Survival of the strongest

Some problem children come out of care well-adjusted, others still traumatised. Just luck or is there a cure-all?

Take two children, put them through a devastating experience - a year or two locked up in a Romanian orphanage, say - and what do you get? One grows up damaged, delinquent and disturbed while the other comes through apparently unscathed, a normal healthy child. Why should two children who have suffered exactly similar experiences respond to them so differently?

All parents have asked themselves a version of this question. Divorce, bereavement, the stress of joining a new school or of taking exams - all these strike different children differently. What are the qualities that make some children more resilient than others, and can their resilience be strengthened?

Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, would like an answer. This week, Mr Dobson announced a crackdown on failing social service departments who have allowed children to languish in care with the result that although they account for less than one per cent of the child population and their care costs well over pounds 10,000 a year each - more than the fees at Eton - they are also responsible for 40 per cent of juvenile crime and comprise, when they leave care, one third of the homeless on the streets.

Most parents who had paid pounds 10,000 a year for their child's education only to see them end up flogging The Big Issue from a sleeping bag on the Strand would demand their money back and that, in effect, is what Mr Dobson is threatening. But is he right? What can be done to turn social disadvantage into social success?

Few people are better placed to provide an answer than Professor Sir Michael Rutter, doyen of child psychiatrists and an intellectual behemoth in the field of psychosocial research. Professor Rutter, who retires this month from the Institute of Psychiatry, has spent much of his 40- year career examining the factors that make some children thrive while others don't. He has written 30 books and over 400 articles and his contribution to the field is to be celebrated at the Royal College of Psychiatrists annual meeting in Bristol this week. As the father of three grown up children, now with children of their own, he also knows something about surviving the rigours of adolescence - for both parent and child.

In the 1950s, the received wisdom, exemplified by the writings of the psychotherapist John Bowlby, was that all children who suffered bad experiences were permanently damaged. Today, it is taken for granted that however devastating the experience to which children are exposed, some will come through.

A study of children rescued from Romania's orphanages in the early 1990s showed half were mentally retarded and a third were suffering from malnutrition. Professor Rutter said: "They were in pretty bad nick. We have all seen films of the orphanages - they were dreadful. Some of the children had spent two, three, four years in conditions beyond anything seen in this country and you might suppose that would have led to a uniformity of outcome. It did not."

By the age of six, some of those who were rescued were still retarded while others had IQs as high as 130, the mark of superior intelligence. "The interest then was on what were the mechanisms that determined some did well while others did badly. Does resilience lie in the detail of the experiences or in what happens afterwards?"

The answers are still coming in. Some evidence points to biological effects. Experiments in rats, for example, show that animals subjected to stress develop larger adrenal glands which then accentuate their response to subsequent stress. Changes in the hormonal systems of the Romanian children have been detected but their significance remains unclear.

Other evidence suggests children develop a mind set in response to suffering. A high proportion of those raised in institutions lack a "planning tendency" - interest in the future in terms of marriage or career - and act impulsively. In the case of girls, this may lead to early pregnancy and co-habitation as a means of escape. "They developed a mind set that they were at the mercy of fate and couldn't affect what happened to them," says Rutter. But another group who had done well at school or achieved some other success did better. Success in one arena of their lives gave them a feeling of efficacy and helped them to cope with challenges."

Every parent will recognise these features in their experience of their own children. Adolescence, Professor Rutter says, is much more difficult for today's children because they face more difficult choices - about drugs and alcohol, for example - and because, with the extension of full time education beyond the age of puberty, they are mature but economically dependent. The task, both for parents and the care system, is to allow them freedom without abandoning them. "Children need to take responsibility and they have to be allowed to make mistakes. You [the parents/carers] have to weigh things up so that the likelihood of success outweighs the likelihood of failure. But part of growing up involves learning to cope with difficulties. To remove the difficulties is neither practicable nor helpful."

A key point is that the risks associated with psychological damage are cumulative. Even where a family situation is very bad, reducing the overall level of risk can be helpful. What matters is how the risks impinge directly on the child. Thus, poverty is less important as a risk factor than the parental conflict it can give rise to which may in turn lead to parental rejection or scapegoating of the child. By helping parents to avoid embroiling children in their conflict, the damage can be lessened.

Of his own three children - now in their thirties, one a doctor, one a psychologist and one taking a break from her job in personnel to raise a family - Rutter says there were "periods of anxiety" during their adolescence over their friends and other choices they made. "The important thing is to maintain relationships - to be guiding the children without interfering. It doesn't pay to be heavy-handed but it is equally wrong to assume that they don't want guidance. Even when they are being rebellious, children pay a lot of attention to what their parents say. Keeping the lines of communication open can be quite difficult sometimes."

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month

TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel

film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower