“Why are some people able to become happy, well-adjusted adults even after growing up with violence or neglect?” Lucy Maddox recently addressed that question in her article for Mosaic, and the results shed light on a very important lesson for all of us. The answer partly involves the idea of resilience. Extensive research and case studies done from the Hawaiian Islands to orphanages in Romania reveal that, while early trauma and difficulties can have a formative impact on the long-term outlook of a child’s life, that impact doesn’t have to be negative. If those experiences create a sense of resiliency in the child, they can be overcome.
However, resilience, as the researchers use the term, is not something the child is born with as much as something that is developed over time, and often with the help of others. You see, the studies demonstrate that one of the most important factors in determining whether or not children would be able to cope with their difficult circumstances is the presence of a close relationship with someone that loved them, cared for them, and whom they could depend upon in a time of need.
As a child from one of the original studies, now sixty with seven children and fifteen grandchildren, said, the most important thing is that “there’s somebody they know cares about them. Just one person, it can make all the difference.” So while a child’s ability to cope with difficult times and grow from the experiences is complex beyond our current understanding, the simple knowledge that one is loved can go a long way.
That person will often be a family member, but it doesn’t have to be. What matters most is not familial bonds but simply the capacity to care. That’s something all of us are capable of doing. And while Maddox correctly notes that we are still a long way from fully understanding “how to best care for children who have survived childhood maltreatment,” grasping the importance of human connection is an important first step, both for the kids and for the rest of us who have the opportunity to provide that sort of connection.
For some, that opportunity will come through adoption. Many of the children that are most at risk and in need of the connection Maddox describes are in the foster care system. If a family in one out of every three churches in America adopted a single child, every child eligible for adoption would have a home. If adoption is not something God has called you to pursue, will you pray and ask for opportunities to support those who he has? Such care is a vital part of the type of religion God expects from us (James 1:27).
Mentoring children in your community, or even just teaching a Sunday School class for the kids in your church, are two more ways to begin fostering the kind of relationship that God could use to save an at risk child. It may be tempting to believe that the children around us or those who come from what might seem like a good Christian home would be safe from such trauma, but the tragic truth is that that simply is not the case. If God calls you to serve in one of those capacities, know that part of the reason might be so that you can provide the connection such a child desperately needs.
Lastly, while the bulk of the research described above was aimed at analyzing how children who experienced early trauma or abuse developed, every child will experience hardship in this life and every child needs to be loved and cared for by someone he or she can depend on. If you are a parent, your first responsibility is to be that person for your child and it is vital that we never forget how seriously God takes that responsibility (Matthew 18:5–6).
Ultimately, God has called each of us to play a part in caring for the children he places in our midst. Whether those children are yours or simply part of your community, we are called to love them as Christ loves them and to care for them to the same degree that our heavenly Father has cared for us. That is an awesome responsibility and perhaps the best way to show a watching world the true meaning of our relationship with him.