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

Most Americans count income and professional status as markers of success, he said, though few reach the top tier of either. Instead, parents should try to figure out and cultivate talents in their children that can sustain them later in life and connect them to a meaningful place in their community.

Besides needing shelter, food and clothing, research on forging stable lives for kids focuses on two factors: family structure and conflict, said Jerry Cook, associate professor of family and consumer sciences at California State University. The more conflict there is, the less secure children are. Studies say conflict undermines development.

Children who leave behind high-conflict families embroiled in lots of heated parental arguments do better two years later than those who stay, said Paula Fomby, associate research scientist at the University of Michigan. Parental break-ups don’t generally serve children well, except when conflict is too heated.

Basics matter, too. “Part of what enables kids to recover turns out to be simple things like economic resources, the quality of their relationships with parents, continuing relationships with the non-co-resident parent, having good relationships in school,” she said.

Got your back

Amid theories on resilience, one is constant. To become resilient, children need someone who believed in them consistently. It doesn’t have to be a relative — a teacher, even a friend’s parent can make a difference. But the child must have felt the support.

That always-have-your-back person for Arvie Burgos was the grandma he adored: “She was my rock.” Her death devastated him, but her constancy may have provided what he needed to rise above a very rocky childhood.

State foster care systems tend to be very protective of children in state custody, and Utah is no exception. They don't often share a child's story. But when child welfare officials were asked what makes a kid resilient, they pointed to Burgos, now a senior at a charter high school. Despite missteps along the way, he’s been willing to do the hard work to change his trajectory.

Asked how he moves forward, he contemplated the answer for nearly a full minute. His mom made promises and broke each one. His grandma always tried to keep her word, he said. He found himself at a fresh place where he could “hit the restart button. I could pick: Be a slouch or successful. I had examples of both.”

He believes his grandma gave him the right tools and that she continues to care. He doesn’t want, even now, to let her down. “Grandmother taught me to be a respectable adult and how to succeed. Mom taught me street life at a young age — ‘In this situation, do this.’ She prepared me for the worst.”

Kendrick Burk (who uses the names of both her biological and adoptive families) may have the last word on what family really means to a child. She asked her foster parents if they would adopt her, which they were delighted to do.

She was 28 years old when it became final.

The reason she wanted to be adopted at that age eludes most people, given her three college degrees and the fact she runs a national nonprofit organization in Hattiesburg, Miss., advocating for other children in foster care. Her answer is simple — and complicated:

“At what point did you stop needing your parents?”

EMAIL: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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