The study is called the English and Romanian Adoptee (ERA) project. It is a longitudinal study that has been following a cohort of 165 children who were adopted from abysmal institutional conditions in Romania by families in the U.K. in the early 1990s. The goal of the study was to determine how well children could recover from distress and neglect in their early years when nurtured in a caring family environment in middle childhood.
The study has had far reaching implications on the way we think about human resilience. “To be able to follow these children longitudinally over so many years, and to track their progress and understand the influence and interaction of both their poor start and their later advantage, has transformed the understanding of child and adolescent development.” (Rutter, et. al, 2009)
While many children continued to struggle with emotional attachment, social integration, and cognitive development into their preteen years, the study prompted researchers to recognize and appreciate just how many of the adoptees made remarkable psychological recoveries. The ERA study sparked renewed interest in resiliency research, which explores the innate human capacity to overcome psychological barriers.
In her 2001 paper, Ordinary Magic: Resilience Processes in Development, Ann S. Masten writes, “What began as a quest to understand the extraordinary has revealed the power of the ordinary. Resilience does not come from rare and special qualities, but from the everyday magic of ordinary, normative human resources in the minds, brains, and bodies of children, in their families and relationships, and in their communities.” (Masten, 2001, p. 235)
You are, by nature of being a human, a terrifically resilient creature. You are built to bounce back from adverse experiences and to self-repair your emotional hardware when damaged by outside forces. “…resilience does not appear to require extraordinary talents or resources,” Masten later writes, “but instead depends on fundamental human adaptive systems.” (Masten, 2009, p. 32)
The message here is not that every person always recovers fully from atrocious experiences. No one disagrees or denies that abuse, neglect, and trauma can leave irreparable emotional, psychological, and physical damage in their wake. But the question is: how are so many people, even young children, able to overcome these terrific setbacks and forge better lives for themselves?
Today: 165 children adopted from abhorrent institutional conditions prompt us to consider — in perspective — our own resiliency. They invite us to be critical of assuming the role of the victim. Instead of curling up in the corner as tortured objects, they invite us to creatively live beyond our own trauma scars. Part of being human is ingeniously transcending the wounds and deficiencies of the past.