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Do Traumatic Childhoods Create High-Achieving Adults?
Researchers found a group of successful adults shared something in common—most experienced trauma as children
- Oct 29, 2018
Chris Gardner grew up in a home where he witnessed his stepfather brutally abusing his mother and sisters. He was placed in foster care after his mother was arrested for trying to burn down the house with her abuser inside.
Despite that, Gardner grew up with dreams of becoming a doctor. When it didn’t work out, he took a job in medical sales in San Francisco, became a father and eventually wound up as a single dad, struggling to make ends meet as he cared for his young son. Gardner and his son would spend nearly a year on the streets, homeless and bouncing from shelter to shelter, sleeping on public transportation or in parks, until Gardner could get back on his feet.
Eventually, Gardner acquired a spot in a trainee program at a stock brokerage firm, having no experience whatsoever in stocks. And the position paid no salary. But it started him down a path that would lead to him becoming CEO and founder of his own firm, which then grew into a multimillion-dollar corporation. He went on to fund a $50 million project in San Francisco creating low-income housing and employment opportunities in the area of the city where he was once homeless. He penned an autobiography that was made into a movie you may have heard of—The Pursuit of Happyness—where actor Will Smith depicted Gardner.
Some might say Gardner’s success in life was in spite of his upbringing, but others may argue the opposite—he and others like him with tumultuous childhoods may have become successful because of early challenges.
Do Challenges Create Drive?
In a story by Clinical Psychologist Meg Jay published in the Wall Street Journal last November, Jay detailed a study of 400 extraordinarily high achievers. When researchers looked at their lives, they found 75 percent of them had survived critical childhood challenges—perhaps better classified as traumas— including the loss of a parent, severe poverty or abuse.
Does that mean trauma is a good thing? No, not by a long stretch. Many times, trauma can result in lifelong negative consequences such as alcoholism, drug abuse, depression and chronic health conditions. But what some studies show, say psychologists, is that in some cases, trauma can also result in early—though difficult—lessons in resiliency. The key is to help children see that.
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“There is growing evidence that in middle and high school kids, character strengths are a reflection of their environment. You can’t teach character by just telling kids to be more confident or self-assured or have more intellectual courage. The way kids learn that is by continually being compelled and supported to accept risks and challenges,” says clinical psychologist and author Mark J. Luciano. Ph.D.
Of course, the key word here is “supported.” With solid adult support following trauma, kids can build strong senses of self that will help propel them through future challenges. Without that support, this unrelenting drive could be less about success and more about validation, says psychotherapist Sara Stanizai, owner of Prospect Therapy in Long Beach, California.
“As children, many high achievers lacked recognition, or they received it in limited circumstances such as getting good grades, achieving in sports or securing social status. On the surface it appears that they are very successful, but internally, they feel impostor syndrome because that praise hasn't been internalized,” says Stanizai who specializes in treating high-functioning anxiety and depression among first-generation Americans and the LGBTQ+ community.
“For first-generation Americans, this feeling is often exacerbated by the expectations of achievement related to being the first in their family to come of age in the U.S.,” says Stanizai. “These individuals didn't come here by accident, so there is a lot at stake.”
But as Luciano says, if a child is able to meet and overcome challenges, “the result is often … ultimate success in later life.”
Luckily, this is possible with mentors, often found in advocates when the protective parent reaches out to a domestic violence nonprofit for help. Advocates, support groups, counselors—these avenues can all provide the support children need to realize their own resiliency, and that life can get better.
A new pilot program is currently in the works from the Childhood Domestic Violence Association (CDVA) training domestic violence advocates how to work with children who have lived with childhood domestic violence. Called Resiliency Focused Mentoring Training, CDVA combined neuroscience and psychology to find the best way to teach ongoing resilience in children so that they may overcome the trauma that was once believed to be hard-wired into their brains.
For tips on supporting kids who have lived through abuse, read “How to Help Children Find Their Courage Again After Trauma.”
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