Anyone who spends enough time looking at the effects of trauma on child development easily could conclude that our children are doomed. Current research in child welfare connects trauma to everything from obesity to significant increases in anxiety and depression. Fortunately, there is a growing recognition in the field that children can be resilient and overcome their early trauma.  The best way we can help our children do that is to use nurturing and positive parenting skills.

Most of the research into positive parenting behaviors is geared toward the prevention of child abuse and avoiding subsequent child maltreatment. There is, however, a lot of research showing that nurturing relationships are important in the treatment of child abuse and recovery from it. This research offers some important principles for parents of children who already have suffered life-changing trauma.

Parental Support is A Key Component

The most important thing we can provide our kids is emotional support.  They need to know that, whatever mistakes they make, we will help them get through the consequences.  One study of sexually abused girls had a small sample size, but gathered information from in-depth interviews and testing. The study found that 56% of the girls exhibited measurable mental health issues, while 44% were within normal parameters. The latter group, classified as resilient, reported quite a few different positive factors. The most common factor, and thus the best predictor of resilient emotional development was parental support.

Another study, this one a review of mental health research, found several factors that encouraged resilience. In the area of family and community factors, family support again ranked as the factor most closely correlated to resilience. In one study of children in the full-time care of their grandparents, the child’s feeling loved and supported had an extremely high correlation with high emotional health. Outside the family, a positive relationship with a caring adult was the most common significant factor in resilient children.

Another recent review of literature found different factors associated with resilience in specific age groups. Some factors were associated with high resilience throughout a person’s life, such as family support, a positive family environment, and feelings of belonging to a community. Others seem to depend on the developmental stage of the child. Only a few studies looked at resilience in children younger than 5, but the studies that exist indicate that caregiver warmth, emotional support, and cognitive stimulation were important predictors of resilience. For school age children, the primary factors were parental engagement and prosocial behavior. Adolescents reported higher resilience when they also reported caregiver support, paternal acceptance, high engagement in school, and participation in sports and other extra-curricular activities.

Encouragement from Mentors is Important to Developing Resilience

As the studies above show, another important factor in resilience is support from an adult outside the family.  If we are foster parents whose kids don’t want us to substitute for their parents, then we can aim to be mentors for them.  We can offer the same emotional support and care that they need from their parents, and help them develop the social capital that they need to overcome their childhood trauma.  We can be the adult who helps them make significant positive changes in their attitudes and behavior.  Being a mentor doesn’t mean being only a friend to our children; we still have to protect and care for them as parents and authority figures. But we can provide the same positive discipline and encouragement that they need from their parents.  

Habits of High-Nurture Families

Providing emotional support to our kids is a noble, but vague goal.  It will look different in every family, but there are some habits that experts have noted in most nurturing and supportive families.

            • Have appropriate developmental expectations for your children.  Children’s brains develop at their own pace, and, to quote one psychologist friend, you can’t argue with an undeveloped brain.  Trauma can delay normal development, making the problem even worse.  Even if our kids don’t have specific special needs, they may have some delays that we have to deal with.  Yes, our children need to learn emotional regulation and other life skills, but sometimes we have to wait for their brains to catch up.   We have to figure out whether their mistakes are the result of choices or developmental delays beyond their control.

           • Talk to your kids.  Family expressiveness shows up in many studies as a positive factor in resilience.  It’s very easy to make assumptions about what our kids are thinking, but we need to hear from the source about our children’s needs.  Even if we don’t hear anything we didn’t expect, our kids need to feel that we hear them and pay attention.

           • Encourage their interests.  Part of listening to kids is hearing what they are interested in.  Even if their plans don’t sound logical to us, we need to encourage them to find their own path.  Of course, we have to set safety limits, but they need to feel free within those limits to explore whatever they find interesting.

           • Find reasons to praise them.  We know that handing out indiscriminate praise for kids does not increase their self-esteem.  However, children’s attitudes about their value do change when we praise their persistence, kindness, patience, or other attributes that they can control.  To borrow a technique from business management, we need to catch them succeeding and praise them for it.

           • Model problem-solving skills.  We need to show our children how they can solve problems in a positive manner.  For example, some level of family conflict is inevitable, so they need to see us use a calm and rational approach to disagreements.  Kids learn from their parents’ attitudes, and they generally learn more from what they see than what we say.

The trauma that our children have suffered does not doom them to a terrible life.  They can develop resilience, and we can help them.  Learning how to encourage and support them is one of the best parenting skills we can develop.


Debbie Ausburn

Helping foster parents and stepparents learn how to be the person who is not supposed to be there.