Hidden talents in harsh environments

Bruce J. Ellis, Laura S. Abrams, Ann S. Masten, Robert J. Sternberg, Nim Tottenham, Willem E. Frankenhuis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

95 Scopus citations


Although early-life adversity can undermine healthy development, children growing up in harsh environments may develop intact, or even enhanced, skills for solving problems in high-adversity contexts (i.e., hidden talents). Here we situate the hidden talents model within a larger interdisciplinary framework. Summarizing theory and research on hidden talents, we propose that stress-adapted skills represent a form of adaptive intelligence that enables individuals to function within the constraints of harsh, unpredictable environments. We discuss the alignment of the hidden talents model with current knowledge about human brain development following early adversity; examine potential applications of this perspective to multiple sectors concerned with youth from harsh environments, including education, social services, and juvenile justice; and compare the hidden talents model with contemporary developmental resilience models. We conclude that the hidden talents approach offers exciting new directions for research on developmental adaptations to childhood adversity, with translational implications for leveraging stress-adapted skills to more effectively tailor education, jobs, and interventions to fit the needs and potentials of individuals from a diverse range of life circumstances. This approach affords a well-rounded view of people who live with adversity that avoids stigma and communicates a novel, distinctive, and strength-based message.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)95-113
Number of pages19
JournalDevelopment and psychopathology
Issue number1
Early online dateJul 16 2020
StatePublished - Feb 16 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Development of this paper was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (73657) Research Network on Adaptations to Childhood Stress (Directors: Ellis & Frankenhuis).

Publisher Copyright:


  • adaptive intelligence
  • adjudicated youth
  • developmental adaptation to stress
  • educational interventions
  • neuroplasticity
  • resilience
  • stress-adapted skills

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't


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