A lot goes into building a great kid.

It takes several yards of solid foundation. A straight frame with ground-floor rules. You put up walls where appropriate, locks where needed, you create doors to the world and windows of opportunity. Do it right, as in the new book “Supernormal: The Untold Story of Adversity and Resilience” by Meg Jay, PhD, and you’ll have a kid with fortress-strength.

Into every life, a little rain must fall — in other words, nothing can be all good. Terrible events happen to perfectly wonderful people but when they happen to children, it’s especially heinous. And yet — don’t children tend to bounce back easier?

Not always, says Jay. Those that do, the kids who become adults who appear to be able to handle anything, are what she calls “Supernormal” people, but their ability to seem serene and unflappable may come at a price.

“Resilience,” says Jay, quoting the American Psychological Association,” is adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy or significant ongoing stressors.” In her work as a clinical psychologist, she says that many resilient people don’t think they possess those traits when, in fact, they learned long ago how to cope with issues they’ve endured. They’ve been able to “make something out of nothing” in their resilience — and yet, they have ‘appeared to pass almost unnoticed.’”

“Beating the odds,” says Jay, “they live improbable lives, and after decades of academic study no one knows quite how.”

Jay holds up, for example, adults who were once children of nasty divorce. She tells a story of a survivor of parental alcoholism, and survivors of kidnapping, who kept their traumas secret as adults. She explains the empowerment of formerly-bullied grown-ups, and the “selective inattention” and hypervigilance of abused children. Jay looks at adults who, as children, were orphaned, neglected, isolated, and depressed. They coped — but when they couldn’t, says Jay, “strong, resilient people do go to therapy.”

It took me awhile to understand exactly what “Supernormal” was offering here. Its pseudonymous clinical examples were very interesting and extremely readable, but what was Jay trying to say?

In the end, it was all about perseverance.

Before you get to that, though, it may seem that the stories in “Supernormal” are awfully sad and even bleak. Many have outcomes that aren’t happy; yes, says Jay, some people will battle their demons forever.

Fortunately, this sorrow is finely balanced by irresistible, lively historical and scientific background, and other information to support the tales themselves and their (sometimes positive) outcomes. 

For anyone who endured childhood trauma, who feels they’re living a disingenuous life, or who loves that person, this book offers advice and compassion. It’s recommended for doctors and laypersons alike. For you, “Supernormal” helps build understanding.

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