National Edition

When the growing gets tough: Why some kids emerge resilient and intact against chaotic backgrounds

By Lois M. Collins and Marjorie Cortez

Deseret News

Published: Friday, Feb. 14 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

These groups overlap, but it’s clear many children face obstacles to healthy development. Add in drug-addicted and/or incarcerated parents, mental illness within families, economic instability that leads to frequent moves, inadequate housing and persistent or periodic hunger, and it becomes clear that kids’ well-being, from safety to physical and mental health, is not a sure thing.

Rising above it

Experts say resilience is crucial for children to move past chaotic childhoods, but they are hard-pressed to come up with a formula. They can’t simply teach or bestow it.

Mara Leigh Taylor believes hope makes children resilient.

She has witnessed it repeatedly through her nonprofit organization Getting Out by Going In, which teaches positive decision-making skills in prisons, including California’s notorious Pelican Bay, among the worst in the nation.

She said even in Compton or Watts, where many children are raised by grandparents or foster care and some have never known their fathers or mothers, some children rise above their situations. They are the ones who find within themselves or through the encouragement of others the sense that “there is hope. You are unique. You are special. You are capable. You are important.”

“Sometimes, it’s just one person or one tool,” Taylor said. “If they hold on to that, they begin to feel resiliency within themselves.”

Foster care a lifeline

It wasn't until Kendrick Burk was placed in foster care that she experienced the benefits of effective parenting. She lived for the first time with a married couple who modeled consistency and showed her how to get through tough times. A few teachers had praised and encouraged her, but she said she had never before received much emotional support.

Her foster father in particular showed her how to get through tough times. He tackled cancer and other personal challenges with a positive attitude. He let her know that he would always be there for her. No matter what.

Kendrick Burk, who has a master’s degree in psychological counseling, credits her foster father’s example for how she handles problems. “Children learn coping mechanisms by modeling. They don't really know they're learning and parents don't know they're teaching it. It just happens naturally.”

Despite all the problems in her childhood home, Kendrick Burk excelled in school. She graduated early and earned college scholarships.

Looking back, she said it was more a matter of stubbornness than resilience. She seized any small bit of control she could. “I had this innate need to make it, not to give up, not just to survive, but to overcome what came in front of me."

While in foster care, Kendrick Burk attended mandatory independent living classes to learn the skills she'd need to survive one day on her own. The program became a lifeline. The couple that taught the class nurtured her, too. "They were people who believed in young people and they believed in me," she said.

Kendrick Burk said youths need someone who can guide them to make appropriate choices.

“What really helps with resiliency is for the adult to allow the young person the space to figure out how to overcome (problems) by themselves, maybe give guidance but not tell them how to do it.” Children need someone to offer support as they try and sometimes fail to solve problems and take control of the pieces of their lives they can manage, she said. It’s a process with a lot of setbacks.

Staying connected

Most children endure small-scale challenges. Even those in stable homes need strategies to deal with disappointment.

That’s one reason children benefit from being involved in their communities, religious institutions, civic organizations or even local sports leagues, said W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. They provide a sense of place and purpose.

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