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Oprah Winfrey: Resilience to childhood adversity

After 25 years, Oprah Winfrey has just hosted the last episode of her groundbreaking show. Millions have been inspired not only by her iconic career but also by her tremendous ability to overcome harsh conditions. Despite being raised in poverty under severe physical discipline as a child, and later sexual abuse which led to her giving birth to a stillborn baby at age 14, Oprah had the determination, ambition, and resolve to become one of the world’s most successful women. Her life is the definition of resilience.

Resilience is when a person adapts in a positive way despite adversity. Two children may grow up under the same poverty-stricken, socially dysfunctional conditions and turn out completely different as adults: one depressed or in and out of prison; the other a happy, successful, upstanding member of society. What differentiates these two children is their level of resilience.

We tend to think of resilience as being an individual trait. And it is true that, in general, children who are intelligent, sociable, easygoing, confident, resourceful, and who have naturally high self esteem and self efficacy (believe that they can change their own circumstances) tend to be more resilient. Optimism can also contribute to resilience. For children who are mistreated, personality characteristics become even more important in fostering resilience. Self esteem, self control, resourcefulness, and flexibility are all major predictors of resilience in these children.

However, there are other factors that can contribute to a child’s resilience. If she has an adult in her life that cares about her unconditionally, who is authoritative and warm, who promotes her welfare, and who has high expectations of her, she is more likely to be resilient. Such an adult could be someone within or outside the family. Involvement with social organizations and effective schools can also help.

In Oprah’s case, despite the many negative adult influences in her life, there were some tremendously positive ones who helped her overcome. She credits her grandmother with instilling in her strength and a sense of reasoning, and her father for setting high standards. But for Oprah, people outside her family were perhaps more important, as she said in her biography: “For every one of us that succeeds, it’s because there is somebody there to show you the way out. The light doesn’t necessarily have to be in your family; for me it was teachers and school.”

Parents can help foster resilience in their children by providing unconditional love, high expectations, and encouraging strong family ties and community involvement.

For more information:

Sherene Chen-See


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