting of social success variables might lead us to think so. However, if we take into account the full range of harm we can see that such an answer would be wrong. Kids adapt: for better and for worse.

Third, we must not forget that resilience does not mean “moral superiority.” The youth who demonstrates resilience has extraordinary attributes and resources that the non-resilient child does not have. Being unable to protect oneself against the accumulation of risk factors does not constitute moral turpitude. Some environments are too much for anyone, and to use the concept of resilience as a basis for moral judgment in these settings may be inappropriate and unfair. I have seen this first hand when testifying as an expert witness in youth homicide trials on the role of trauma in shaping youth behavior. In one case, the prosecutor asked in his cross-examination why the defendant was not as successful as other kids in difficult situations. His exact words were, “What’s wrong with this boy that he is not resilient?” That attitude is unfair and it leads to unethical judging and blaming as well as bad science. The burdens imposed upon children who live with violence, particularly when accompanied by an accumulation of other risk factors are sometimes too heavy for anyone to carry without psychological back breaking. Starting with compassion for this brings head and heart together.


1. Books by James Garbarino include: Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them (New York: The Free Press, 1999) and most recently And Words Can Hurt Forever: How To Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence (New York: The Free Press, 2002). Other books written or edited by James Garbarino include: Parents Under Siege: Why You Are the Solution, Not the Problem, in Your Child’s Life (2001); Let's Talk About Living in a World with Violence (1993); Children in Danger: Coping With The Consequences of Community Violence (1992); Children and Families in the Social Environment (1992); Saving Children: A Guide to Injury Prevention (1991); What Children Can Tell Us (1989); No Place To Be A Child: Growing Up In A War Zone (1991); Special Children/Special Risks: The Maltreatment of Children with Disabilities (1987); The Psychologically Battered Child (1986); Troubled Youth, Troubled Families (1986); Understanding Abusive Families (1980; Second Edition, 1997); and Protecting Children From Abuse and Neglect (1980). He is currently working on a book entitled Little Matters of Life and Death: Lessons Learned from Kids in Extreme Situations.