Researchers Discuss the Strengths of Children who Face Adversity

Experiencing adversity may result in the development of unique strengths and abilities that are often overlooked


A team of researchers offers a new perspective on how repeated or chronic childhood adversity impacts individuals’ social and cognitive abilities. Rather than focusing solely on the detrimental effects of experiencing adversity, their work, published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, examines how children develop adaptive skills relevant to coping with the high-stress nature of their surrounding environment. Subsequently, understanding these skills, they assert, is central to designing effective interventions and promoting success in school, work, and civic life.

“We argue that the deficit model is incomplete because it misses how individuals adapt to their environments by fine-tuning their cognitive abilities to solve recurrent problems faced in their local ecologies.”

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Ellis and his team of researchers do not minimize the well-documented deleterious effects of stress and instability on aspects of children’s health, development, and learning. They thoroughly acknowledge, for example, how poverty has been linked to lower cognitive, learning, and achievement outcomes, as well as exposure to other harmful contexts which may expose children to violence, environmental chemicals, and family instability.

After addressing the magnitude of these hardships, the authors point out that the discussion almost exclusively revolves around what is wrong with children who have faced adversity, and what qualities they are lacking, culminating in a deficit-focused approach that overlooks the unique strengths and skills children may develop in the process of meeting the unique needs of their environment.

“Implicit in the deficit approach is the assumption that children and youth from high-risk backgrounds are broken and need to be fixed (e.g., made better at sustaining attention, delaying gratification, and following rules—to help them think and act more like children and youth from low-risk backgrounds).”

By comparing these children to their low-risk counterparts, and by observing their performance on only a specific subset of abilities deemed relevant to certain environments, the context of their development has been removed, placing them at a disadvantage.

For example, children who have been exposed to predominantly high-stress environments might develop the ability to rapidly shift their attention in order to avoid threat and take advantage of opportunities, whereas children from safer backgrounds may prioritize inhibitory control, making the opposite trade-off. Assessing students exclusively on the latter skill is an example of how a deficit approach fails to accurately capture abilities and potential. Furthermore, it simply portrays an incomplete story of children who have faced adversity.

Rather than referring to this population as “vulnerable” or “at-risk,” Ellis and researchers opt to use the term “stress-adapted,” with “adaptive” being used in evolutionary terms to mean survival and reproductive outcomes. The researchers argue that a greater understanding of what is promotive rather than harmful for stress-adapted children is central to effectively implementing interventions. Already-existing interventions, on the other hand, seem to have been borne out of the deficit approach and assume that success involves getting stress-adapted children “to think and act more like children from low-risk backgrounds,” the researchers contend.  The cost of their shortcomings

Already-existing interventions, on the other hand, seem to have been borne out of the deficit approach and assume that success involves getting stress-adapted children “to think and act more like children from low-risk backgrounds,” the researchers contend.  The cost of their shortcomings extends beyond implementation fees to iatrogenic effects.

“Although exposures to high-stress environments certainly jeopardize health and survival (e.g., Mulvihill, 2005; Shonkoff et al., 2009), and traditional interventions approaches are part of the solution to that problem, the challenge is that extant interventions work against, rather than with, social and cognitive adaptations to high-stress environments”

Ellis and his team reviewed empirical studies to tackle their primary questions:

  • “What are the attention, learning, memory, problem-solving, and decision-making strategies that are promoted by exposures to childhood adversity?”
  • “What do youth from high-risk environments do well?”
  • “How can we work with, rather than against, these strengths to promote better intervention outcomes?”

Interestingly, their review was not confined to literature on human adaptivity. The researchers also reviewed evidence of how birds and rodents adapt to high-stress environments and found that across all species there were both context-dependent detrimental and advantageous effects.

“As per life history theory, growing up under harsh, unpredictable conditions creates apparent resource-allocation trade-offs that cause some neural structures to be diminished so others can be enhanced or preserved.”

For example, some species of birds developed enhanced physical abilities and memory that enabled them to catch food more effectively and to remember locations of food when supply was unpredictable or scarce. Rodents also demonstrated the ability to adapt to early-life stress through early puberty, greater skill in attracting mates, faster fear conditioning, enhanced learning, enhanced memory for early life events, more play behavior, and increased dominance-related behavior in social contexts.

As with the above examples, the researchers found that the literature on humans similarly supports hypotheses claiming conditions of high-adversity influence the development of adaptive responses. People who had been exposed to unpredictable or stressful environments demonstrated enhanced developments in the following areas:

  • Social-emotional skills (e.g. emotion recognition, empathic accuracy)
  • Memory in particular areas (e.g. remembering early-life events, remembering emotionally laden or stressful events, rapid-shifting working memory)
  • Learning in specific domains (e.g. learning about animal danger, learning motor skills and habits)
  • Cognitive speed and accuracy in specific domains (e.g. recognition of angry or fearful faces)
  • Increased attention-shifting ability
  • Problem solving abilities focused around attainment of rewards

Such skills mirror the ecological demands of the individual. For example, the ability to more quickly identify and orient toward angry faces and voices may serve as protective by increasing one’s chances of survival. However, it is important to highlight the context-dependent nature of these abilities. Alternatively, if one is easily distracted by certain stimuli, they may exhibit poorer inhibitory control and worse performance on other skills involved in longterm memory.

The authors point out various challenges that arise when attempting to study the effects of stress on human development. The data on humans is limited, and because high-stress environments cannot ethically be experimentally manipulated, the research is largely correlational. Oftentimes, the research uses SES and conditions of poverty to conceptualize adverse living circumstances. Future research, the authors note, can seek to further distinguish dimensions of adversity and high stress (e.g. chronic vs acute).

“In total, research in birds, rodents, and humans suggests that developmental exposures to stress can improve forms of attention, perception, learning, memory, and problem solving that are ecologically relevant in harsh or unpredictable environments.”

The findings of this article offer a number of implications toward interventions, education, and employment. The researchers recommend moving away from a one-size-fits-all model to revise and modify current approaches accordingly to the evidence presented here on human adaptivity and resilience.

Classroom curriculums and instruction can be altered to represent more dynamic forms of learning better-suited to the needs of students who demonstrate the ability to rapidly shift attention. The authors also note that this population may perform better in settings that “do not attempt to minimize movement or suppress the reality of daily uncertainties,” by openly addressing and speaking to the prevalence of daily stressors.

Another way to modify instruction is by focusing on the content itself. Stress-adapted students might better be able to learn complex reasoning more easily if it were to be taught within the context of power implications, for example. Standardized testing often neglects to take this context into consideration.

More evidence may be needed to further guide the details of these interventions, but the authors’ notion to thoroughly understand the strengths-based side of adversity effects is compelling.

“The better we understand these strengths and abilities, the more effectively we can tailor education, policy, and interventions to fit the needs and potentials of stress-adapted children and youth.”



Ellis, Bruce J., et al. “Beyond Risk and Protective Factors: An Adaptation-Based Approach to Resilience.” Perspectives on Psychological Science (2017). (Abstract)


  1. These adaptive strengths have long been referred to colloquially as “street smarts”. Kids exposed to repeated dangers learn survival skills in order to have their needs met – it just comes with a big dose of fight or flight reactivity. They are less trusting but are also more discerning. They understand body language and vocal tone/inflection in ways different but valuable to them as it is adapted to their situation. Not mentioned by these researchers, but a skill that I’ve witnessed is the ability to barter and negotiate. Those who grow up in poverty have to find alternative means to acquire resources and, believe it or not, stealing is not the first method of most. The sharing economy, barter and trade was around and being employed successfully by the poor and those living in adversity long before the middle class started its downward slide.

    It’s nice to see researchers looking at these kids in a new light and not simply as being broken. Those who have experienced chronic adversity have unique survival skills that can serve them very well in life if, either through luck or hard work, they manage to find their way into better circumstances. Some will continue to struggle even if their circumstances change. I’d suggest research explore ways they can be helped to hone these skills to better serve in more diverse environments.

    One specific deficit that many I’ve known run into when they grow up is not knowing how to behave in different social environments, resulting in increased interpersonal conflicts. Social skills could be integrated into the learning environment in subtle and overt ways to prepare them for survival outside of their primary home and school environments. These don’t take complex reasoning as much as learning how to interpret others behaviors and motivations outside of the harm context and skilled observation of environmental cues.

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    • So much stress is laid on poverty. Not that it is not an important thing, and I’m not trying to disrespect the struggle of those with lesser means (hell it seems I am moving that way too).

      What about kids who come from middle class, upper middle class, and hell even upper class families in terms of socio-economic status, but grow up in high stress, highly abusive situations created by highly abusive parenting and dysfunctional family dynamics? Crazy psychopathic fathers/mothers, scapegoating spouses etc. The same thing happens to those kids. Constantly living in fight or flight mode.

      At least, people have some charitable understanding towards the poor.

      But, if you come from a modicum of wealth, not only do you get screwed over, but after being screwed over, you get doubly screwed over because you come from “privilege”, and people would easily label you a rich kid and disregard what you have been through.

      And keep in mind, these aren’t “rich kids”. They’re kids of rich parents or families.

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      • Actually, I’m in a pretty good position to address this point as I did come from a mixed background. My parents started off middle class. Both well educated, both descendants of college educated folks. We didn’t start out poor. My dad was an employee of the federal government with an extremely good income. Mom was a business owner. Both were abusive in different ways. But the things I dealt with before their divorce (physical and sexual abuse inside the family) were very different from the things I dealt with after they separated and my dad moved to a very poor, high minority neighborhood. For one thing, the school system I went to was a much higher quality in the upper middle neighborhood I started in. Until third grade, I was in a much more rigorous educational setting. The other city’s schools were more than a year behind what I had been learning when I switched schools. Additionally, the adverse experiences I had were all inside the home. My friends mothers were stay at home middle class ladies who had snacks ready for their children when they got off the school bus. My friends had toys (some of them had entire playrooms!) and sleepovers and hugs! They had clothing that fit and food on the table and got regular baths and bedtime stories. So even though I was growing up in a hellish situation in my own home, I knew what other homes could be like. I knew what parental nurturing looked like.

        On the other hand, when my dad moved out, and I moved with him shortly after, I was exposed to things that no child should ever see. There were drunken fights in the street All. The. Time. Routine and severe domestic violence. Hungry children who were lucky if they had cold cereal for supper. Regular police presence. The trashy women my dad brought home would beat me for any perceived slight. Child molestors were rampant and everyone knew they had a taste for little girls. A sister’s boyfriend attempted suicide in front of us.

        My parents eventually remarried when I was 13 and we moved back to a lower middle class suburb and that was the end of being exposed to that stuff. I’ve kept track of some of the kids in that neighborhood though and except for one, their lives have not followed the same, relatively positive, trajectory mine did. If you can call being psychiatrized positive – I at least did not end up in jail or dead. Only one person I knew from that place went to college. Similar to me, her family got out a couple of years after I did and she has spent the rest of her life in relatively better circumstances. One person I know from that time has been in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison for the last decade for committing murder. Several are dead. One has been gang affiliated for years. One has had several children that she’s passed down her family’s dysfunction to.

        On the other hand, while I was psychiatrized, and that had some pretty devastating effects in itself, I also had access – once back in good schools – to advanced placement classes, good teachers and mentors. I always had health insurance and healthcare. I had a mother, who for all her faults, which are legend, taught me good nutrition and exposed me to things that broadened my horizons. We hiked the Appalachian Trail, went sailing and camping. I always had books and because my parents owned a computer business and had an engineering background, access to the internet from literally before the internet as we know it existed. I had an email address before the majority of homes had computers.

        There is literally no comparison between me and the kids in that poor neighborhood because they never had the opportunities that I did. It’s unfortunate the things I grew up with. It’s unfortunate that really bad things happen in “rich” families. But there is no comparison when you add in the horrors of poverty and the things kids are exposed to in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. None whatsoever.

        As an adult, when I moved to Maryland, I lived for years in a pretty run-down neighborhood in Baltimore and once again was living in a high conflict, majority-minority neighborhood. The four year old down the street sat with his mother’s dead body for several days before he sought help. She had died over a heroin overdose a decade before the “epidemic”. There were several shootings on my block. Constant gang and drug activity. In the decade I lived there, I watched one sweet innocent child after another turn hard and become hardened by the streets. I watched them drop out of school, join the gangs, start wearing their colors, and some of them died.

        I am incredibly lucky and I will never not acknowledge that fact. You may bristle at the idea of privilege, perhaps some liberal dogooder beat you over the head with the concept, but I am acutely aware of how privileged I am despite all that I’ve survived. I don’t know if this personal account will make any difference to your feelings that we focus too much on poverty, but in my experience – anecdotal, I understand – poverty and class are major determiners of life outcomes. I can only be a witness to how powerful they are.

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        • While this is an extremely watered down version of the things that happened to me, it’s important to realize that its hard to ask people to put things into perspective if their perspective had always been from the bottom looking up. And it’s hard to ask them to have sympathy for people who’ve also had trauma but grew up in more privileged environments when they have experienced being downtrodden in every aspect of their existence. And while I realize that there is less sympathy for those who are traumatized but considered privileged, it may help those who have been privileged to understand how much of a leg up on others they actually have.

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          • What a great treatise on the realities of privilege! Privileged people DO get abused and otherwise traumatized, but they have many more opportunities to have alternative outcomes, because they have funds, more connections to other privileged people, more sympathy, better educations, and so on. I have compassion for all folks who have been traumatized, but it is very important for privileged folks (like me) to recognize that trauma for those less privileged are more constant, more systematic, less avoidable, and less recoverable. Reducing poverty is probably the #1 way to reduce what is so laughably called “mental disorders” by our cold and unforgiving system.

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          • Take two kids and two toys that come unassembled. For the first kid, give him most of the pieces, tell him where to find the rest of the pieces and demonstrate how to assemble the toy. For the second kid, give him half the pieces, smash the rest, and give him no instructions. Then make a grand announcement about how smart the first kid is and put the second kid in jail.

            This is about how screwed our current culture is, and how we set some children up for a lifetime of failure.

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          • It seems wrong to abstractly judge who has more of a right to suffer emotionally. Economic privilege certainly is of great value in a materialistic society but emotionally supportive parents seems like a greater privilege.

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          • Again, not suggesting that the suffering of the privileged isn’t miserable. The point is only that the privileged have more options as to how to escape or mitigate the effects. Trauma is trauma, and no one is immune, regardless of privilege.

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          • “It seems wrong to abstractly judge who has more of a right to suffer emotionally”

            That certainly wasn’t what I said so I’m confused by your comment. Everyone has a right to suffer when they experience trauma. My comment wasn’t about people suffering, but about the statistical outcome of cumulative traumas, and poverty compounds traumas by keeping kids in a daily struggle for survival that more affluent kids don’t have to deal with.

            To say that a child victim of physical and sexual abuse who starts out with educated parents, healthy food, and a good education, and exposure to healthy parent child interactions will have the same outcome of a child victim of abuse who lives with food insecurity, inconsistent housing, poor education, exposure to violence and little to no nurturing is naive.

            The statistics on poverty bear this out. Childhood poverty affects all domains of lifetime outcomes including long term health, educational attainment, wealth accumulation, and even life expectancy.

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  2. So in other words, these people aren’t “disordered,” they have adapted to the environmental needs of their upbringings. So why do we keep focusing on them as problems, instead of seeing the poor environmental conditions as the problem?

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    • Evolution is grand until it’s interpreted in the greater cultural context as disordered. The social order of the day favors compliance and punishes what it sees as being ‘maladaptive’. In other words, kids who grew up in chronic adversity, like me and so many I know, struggle to find their way in a world that prioritizes getting along for the sake of getting along and punishes those who call BS when they see it. ‘Keep calm and carry on’, practice gratitude and be greatful you don’t have it worse, etc. It’s how revolutionaries are kept in line…

      I think another way to harness the strengths of those who’ve grown up in chronic adversity is to emphasize their innate capacity for compassion for others. Evidence has repeatedly shown that poor folks routinely give a greater percentage of their income to charity than the most well off. That’s because those who grew up in hardship are able to empathize with others who are struggling moreso than those who’ve never experienced things like food scarcity, homelessness, or witnessing violence. Kids who have experienced these things have an enormous capacity to be part of social change and rather than emphasize their lack of complex reasoning or academic skills, we could be tapping them to be the next generation’s helpers, to come up with innovative ways to help others.

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  3. I find this business of making kids who come from “high risk backgrounds” be “made better at sustaining attention, delaying gratification, and following rules—to help them think and act more like children and youth from low-risk backgrounds” nauseating.

    It’s ludicrous. In other words, this system will do nothing to destroy the people who put them in those high-risk situations in the first place. It will not get these kids justice. In fact, by labelling them, it will provide the creators of those “high-risk” backgrounds even more impetus to gaslight these kids.

    Not to mention, it will trap these kids in an endless loop of therapy, which will do nothing for those kids, except destroy them further whilst allowing those therapists to happily bolster their therapy and research career.

    And this is what happens in psychiatry all the time. It is effectively, “excusing the guilty and accusing the innocent”.

    How much longer will this happen?

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  4. This is a subject that’s obviously near and dear to my heart so I have a little more to add. There are other ways, if people cared, to help these kids besides the educational setting. Quality childcare and after school care. Subsidized summer camps for respite outside of adverse living environments. Parenting classes that teach nurturing skills and age appropriate interaction and expectations for behavior. Access to neighborhood gardens and nutrition courses. Instituting a minimum income so parents have the resources to care for them. Expanding USDA school lunch programs to include free breakfast and lunch during the summer. Rooting out and harshly prosecuting the adults who harm them. Vastly expanding mentoring programs like Big Brothers/Big Sisters. While I think the concept of playing to their strengths is good for the kids who have already been exposed to adversity, it seems equally, if not more important to me, to do something concrete and constructive to prevent the child ever encountering these situations to begin with.

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    • Steve,
      They try to do this with d.i.d. They make their little lists of ‘positive’ things associated with d.i.d. and I always think how truly clueless and ignorant these people are. My wife’s childhood abuse systemically affected her in a multitude of ways that not even she truly understands because she has never known anything different. I love her, but it is so hard, And the ‘strengths’ she may have gotten from adapting to the abuse came at a terrible cost to her AND to me. Mostly I think these studies show the ignorance of the ‘experts’ as they ‘study’ these issues from their ivory palaces. If they want to come down into the trenches and join me 24/7 as I help/carry my wife thru the healing journey all the while trying to keep my heartache in check so that I can continue to be a good healing partner for her, then I’ll show them the ‘strengths’ she has. YES, YES, YES, she has become a beautiful person as she has healed and begun connecting the 8 girls in her system. But the cost has been staggering to our relationship and many times I still wonder if we will make it in spite of how far she has come…

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  5. I just read the whole thing again and ask myself are we talking about lab rats or children ?
    Really get psychology and psychiatry the hell out of schools.
    School is supposed to be learning to read, math history science social studies NOT be a damn mental institution and psychology experiment.

    But since we a doing it anyway

    “Already-existing interventions, on the other hand, seem to have been borne out of the deficit approach and assume that success involves getting stress-adapted children “to think and act more like children from low-risk backgrounds,”

    Can’t we just talk in English ? How do we remove ghetto culture from kids instead calling self perpetuating ghetto culture “high risk backgrounds”

    Maybe talk about this honestly and maybe teach kids that rap videos are stupid are designed to make you act stupid and so is covering yourself with cheap tattoos and stuff like that. TV ‘programming’ said looking and acting like a criminal looser is cool 1000 different ways. So they copy it.

    Maybe teach kids how the brain washing dumb you down crap on cable TV works and why its like that ? Have a whole class on it.

    No you have to sugar coat it “scientifically” so no ones feeling get hurt. Its not working.

    Feelings hurt “waiting for moderation” is that next ?

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