Building Resilient Children
Written by Petrea King Photography by Jasmin Sleeman Photography
Every Parent wishes that they could shelter their child from traumatic events. However, this is not always possible or indeed desirable. Petrea King examines the ways in which we can raise our children to ensure that they can deal with whatever life throws at them.
Resilience is a treasured quality that we can build in ourselves and in our children. It can be both learned and taught. In this rapidly evolving world, resilience and the ability to adapt to a changing environment is a skill that allows us to grow in our capacities and respond to the challenges that are happening all around us. While it is natural for parents to want to protect their children from any kind of trauma, it is also wise to recognise that some of these challenges will come whether we and they, are prepared for them or not. These could be wide and varied including natural disasters, social dislocation when friends move away when a loved family member or pet dies, when they feel left out, bullied or ‘different’ and, as children grow older, perhaps through rapidly evolving technology, a changing climate, challenges within the economic environment, family dislocation or other unforeseen events, all of which impact significantly upon them. We all yearn to raise resilient children who can deal with whatever challenges they might face in their lives. This resilience, the ability to grow through our challenges, consists of certain beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that we can help instill in our children, but firstly we need to understand the very beginnings of resilience.
It is increasingly recognised that the first three years of a child’s life are paramount in building resilience and our social and learning capabilities. Babies and young children are acutely aware of the atmosphere around them and are constantly seeking affirmation of their relationship to the larger world. This of course, begins principally with the parents.
In the best of all possible worlds, when a baby is born, it is placed into the arms of a mother who has eagerly awaited her or his arrival along with a doting father ready to support, love and encourage them both. The birth goes smoothly without any unexpected events, the baby feeds normally and the bonding deepens between parents and child.
‘It is increasingly recognised that the first three years of a child’s life are paramount in building resilience and our social and learning capabilities’
We know that when babies are born the brain is incredibly ‘plastic’ as she adapts to the tumult of information received and is busy building neural connections to make sense of her world. Already she has picked up a lot of information while in utero where she has been affected by her mother’s diet and lifestyle choices, routines and her emotions. These have begun to affect the genetic expression within the cells of the baby’s body through chemical interactions with receptor sites on the surface of the cell membrane.
We use to believe that babies couldn’t see when they were born. Now we know that their eyes are perfectly focused to go from the crook of the parent’s arm to the pupil of her eye. When we give attention to something that greatly interests us, the pupil of the eye dilates. When the baby sees the dilated pupil of the parent, it excites the brain to produce neurotransmitters which in turn, literally grow the connections within her brain. Perhaps you remember reading about the Rumanian orphans many years ago who were left in their cribs and were not cuddled or interacted with, and neither their bodies nor brains, developed normally.
Resilience begins in its very rudimentary form through developing a loving network that begins with the parents and gradually extends out to a wider circle of people who love her.
When she has needs, they are met. If she is hungry, thirsty, hot, cold, tired or soiled, she is cared for and her needs are met. This gradually builds a reassurance in her that even though, up until now she’s relied on ‘womb service’, now that she is on the outside of her mother’s body, everything is alright and that she is loved and cared for.In the first few weeks of life a baby often prefers to be firmly wrapped up as this mimics her experience in utero, especially towards the end when space was at a premium! If you leave her arms and legs to jerk about, she doesn’t yet understand what is happening as the neural networks haven’t yet been laid down or strengthened.
At about eight weeks of age, a baby discovers that she has a body. Often it is the hands that she sees first; these amazing fingers and hands that seem to have some relationship to her. In time, she realizes that she can control their movements. As a baby settles into her body and builds all the connecting pathways that will allow her to move her head, roll over, sit, crawl, stand and walk – in the best of all possible worlds, everybody cheers and claps at each milestone. This encouragement is tremendously important as she is dependent on feedback from the people around her, to build her confidence in continuing to make efforts despite failing over and over again. When she is cheered along and celebrated she feels encouraged and that the people who love her, believe in her capabilities. As she persists in her efforts and accomplishes the various stages of physical maturation, she is drinking in through her eyes, her ears and her tactile senses the feelings of, “I’m gorgeous! I’m lovable! I’m loved! I’m loving! I can take on the world! That’s who I am!” There is a feeling of being invincible that comes from feeling loved and supported by the people who know you best and accept you just the way you are.
These feelings of glee and happiness that our little ones experience are truly a delight to witness. However, an equal bonanza of joy is going on within the child’s body while she is building confidence in her abilities.
Next to the brain, the gut secretes the most neurotransmitters – the chemicals and hormones of our emotions. So while she is accomplishing these outer physical feats, the chemical state within her body, is an inner reflection.
As the multitude of ‘joy’ neurotransmitters flood out to every cell of her body, they lock onto receptor sites on the surface of the cell membrane, like a key going into a lock. This in turn, provides a profoundly positive message to the interior of the cell virtually telling the cell to optimize its performance.
And there is indeed a ‘joy’ neurotransmitter called anandamide which activates the endo-cannibinoid system in the body. Ananda is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘bliss’ and, on the surface membrane of most of the cells in our bodies, is a cannabinoid receptor site – a lock, waiting for the key of anandamide to activate it. When we and our children experience bliss, it is this hormone anandamide that the body is producing. It is the chemical responsible for the ‘runners high’ when athletes break through the pain barrier and feel a profound sense of exhilaration; we secrete it when we are in ‘flow’ or in a state of complete absorption where time seems to not exist. We also secrete it when we meditate and research has shown that experienced Buddhist monks and Christian nuns all secrete this marvellous little chemical when absorbed in prayer and meditation. Very young children of course, are constantly absorbed in the present moment and this endo-cannibinoid system is an import part of their biological growth.
Anandamide provides a profoundly positive message to the cell to increase its good health and functioning. We know that young children laugh far more frequently than adults so therefore are also producing more anandamide than adults. Adults too are often pre-occupied with the past and the future while young children are more absorbed in the present moment. This is an important part of their physical and emotional development and indeed, something we can relearn from our children – the delights of being fully absorbed in the present moment.
On a more subtle level, babies and young children are also marinating in the judgments of those around them and these also have a significant impact on children’s development. While children don’t understand the intellectual underpinnings of many adult conversations, they are acutely aware of the ‘sound’ or tone of the voices around them. There is a tone of voice that conveys judgment; there’s a sound conveyed by resentment, fear or despair and a sound around blame, frustration and anger.
Children don’t understand the beliefs that adults may hold, but they can certainly ‘read’ the feeling being expressed and will associate that tone of voice with the subject of the adult’s judgment. In this way children learn to close their hearts and minds to whomever their family sees as ‘the others’ – those that are richer, poorer, better educated, less educated, from a different religion, sexual orientation or cultural background.
Babies and young children are, by and large, open and loving towards everyone regardless of these differentiators.
When young children and babies hear parents or others in regular contact with them habitually speaking of individuals or groups with criticism, sarcasm, fear or hatred they ‘feel’ the tone of voice that carries the adult’s judgment. Young children have no idea what it is being discussed but, in time, they put together the recurring name of the person or group and the feeling of judgment that accompanies it and in this way we train them to likewise judge. This builds a sense of separation in the child – an ‘us’ and ‘them’ – where previously, it was natural for them to feel interconnected to everyone.
Children’s bodies and brains react to these sounds by activating their fight or flight system and they secrete increased amounts of adrenalin and cortisol. These chemicals also lock onto specific receptor sites on the membrane surface of cells instructing some to speed up so they are ready for activity so that the child can fight or flee the threat and, in other cells, the receptor site suppresses activity of the cell as it is not needed when flight and fight is activated, for example, their immune cells.
The secretion of adrenalin and cortisol is necessary at times when we need to run away from a valid fear or to front up and deal with it and these physical activities use up the benefit of these chemicals. However, when a child feels stressed often, these chemicals negatively activate and speed up some processes in the body as well as suppress the capacities of the child’s immune system.
There is a third ‘f ’ in the fight, flight system and that is ‘freeze’. Children don’t have the history, experience, understanding or perspective to know how to remove themselves from stressful situations and so they have a tendency to just close down and go into ‘freeze’ instead. This habitual response can often be carried well into adulthood.
Another habit young children are picking up is the, “I’ll be happy when…” story. They hear their parents and others constantly saying, “I’ll be happy when we go on holidays,” or “I’ll be happy when I get a pay rise,” or “I’ll be happy when we move to a bigger house, get a better car, finish this project” and so on. Babies are absorbed in the present moment but before long, as they begin to take on and understand language, young children begin the same story with, “I’ll be happy when my birthday comes, when I turn five, when I go to school.” And in time, this develops further into, “I’ll be happy when I leave school, when I get my qualification, find the perfect partner, get married, have children, when they leave, when the divorce comes through!” This pattern of postponing our happiness to a future time when things are different from how they are right now, is very deeply acculturated into all of us.
Lastly, babies and young children are finding their way into the family dynamics depending on whether or not they have siblings. We might find that we get positive feedback or attention because we are pretty, smart, responsible, capable, sickly, bright, the black sheep, the unusual one, musical, the peace maker or any number of other possibilities and we begin to practice the strategies and patterns that bring us what we crave – attention and affirmation that we matter. These unconscious patterns dictate the way we deal with challenges when they arise and may impede our adaptability, flexibility and durability, all of which are essential if we are to be resilient.
The beginnings of resilience have been laid down by the time we are three years of age in the ways mentioned: mastering our physical body; being seduced by the, “I’ll be happy when” story; picking up the judgments of those around us and finding our place in the family dynamics, are all well under way by our third birthday. These experiences haven’t gone in as a conscious awareness but as an unconscious biochemical state in our body. They have literally been wired into our cells by the regular secretion of the habitual neurotransmitters that we have secreted in response to our physical, emotional and social environment. Over the ensuing years, children continue to build or shape these experiences and, as we become more aware, we each have the potential to change and adapt as we learn new ways of responding.Children are often overlooked when there is a world tragedy, family or school upset or when the adults around them are dealing with relationship breakdown, separation issues, illness, grief or depression. Some people think that children are mostly oblivious to these peripheral stresses in their lives but this is a great error in judgment.
‘Some people think that children are mostly oblivious to these peripheral stresses in their lives but this is a great error in judgement’
Science has now proved what intuitively our grandmothers knew: a happy stable loving child grows up in a happy stable loving environment. The neurochemistry laid down in the first three years of life has a profound impact upon the child’s growing brain and body.
Young children have a natural capacity to be still and enjoy the present moment. As babies and very young children, we were content with very simple pleasures derived from our senses. Just taking on all the new sounds, sensations, smells, sights and tastes was a full time job! This ability to be happily absorbed in whatever activity is at hand gradually wanes as a child becomes caught up with the busy-ness of life and its challenges. Unstructured play time is tremendously important as is quiet, day-dreaming time. Often parents want to bring a child out of solitary reflective time by interacting with them when this may be a very valuable time for a baby’s brain and body to integrate the myriad of experiences they are subject to.
It is natural for young children to be compassionate and caring. A young child doesn’t require knowledge of your bank account or your educational history in order for them to bestow upon you their bountiful love. As children grow and realise there are things to be achieved and challenges to be overcome, they may lose this capacity to find pleasure in the simple things of life. In addition, many children become sensitive to the upsets in their loved-ones or the wider world. These are some areas I’ll explore in future articles. We can build resilience in our children by giving them practical skills they feel anxious or upset. We do this best by being a living demonstration to our children because as we all know, children watch what we do rather than follow what we say! When we grow through life’s challenges and disappointments we can share with our children how and why we did so. This is something that needs to be taught to children and is a vital part of them learning to be capable when life’s unexpected disasters or disappointments happen. Spending time with children explaining to them how they can build resilience and reading them stories where children demonstrate these qualities helps children understand how they can embrace their difficulties in life with skill.
Over the past twenty seven years I have listened to thousands of stories from adults who were physically, sexually or emotionally abused as children. Paradoxically, many of these people find that once they integrate these past emotional wounds, they find some of the strengths that they developed because of these painful experiences. They may have developed resilience, self-reliance, capabilities and determination.
I have also heard many adults say that they had such a happy experience as a child that it never prepared them to deal with difficulties and disappointments when they encountered them! Either way, as parents, we can actively promote and teach resilience skills to our children or grandchildren and equip them as adults to grapple meaningfully and creatively with the challenges they will encounter in both their personal and global lives.
The best start to building resilience we can give children is to provide a stable, loving early life that is based on routines and regularities and where children are encouraged to play, daydream and express their creativity.
This first article serves to form a basis for future ones that will focus on dealing with nightmares, relationship difficulties, death of a loved one or a pet and many other challenges that children encounter. You’re welcome to write in with your particular areas of interest as well so that we can make these articles as practical and useful for you as possible.
Petrea King is the author of childrens books, including You, Me & the Rainbow, Rainbow Kids and The Rainbow Garden, and five books for adults. Petrea is also the Founder and CEO, Quest for Life Foundation www.questforlife.com.au
Tips for Building Resilient Children
1. Allow them time to master their own physical body
2. Encourage them to:
• express their creativity
3. Allow them time to take pleasure in the simple things. For example, when you are going for a walk, allow your children time to stop and inspect what catches their interest
4. Ensure your child finds their place in the family dynamics
5. Model practical skills for dealing with difficult situations. Children learn by watching
6. If you have recently dealt with a difficult situation, explain to your child how and why you dealt with the particular situation
7. Refrain from:
• using the words “I’ll be happy when …”
• being judgmental (which is a good thing to stop anyway!)