When the growing gets tough: Why some kids emerge resilient and intact against chaotic backgrounds
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Arvie Burgos would be hard-pressed to pinpoint the moment his family fell apart. He thinks it was probably always broken, the result of his mother’s drug addictions and his father’s perpetual absence.
As he tells the story, he’s sitting in a small cafe near his West Valley City, Utah, home, sipping a beverage, trying to assemble the facts of his chaotic life into something concise and easy to tell.
He lived first with his grandmother, whom he adored, while his mother wrestled with addictions and mental health issues. He met his father just once, though he’s had some phone and mail contact.
Later his mother moved in with them and the two women clashed constantly. By age 12, Burgos struggled with temper, depression and truancy. In juvenile court for those issues, he asked to be removed from home. “They were always yelling. I needed a break from the chaos,” he recalled.
Now 17, he’s a veteran of change, disappointment, loss — and hard-won triumph, too.
It’s a story that bears both similarities and differences to that of Lacy Kendrick Burk, born a generation before Burgos in a different geographic region of the country. She, too, had a childhood that would stop most people cold.
Kendrick Burk grew up in rural Missouri in a series of households that featured an array of “parents.” The biological version divorced when she was 6, replaced by various combinations of one parent and step-parent or partner.
She’s known hunger, deprivation and neglect.
Before entering foster care at 15, Kendrick Burk was largely responsible for the emotional and physical well-being of her siblings. Her drug-addicted father's second marriage had ended and he had moved on to a live-in girlfriend. Her mother drifted in and out of the picture.
"They were not parenting. That's when I had to take over," she said. At age 13, she took charge of the household, even driving her siblings to school and appointments.
Child welfare experts, from teachers to developmental specialists, have long debated what factors enable some children to rise above seemingly impossible circumstances and flourish while others flounder. Nowhere is the lack of stability or the failure of parents more evident than in the American child welfare system, where kids suffering from the most severe parental lapses end up. That makes it a good place to explore what makes some children, like Burgos and Kendrick Burk, so resilient.
Children face all kinds of disruptions and transitions over which they have little control, from families that divorce or never form to the crisis of drugs and alcohol or abuse. Family instabilities create degrees of chaos, from merely inconvenient to life-altering. While the effects are hard to quantify, the data do give hints about different types of common situations.
For example, 64 percent of children under age 17 lived with two married parents in 2012, down from 77 percent in 1980. Fewer adults today marry or, if they do, it is later in life. Census figures say that of children who live with two parents, most live with their biological parents, but 10 percent live with a biological parent and a step-parent. Nearly a quarter of children live only with their mothers while 5 percent live only with their fathers.
An estimated 1.7 million minor children, about 2.3 percent of the nation’s under-18 population, have a parent in prison. More than half of state inmates and 63 percent of federal inmates have minor children.
Meanwhile, more than 400,000 children are in the nation’s foster care system, another 93,000 in a juvenile detention facility. One-fifth of adolescents have a diagnosable mental health disorder.
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.
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.
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?”
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