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Resilient offspring of parents with psychiatric problems

Werner, E & Smith, R.S. (1982). Resilient offspring of parents with psychiatric problems. In Vulnerable but invincible (ch. 11). McGraw-Hill Publishers.


This chapter describes the results of the authors’ studies of children of schizophrenic and depressed parents and provides a brief summary of other studies of such children and youth.

Bleuer (1972, 1974, 1978) observed 184 white offspring of schizophrenic parents in Zurich, Switzerland for a period of twenty years and was very impressed with their resiliency.

Mednick and associates (1968, 1971) carried on longitudinal research on white children living in urban areas of Denmark noting perinatal and birth complications.

Fish (1979) followed thirteen infants born to schizophrenic mothers in New York and noticed some of what she calls "pan-developmental" retardation—especially in infancy. She also supported the research of Werner and Smith.

Further collaborative studies include that of Erlenmeyer-Kimling (1978) of 80 white children (ages 7-12), 44 with a schizophrenic mother, 23 with a schizophrenic father, and 13 with two schizophrenic parents. A follow-up study was done by Erlenmeyer-Kimmerling, Cornblatt, and Fleiss (1979) on the serious learning and behavior problems emerging in middle childhood. Anthony and colleagues (1974, 1978) examined white and black children in St. Louis, Missouri.

Lerner, Smith, and colleagues discovered the following among children of multiethnic, lower class, emotionally disturbed, parents:


Safeguarding the privacy of the individuals with the help of code numbers, we were able to match codes and diagnoses of cohort parents who had obtained mental health care...From these screening procedures, 29 children with parents who received a diagnosis of schizophrenia (paranoid, chronic undifferentiated, residual, catatonic, simple, or latent) or depression (psychotic depressive reaction, depressive neurosis, manic-depressive psychosis) were selected for study. Each index child was matched with a control child of he same sex, socioeconomic status at birth, and ethnicity. (p. 107)

Of these 18 boys and 11 girls, 40% developed some serious learning or behavior problem by the time they were 10 years of age. This rose to 55% by the time they were 18. By that age, there was a significant difference in Locus of Control orientation between the resilient offspring of schizophrenic parents and youth who had developed serious coping problems. More resilient youth had faith in the control of their own fate...


Although there were resilient youth among those with schizophrenic parents, "most of the ‘problem’ youth were offspring of schizophrenic mothers, and most of the resilient youth were offspring of depressed mothers." (p. 109)

Two brief statements of 18-year olds with a loss of internal locus-of-control might be valuable:


Sally: I’m unhappy. I do a lot of thinking. I say and do what I think and feel. My weakness is giving in. I’m a lot of mouth. I should use more force, but I just talk and cry. I want to shut out what bothers me and just keep to myself now.

Ronald: I’m quiet, I guess. I like being quiet, but sometimes people want me to talk more. My weakness is talking to other people. I worry a lot about the future.


These researchers found the observations of parents more valuable than the ratings of teachers based on classroom behavior:


In our study, measures of adaptive and self-help skills in early childhood and nonverbal measures of problem-solving in middle childhood were better discriminators between the offspring of the psychotic parents, who came from non-white and predominantly poor families, and control children...than were behavior observations in the classroom. Problems recognized by the parents at home differentiated better between these groups than teachers’ ratings. (p. 117-118)


Perhaps the most important conclusion of the authors lies at the end of the chapter and points to the basis of remediation in therapy and youth programs:


...the ‘invulnerable’ (or resilient) offspring of psychotic parents also share another important asset: a predominantly positive interaction with their primary caregiver in the first year of life, the critical period for the development of attachment and trust. For, ‘without such a relationship...any child has less hope of surviving psychologically into adult life.’ (Anthony, 1974, p. 118)



  1. How can the lay person—a spouse, teacher, or youth worker—understand schizophrenia and respond to those who deal with this emotional problem?
  2. How should children be helped to understand mental illness in one or both parents? How should they be helped to respond?
  3. How can a child or adolescent overcome such a difficult home situation?


  1. One does not teach a lifetime or engage in youth work over several years without coming in touch with young people who have a parent suffering with emotional illness. Teachers and youth leaders need to be aware and sensitive to this possibility.
  2. There is resiliency, and indeed the possibility of extra strength and sensitivity, among children whose parent may have emotional problems. These strengths need to be encouraged.
  3. For young people with learning or behavior problems that stem from less than adequate caregiving in the growing up years, an adult who understands and cares is invaluable.

Dean Borgman cCYS