Reading aloud Some people survive a bad childhood without mental injuries. Researchers fathom their secret.

Anna's youth was not easy. Her mother was an alcoholic, she hardly saw her biological father after the divorce of her parents. The stepfather gambled away his fortune, and when Anna gave him their saved wages during their education, hoping that he would get better, he also left the family - the sinking ship, as he used to say. Anna's younger sister was now drug addicted and constantly begged the family for money. But Anna stabilized the life of her mother and sister, finished the apprenticeship and found a job as a clerical employee. Even when she escaped rape in the early thirties, she scrambled to her feet and vehemently refused to be considered a traumatized victim. The Swiss family therapist Rosmarie Welter-Enderlin describes Anna in her book "Resilience and Crisis Competence" as a warm woman, with a person-facing nature. She observed no traces of resignation or irreparable mental injuries.

What distinguishes people like Anna? Why is it possible for some to start again after crises and to be optimistic, while others - like Anna's sister - stumble? These questions have been posing for some years the "resilience research" (from Latin "resiliere", bounce off). Psychologists, educators, physicians and geneticists do not look at the bad experiences that lead to a mental crisis, but at the resilience of humans.

The first findings about the phenomenon, which also appears in children's stories such as Hänsel and Gretel, were provided ten years ago by psychologist Emmy Werner from the University of California at Davis. She watched over 700 people, born in 1955, who lived on the Pacific island of Kauai for more than four decades. Around 200 of the study participants had not experienced a rosy childhood. They came from socially deprived families, where money was always scarce. The parents were partially ill, the marriages often shattered. Emmy Werner observed that children with four or more risk factors often developed learning problems and behavioral disorders until the age of ten, and often became mentally ill or delinquent by age 18.

This did not surprise the peers. But what astonished her was that one-third of the children were successful in later life both professionally and in personal relationships. On top of that they lived as confident and satisfied people. Emmy Werner and her colleagues found many reasons for the "invulnerability" of the children. The most important was a stable relationship with an adult outside the family. "It was often a teacher who taught the child: 'You're worth something, I'm interested in you, '" explains Corinna Wustmann, educationalist at the Marie Meierhofer Institute for the Child in Zurich. The close relationship with a sibling helped to leave the bad past behind. A study in which Bielefeld researchers wanted to uncover the factors for invulnerability came to similar conclusions despite a different culture: Resilient children between the ages of 14 and 17 were often cared for by non-family caregivers. display

every sixth child lives in poverty

There is now a whole list of protection and risk factors. The risks include chronic stress situations in children and adolescents: poverty, illness, abuse, mistreatment, neglect, bullying at school, but also complications before, during and after birth, divorce or death of parents. In Germany every sixth child lives in poverty. Two million children grow up with a parent who is addicted to addiction. Even children from migrant families are at risk if they bring home traumas or their escape. In addition, cultural hurdles and lower educational opportunities make a normal childhood difficult.

On the other hand, those who have a positive, calm temperament, who are intelligent, first-born and / or female - like Anna - are well protected. Stehaufmännchen are characterized at a young age by good self-perception, high social skills and good problem-solving skills. And through "self-efficacy": the educational scientist Wustmann considers it a particularly important feature. "Children who realize that they can make a difference do not fall into passive victimhood." They dare to seek help if necessary. Because resilient children attract attention at a very young age due to their characteristics, geneticists are searching for genetic material that could explain their resilience. Groundbreaking was a 2003 study published by Duke University under the direction of Avshalom Caspi. The psychologist studied more than 1, 000 New Zealanders in the city of Dunedin for over 20 years. He observed: Mental robustness in children who were mistreated was related to what variant of the 5-HTTLPR gene they had. This gene provides the blueprint for a molecule that carries the happiness hormone serotonin in the brain. Those who carry the "long" variant of the gene, has more transport molecules for the serotonin and thus has more messenger in the brain available.

Lots of freedom, but clear boundaries

However, the Dunedin study was heavily criticized because the results could not be repeated. There are even contrary studies. For example, Neil Risch, a geneticist at the University of California at San Francisco, in a 2009 survey showed that in children who experienced horrendous events, the gene variant was insignificant to whether depression developed later. No scientist believes that there is a single resilience gene. "But you can be sure that genetic factors and environmental conditions go hand in hand, " says Helge Frieling, psychiatrist at the Hannover Medical School. "Genetics is still in its infancy when it comes to resilience, " says behavioral biologist Klaus-Peter Lesch of the University of Würzburg. "There are probably more than 700 genes involved in the formation of mental resilience, currently known as 5 to 10."

A recent study by psychologist Jelena Obradovic from Stanford University shows that the research into gene-environment relationships can be surprising. She examined 338 kindergarten children, some of them restless and some calm - a trait that is about 50 percent congenital and reflects stress processing in the brain. The result: If the family was caring and life was stress-free, the troubled children, often called "difficult" and often ill-tempered and easily distracted, could even develop better social and emotional skills than their less sensitive peers. Such results underscore how important the family is. Better prepared for life are children who grow up in families with a high level of education and a high socio-economic status, or whose parents have a harmonious relationship. A so-called authoritative style of education, in which children need a lot, but also set clear limits, is just as conducive as a large circle of friends and helpful neighbors.

In addition, children from families who are religious or have a strong system of values ​​are more resilient than peers who grow up without spirituality. Anne Sanders of the University of Michigan observed in a 2008 study that African-American families living in poverty and religious were more supportive of social institutions a sign that these Families did not resign. The parent-child relationship was more positive for them than for families without a religious background.

"A secure attachment style is also an important protective factor, " says psychiatrist Frieling. However, resilience research here contradicts classical attachment research: the first experience of bonding with a human being, usually the mother, is made by a child in the first months of life. Depending on how the mother responds to the child's needs such as hunger or fatigue, it develops a secure or insecure attachment. Parents always want the best for their child. Nevertheless, the binding fails easily, usually by external circumstances, "says the Berlin family therapist Marie Luise Conen. She thinks of stress at work and in the relationship or an insecure attachment behavior of the parents. But the educational scientist Corinna Wustmann is convinced that for the training of resilience it is not the early attachment in itself that determines, but whether the child also makes positive relationship experiences. " While the much-vaunted first three years of a person's life may be important, what happens after that could soften or transcend the early childhood experiences. Youth offices, kindergardens, schools and homes should therefore learn from research. "However, this has not happened yet in youth welfare work, " complains Conen. Many still believe Multipthat multi-problem families can not be helped ".

At least one has begun to rethink in schools and kindergardens. The concept of inner resilience was taken up in the Bavarian and Hessian curricula. According to the empirical studies, kindergartens and schools should have clear rules, a climate of appreciation and an adequate standard of performance. The ethics and religious education offers, for example, to promote the development of personality and to strengthen self-esteem.


Reliability promotion has only arrived at certain points in practice, because social learning is of secondary importance at school, "regrets Klaus Fr hlich-Gildhoff, psychologist at the Protestant University in Freiburg. In school, for example, only graded, but hardly praised. That does not mean that you should pack children in cotton wool to make them mentally stable. "Children should always be demanding something, " says Fr hlich-Gildhoff. Thus, small tasks in the household or a job at school can increase the sense of responsibility and self-esteem.

Meanwhile, some initiatives are concerned with the promotion of child resistance. However, only a few of them are scientifically evaluated. Fröhlich-Gildhoff has recently received a rating for the program Kinder Strengthen! Resilience Support in Day Care Centers ". Here pedagogues learn how to protect their children. Parents are trained in their parenting skills, and children learn to handle stress better and sharpen their self-awareness, for example by displaying their current mood on an "emotional clock". Result: The children had a higher self-esteem and were also cognitively farther than children from the control group. But resilience should not be misinterpreted as something static, let alone as a trait. A self-confident child is not a "super-kid". It can be quite stubborn during puberty or divorce.

From what did Anna derive the strength to cope with her adverse life circumstances? From the spirituality, as shown in the therapy. She was deeply attached to the peasant culture in which she lived and to the animals. That gave her confidence and security. ■

by Kathrin Burger


· A caregiver outside of the family can help children from difficult backgrounds to develop a stable character.

· Researchers have tracked down genes that can provide mental resilience.



Klaus Fröhlich-Gildhoff, Maike Rönnau-Evil RESILIENCE Ernst Reinhardt, Munich 2009, € 9, 90

Rosmarie Welter-Enderlin RESILIENCE AND CRISIS COMPETITION Case Histories Carl Auer, Heidelberg 2010, € 19.95

Monika Gruhl THE STRATEGY OF STEWANNMÄNNCHEN Kreuz, Freiburg 2010, € 14.95

Robert Brooks, Sam Goldstein THE RESILIENCE BOOK How parents strengthen their children for life Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2007, € 19.90


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