The “Ordinary Magic” Remedy for Abuse, Neglect and Trauma in Childhood

Make no mistake:  Abuse, neglect and trauma always affect a child.  There is no child who does not notice when important people are absent or unable to respond to him, or when those he needs to trust are perverse or undependable.

The challenge in helping children cope with these situations is to help them survive with as little negative effect as possible to adulthood when they have the power to leave, the power to understand and alter the damage done, to become whole better late than never.

The good news is there are usually circumstances that provide this help even when home is failing.  One researcher calls this “ordinary magic.” or resilience.

Young children depend on the resources available at home; both the strengths and the limitations of the home environment are all they have to work with. But as they grow older, children build personal skills, and their world gets bigger, bringing them in contact with teachers, friends, community programs, school, music and dance, art and sports. The sum of the positive experiences they have from home and from the bigger world is called resilience, a reserve to draw on when life gets tough, an internal “pot of gold.”

The important thing to realize about resilience is that it is not a character trait or genetic gift, but a personal collection of skills and resources that each of us build and replenish at any age. You can support a child’s budding resilience by providing safe opportunities for growth and mastery that will add to their “pot of gold.”

Following is a summary of the conclusions from Ordinary Magic: Resilience in Development by researcher and educator, Ann S. Masten, describing what makes all of us, including children, stronger in the face of adversity, and what constitutes that mysterious advantage in life, “resilience.”

Studies from around the world in many different adverse circumstances have looked at what helps children cope, what makes them “resilient.” While specific programs, policies, and therapies proven to be effective are still being developed, all the studies come up with the same short list of things that matter.
Some of these things are inside the individual child, some have to do with the child’s personal world like family and school, and some are more general, like supportive social policies and social services.


  • Capable parenting
  • Other close relationships
  • Problem solving skills
  • Self control
  • Motivation to succeed
  • Self confidence
  • Faith, hope, belief that life has meaning
  • Effective schools
  • Well-functioning communities

Whatever adversity a child faces can be buffered by support in any or all the Short List areas. The items on the list support each other as well; better problem-solving skills increase self confidence and motivation to succeed; effective schools provide opportunities to build close relationships and self control.

(Ordinary Magic: Resilience in Development by Ann S. Masten, 2014 by Guilford Press. The author is a Regents Professor and the Irving B. Harris Professor of Child Development in the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota. Her conclusions examine what helps children and families who are experiencing homelessness, war, migration, and natural disasters, as well as what helps children cope with more common adversities such as poverty or family violence.)

NEXT:  Where to Learn More

Read the 20-page series “Helping Children Cope…” which includes this page.
Download the free PDF to read, print, and distribute.