Have you ever known someone who despite the overwhelming odds against them, has overcome incredible trauma to lead a healthy, happy life? Every once in a while I meet someone like this and I am always in awe. So what's the best recipe for helping your child be resilient in the midst of whatever they face? Research says, it's you!
Have you ever known someone who despite the overwhelming odds against them, has overcome incredible trauma to lead a healthy, happy life? Every once in a while I meet someone like that, and I am always in awe. People who suffer from significant childhood trauma aren’t expected to lead happy normal lives as adults.
I always ask myself, how did they do it? Because hurt often people hurt people right? Or at least hurt people hurt themselves.
This thought reminds me of my favorite scene in Moana. I cry EVERY time I watch it (which used to be A LOT - it used to be a ‘go to’ on our family road trips). If you haven’t watched the movie I’m assuming you don’t plan to, but just in case, this is your SPOILER ALERT. So at the end when Moana is trying to get past Te Ka, she has a sudden realization that this demon throwing lava at her is not a monster after all. She was once a peaceful island goddess with power to create life. But now she’s being hateful and vicious because someone removed her heart. So while I watch this scene unfold I think of the children who, due to abuse or neglect or trauma seem to have had their hearts removed and they respond by lashing out or rejecting loved ones or running away from efforts to help.
ADVERSE CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES
There was a study conducted by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente in San Diego for 20 years, beginning in the 90s called the ACE Study. You may have heard of it because it was so groundbreaking, but if you haven’t, ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. So basically there’s a questionnaire that measures the trauma a person experienced in childhood and then gives a score that relates to the impact that trauma might have on later-life health and well-being. Questions cover family dysfunction; physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect by parents or caregivers; peer violence; witnessing community violence, and exposure to collective violence. So if you witnessed your mother being hit frequently, that’s one point toward your total score. If a household member went to prison, that’s another point, etc. So the higher your ACE score the more childhood traumas you experienced. What researchers uncovered was a glaring link between childhood trauma and the chronic diseases and social and emotional problems people develop as adults. This includes heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes and many autoimmune diseases, as well as depression, violence, being a victim of violence, and suicide. The reason is that not only do people who experience trauma often use negative coping mechanisms, but prolonged stress in childhood can disrupt early brain development and compromise functioning of the nervous and immune systems. This study was groundbreaking because identifying the link to so many physical, mental, and social challenges in adults mean that we could more accurately identify the cause of the disorders and then properly treat them, and also educate for prevention.
The Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch is a good example of this. They are known nationally for being a residential treatment center for youth who struggle socially, emotionally, and behaviorally. They serve youth who have significant difficulties functioning at home or school. They treat everything from substance use and depressive disorder to bipolar and oppositional defiance disorder. These kids often arrive with behaviors like drug use, running away, self-harming, suicidal thoughts, poor social skills, and defiance.
I recently spoke with a board member who told me that over 80% of the youth in treatment there have been sexually abused. They’ve been hurt by someone and these diagnoses are often the result. And what a blessing that they have someone who loved them enough to get them access to therapy.
THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR IN CHILDHOOD RESILIENCE
So the effects of trauma are real, but there is help available. Treatment can heal and put individuals on a path to being whole. And often kids ARE able to endure traumatic experiences and bounce back for a variety of different reasons. But today I want to talk about what science says is the MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR in childhood resilience. Are you ready for it?
In July 2018 there was an article published in the Deseret News called When a child is traumatized, this one thing helps their recovery the most. This article reiterated what so much research has been pointing to. Author Jennifer Graham states very clearly that, “the most important factor in how a child overcomes trauma is the consistent presence of a stable and nurturing parent."
Thomas Edison, who some have called the most influential individual of the millennium because his inventions have a direct impact on our daily lives (he invented the electric light bulb, the first recording device, the central power station, motion pictures, alkaline batteries, and so much more!) was judged as unable to learn and pushed out of school after only 12 weeks of formal education. So his mom home schooled him. His parents both made sacrifices to scrape money together to get him a science tutor when he outgrew what they could teach him. Where would we be if his parents weren’t there to help him be resilient when he was judged as mentally deficient?
Think about Elizabeth Smart. Remember her? When she was 14 years old she was kidnapped from her home by a crazy man who claimed her for his wife. He raped her regularly for nine months before she was finally found and returned home. If that doesn’t knock a 14 year old girl down, I don’t know what will. I’m sure her recovery hasn’t been easy, but I have heard her multiple times give her mom credit for where she’s at today - a happily married mom and child safety advocate.
She said the best advice she received was from her mom after her rescue who said, “The best punishment you could ever give these people is to move forward and be happy. They have stolen nine months of your life, don’t give them one more minute.” And apparently that has made all the difference for her.
So there’s this fascinating model in Psychology called Attachment Theory, which you’ve probably heard of. It basically explains the biology behind the connection between kids and their parents. In a nutshell, what it means is that young kids who have a secure attachment with their parents, feel safest with their parents. If kids are placed in a stressful situation, a healthy relationship with a parent will help them calm down. This attachment first manifests itself when babies start to become mobile. Makes sense right? Their brains are wired to keep them within a safe distance to their nurturing caregiver. As they develop they gain more confidence to branch out and explore the world knowing that their home base is secure so they can always come back to it. When kids reach puberty their attachment to parents more clearly begins to taper off because their brains are preparing them for independence.
There was kind of a cool study published in 2010 about the role parents had in mitigating stressful situations in older children and adolescents. So these are kids who are starting to branch out and were giving a speech in front of an audience, where their parents weren’t even present, and researchers were measuring their stress levels. What they learned was that kids who talked to their parents on the phone after the speech had stress levels that quickly went back to normal. So those kids were securely attached to their home base even when they weren’t physically there.
Positive relationships with parents do a lot more than help youth calm down after a stressful situation. Children who are at risk, because of whatever adverse experiences they have had, have better academic, social, and emotional outcomes if they have a close relationship with a parent.
And parents don’t need a degree in child psychology or any other special training. Dr. Andrew Garner of Case Western Reserve University said a stable, nurturing relationship is the most important buffer against the effects of childhood trauma and that “small things, such as speaking to newborns regularly, help create the bond that will help the child be resilient if trauma later occurs.”
So talk to your baby. Ok. That’s pretty straight forward. What else can we do?
HOW TO BUILD RESILIENCE
So much of resilience is all about culture. Parents contribute to resilience through values and belief systems, traditions and rituals, and cultural practices that help establish a sense of identity, create a community, maintain connection, etc.
That sounds TOTALLY doable, right??
So you are already doing concrete things to help your kids be resilient in the face of whatever they are facing right now and what might come in the future, including anxiety, depression, chronic illness, disability, loss of a loved one, divorce, abuse, bullying, etc.
Whenever you eat dinner, celebrate holidays, attend church, or pray as a family, you are building resilience in your kids.
So for my family, building resilience looks like:
waking up to The Piano Guys on school days
celebrating birthdays with breakfast in bed
playing basketball, soccer, football, ping pong and our favorite card games like Skull King and Cover Your Assets
Friday night movie nights
Saturday dinner dates for my husband and I
cheering each other on at sporting events
eating fish on Christmas Eve in remembrance of Mary and Joseph (even though no one enjoys seafood)
encouraging each other on challenging mountain hikes
long road trips through beautiful countryside (where we have to almost force our kids to look up and enjoy the scenery)
listening to Forever by Nathan Pacheco on repeat while singing along at the top of our lungs
doing the dishes together
learning about our ancestors
quiet Sabbath days where we go to church and then spend the day together at home
tucking my kids into bed at night and asking about their lives
waking up early to watch the sun rise on Easter Sunday
rehearsing words for a spelling test
spending individual scheduled time with each of my kids
spontaneous dancing in the kitchen
and so much more.
It sounds very fairy-tailish, but we have yet to experience any of these things perfectly. There will always be whining, complaining, fighting, and wanting intermixed, because part of attachment is knowing what the boundaries are. Kids feel secure when they know their limits and partly because those limits change as they age, they need to regularly test them.
KIDS AND TREES
And in the midst of all that resilience-building, we worry about them! We are anxious about helping them become their best selves. We think back to some of the challenges we faced as teenagers and we worry about what might be coming for our kids. We want to protect them (and let’s be honest, we also want to protect ourselves) from pain and sorrow and trauma. But we also know that experiencing hard things is necessary for them to reach their potential.
Have you ever thought about how much kids and trees have in common? They live in an environment they can’t control with rain and sun and weeds and wind. Their health depends a lot on that environment. As parents, we are like the soil. We provide a solid foundation for the roots to grow. We are completely protective while they are just a seed in the ground, but once we sprout we can’t control all the elements, but we can be there and offer nutrients. So we know trees need sun and water and carbon dioxide, but did you know that trees also need wind?? Sometimes trees need to be supported by stakes and ropes when they are very young, but trees that are staked down for stability long-term are actually very weak trees and often fall over when the wind blows after the support is removed.
Wind is what stimulates the roots of trees to grow quickly and spread out. It also changes the very cells of the tree to make the branches and trunk thicker and more flexible, so they bend instead of break on a windy day. The same thing can happen with our kids. Each challenge they face will prepare them and strengthen them for the next one. Obviously we will shelter them the best we can in a devastating hurricane, but trying to put up a daily wind barrier, would not only not actually protect our kids, it could harm them by making them less resilient. Kids don’t need parents who excessively shelter them from challenging experiences. They need parents who are consistently present and nurturing. Each child is different, so our nurturing presence will look different. For some, too much shelter might mean intervening about a school assignment, but for others, that might be completely appropriate and necessary.
I recently learned about a young man with Hanharts syndrome. He was born without arms and legs and said he used to hate his parents because they pushed him so hard to learn how to be independent. He said there were so many times when he was younger that he didn’t understand why they wouldn’t just do things him. But they’d say no, you can do it. You’ll figure out a way. They worked hard to help him be as independent as possible. It resulted in a lot of tears on both sides but now that he can do all kinds of things like get himself showered and dressed, get in and out of his wheelchair, and even cook, he looks at his parents and says, “I am so grateful that they pushed me and encouraged me to be independent and be the person that they knew that I could be.”
Resilience in your child might look like just getting out of bed in the morning. Maybe you worry that your child has no resilience because they seem so broken. Maybe they are making hurtful choices or seem totally resistant to you and your efforts. Maybe there are things you regret or circumstances you blame. The answers aren’t going to be as simple as returning a stone to the heart of a lava demon, and then suddenly the lava cools and crumbles to reveal an island goddess who can make anything she touches turn into tropical flowers and palm trees. (That’s your Moana SPOILER again.)
I may not know you and your child’s situation, but I do know that there is always hope. I haven’t always believed that, I have had moments where everything seemed dark and I didn’t believe life wasn’t worth living, but it turns out there has been light at the end of each of my tunnels, and I know it is there for you too. God put it there for everyone.
You may have moments where you feel like you have no idea what you’re doing, but remember you don’t need to be an expert, you just need to love your kids and be available for them. So keep trekking. Keep loving your kids. You’ve got this. I believe in you, and I believe in your kids.
Thanks for listening, and have an awesome day!