Turning a ‘Failure to Thrive’ into a Successful Life

Resilience, dedicated action are the keys to flipping a dark and dangerous diagnosis on its head

One pregnant mother from Burlington, North Carolina, refused to gain weight and provide her body with proper nutrition. She continued to starve herself — and when she delivered her infant, the baby struggled to live.

Dr. Rosemary Stein, owner and founder of IFC Pediatrics in Burlington, visited with the mother and child and diagnosed the baby with “failure to thrive,” a condition that indicates the child ranks below the third percentile in growth.

Children who fail to thrive are often also malnourished.

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Medical experts have debated the causes for failure to thrive in infants and children — factors such as poverty, neglect, abuse, and lack of parental education. But failure to thrive can happen to any family across any demographic, including wealthy parents with college educations. A 1998 study of more than 17,000 people also identified one thing these children often have in common: toxic stress.

Almost every child is going to have at least a few adverse childhood experiences. A beloved grandmother may die from cancer, friends at school may become bullies, or parents may divorce. But when that stress stems from chronic situations, the child’s health may suffer. Kids’ bodies produce higher levels of stress hormones, according to Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, founder of the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco, California. These hormones can damage brain development and increase inflammation throughout the body, leading to a lifetime of disease.

 “As a parent, you have to show your child you’re not going to break apart when you meet a challenge,” said one pediatrician.

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Studies have shown that chronic stress in childhood can even lead to premature death among adults — up to 20 years premature.

Dr. Harris developed a questionnaire to detect whether or not a child is experiencing chronic stress. It measures factors such as domestic violence, verbal abuse, drug use, alcoholism, divorce, mental illness, criminal activity, and food insecurity. The greater the number of chronic stressors, the more likely the child’s health will suffer.

But these children can also bounce back. Parents who work to eliminate chronic stressors and who teach their children resilience will likely raise kids who thrive as adults.

“I’ve been a pediatrician for 20 years,” said Dr. Stein, “so I’ve seen kids grow up and get married and come back with their own children.”

Related: Toxic Stress Need Not Undo Our Children

She says all the kids who are successful have the same thing in common: They learned how to be resilient.

She has seen parents die from cancer and parents who abuse drugs. Yet when kids learn that they can work through their challenges, it makes all the difference to their ultimate success.

Resilient parenting is purposeful, Dr. Stein explained. “As a parent, you have to show your child you’re not going to break apart when you meet a challenge,” she told LifeZette.

“Breaking apart” could include turning to drugs or alcohol for comfort, engaging in sexually irresponsible behavior, or creating an unsafe environment for kids.

“What do I look like to my kid? That kid is going to mirror what you look like. I don’t think we’re living our lives deliberately enough. Kids are reflections of their parents.”

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