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Viola Davis on Health, Love, and Resilience

The actress reflects on her latest role (in "Won't Back Down"), the importance of self care, and the joys of becoming a mom later in life.

Viola Davis' Childhood continued...

"The program taught me social and academic skills," says Davis. It also gave her a perspective that altered her forever. "I always felt like my childhood was very harsh and dark, and that I had kind of a corner on the market of suffering. Then I went to Upward Bound and started sharing stories with people who had escaped the Khmer Rouge, and saw people whose families had been shattered, people who had post-traumatic stress from which they would never recover. And suddenly, I understood what it meant to define yourself in terms of the world, to live a life beyond yourself. The worst moments in life don't define who you are, and no matter what, you can still thrive."

Psychologist David Crenshaw, PhD, clinical director of the Children's Home of Poughkeepsie in upstate New York and a faculty associate at Johns Hopkins University, agrees that people can flourish despite the worst childhoods. "Children are far more resilient than we often think," he says. "Research demonstrates that resilience is part of normal adaptation of human beings, enabling people to survive and even thrive in the face of harsh conditions."

The Path to Adult Happiness

In fact, research shows that a loving, stable childhood is certainly preferable to the alternative, but it may not be a predictor of success -- or even happiness. "A relatively new term has been used in resilience studies -- post-traumatic resilience -- that describes trauma survivors with a positive post-traumatic mental health adjustment," Crenshaw says. What makes the difference between those who thrive as adults and those who don't?

Ties that bind. "The resilience research strongly points to the protective influence of parents and other supportive relationships in the lives of children and adolescents," says Crenshaw. Mentors can be family members, teachers, or members of the community, but they are crucial for children to weather turbulent childhoods.

A spiritual life. "One of the most amazing demonstrations of resilience in children is a study of former Ugandan child soldiers who had experienced unspeakable horror and were forced to witness and commit atrocities, yet 27% showed no signs of post-traumatic stress disorder," says Crenshaw. The trait that almost doubled the odds of the soldiers' emotional resilience: a belief in a spiritual force, or that God had not abandoned them.

Success at school . "Positive experiences related to school can also exert a major impact," Crenshaw says. "Some children who otherwise face extreme adversity in their home life but do well in school may show resilience as a result of their success in school."

Viola Davis' Lessons in Self-Confidence

After Davis graduated from Julliard in 1993, she went on to win two Tony awards for performances on Broadway and to star in such films as Out of Sight, Antwone Fisher, and Doubt, for which she received her first Academy Award nomination. She also worked regularly in television, with recurring appearances on NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Showtime's United States of Tara.

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