To start off, the good news: children are resilient. They can overcome anything that they manage to survive. Time and time again they show their strength and ability to recover during times of adversity, and even a potential to grow from bad experiences. Now for the bad news: recovery isn’t automatic. Nor is it always likely. A child needs the right environment to recover, and that’s something that unfortunately isn’t always afforded to them. While there is not a single child on the face of this earth who is incapable of recovering from extreme adversity, through one mechanism or another, not all are provided with the comforts they need to heal. When this happens, wounds are left to fester, to grow, to become buried deep into a child’s psychology. Nor can a child recover from an environment or situation that never gets better. There are limits to our children’s seemingly super-human powers of resiliency, and every child can succumb to their kryptonite.
The Keys to Helping Children Overcome Childhood Adversity
Why does one child endure an adverse event and become permanently scarred, while another can experience that exact same event and grow from it? The resiliency to conquer adversity is not something a child inherits. It’s something that’s developed through the proper comforting, support, and the patterns of thinking about life that a child learns through his or her caretakers. Adopting the right attitude and outlook towards life often spells the difference between devastation and resiliency.
Even otherwise good environments can breed bad healing through the wrong types of psychology, and far too often what parents consider a natural or helpful response is the worst thing they could possibly do. That’s where this series of books hopes to come in. They are intended as a guide to help parents raise strong resilient children, and to see their kids through the worst possible times in the best possible manner. After all, as Rusk & Rusk (1988) point out, it is not adversity but improperly comforted hurt that will lead to psychological wounds. In the grand scheme of things, it will not be the experiences your child endures that will determine their welfare, but the manner and competence to which you help them through these experiences that decides their future. With that in mind, let’s start out by learning some important principles about children and how these relate to dealing with adversity.
Child Adversity: Seeing the Bigger Picture
Your child is their own little self-contained ecosystem, with numerous variables driving their physical and mental states. This little ecosystem, however, is not an island. It exists within a much larger ecosystem (their family, the physical environment, and their social environment) which are constantly pulling and tugging on their psychology as well. When a child experiences adversity, all of these major systems play a role.
When a storm of adversity develops, there is never just one factor at work. (Sorry parents, we only wish it could be that simple.) When a child is abused, we tend to think about the act of abuse or injury when calculating the harm, drawing a straight line between the two, as if the outcome is dependent upon the single variable of ‘what happened.’ Yet this is only one factor, and more often than not, is far from the most important one. “What happened” will generally be dwarfed in significance by the other variables at play. Let’s say a child is beaten by her father. This act of abuse is only a portion of what will determine the harm it causes, and is influenced by many other variables such as family stability, other parental pathology within the home, the beliefs they are taught when it comes to what this event should mean about them as a person, the level of outside social support, the explanations a child receives about this event (why it happened), the type of media they are exposed to and the messages this sends, how prepared they are to refute negative media messages, and so on. It is how these different variables and numerous factors come together that will determine what lasting harm (if any) comes about. If a child is molested by her uncle, that experience in the overall scheme of things plays a very minuscule role in any damage that’s done, assuming the incident was non-violent. It is drowned out by the reaction of her parents, the media influences, her religious or belief systems, any secondary factors such as potential criminal intervention or disruptions in family stability because of it, and much more.
Factors that influence child resiliency
Here are some of the factors that influence a child’s response to adversity.
- Religious structure
- Media influences
- Assumptions about the world
- Beliefs about life/the experience
- Past experiences
- Response system modeled by parents (reconciliation versus vengeance, for example)
- Personal metaprograms (assumptions about the way the world works)
- Inbuilt phobias/fears
- Current mood disposition
- Attachment predisposition
- Family stability
- Parental pathology
- Conflict unleashed in the response
- Secondary disruptions
- Mood stabilizers in the natural environment (nature, sun, recreation, etc.)
Child welfare measures
- Level of love and support
- Type and amount of comforting received
- Sense of control over the current situation
- Stability and consistency
Humans have a cognitive defect: we all tend to look at events in the most simplistic manner possible. We’re naturally lazy, and thinking requires effort (and effort requires energy). So to preserve energy, we tend to avoid complex thinking with the same furor that we do hard work. We naturally try to reduce things into categories, stereotypes, labels, and simple, quick assessments; things that will let us interpret our world with the least amount of effort possible. But this tendency has its drawbacks. What we save in effort, we pay dearly for in flawed conclusions. Stereotypes are harmful and inaccurate, our labels are unfair and arbitrary, our categories don’t accurately capture the complexities of even the simplest situation, let alone complex human interactions. Most importantly, our hastily-formed assessments obscure the truth and prevent us from achieving more beneficial solutions.
As a result of such tendencies, we often focus on only a small portion of the overall picture: namely, the specific type of adversity a child experienced (what happened). Yet in doing so, not only do we focus in on a narrow aspect of the much larger equation, BUT WE ALSO HAVE OUR ATTENTION ZEROED IN ON THE ONLY ASPECT THAT CAN’T BE CHANGED. This is a big problem for those trying to help children overcome negative experiences. If your child is to overcome adversity, it will have absolutely nothing to do with the severity of what occurred. It will have everything to do with these other, frequently ignored aspects of the equation: the comforting you give them, the support they receive, the stability in their environment, and so on.