So we just discussed a child’s strengths. There are also a few vulnerabilities that children have when it comes to adversity.
How Children Are Vulnerable
A) Children are more reliant on adults for comfort
The reasoning areas of a child’s brain are immature. These areas are the last part of the brain to fully develop (reaching full maturity sometime in the mid to late twenties). The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) is one of these primary reasoning areas, and one of its most important functions is to help keep emotions in check, thus serving as a counterweight against our emotional impulsiveness. Henceforth, this immaturity makes children more vulnerable to outside interference and less able to reign in their emotional responses than adults. (Bunge et al., 2002; Gaillard et al., 2000)
Because of this, children often find themselves slaves to their own emotions, and need help doing what their immature reasoning areas cannot. This is why proper adult comforting is such a crucial part of recovery: An adult’s comforting is the only substitute for a child’s immature reasoning abilities. When adults fail to provide the proper comforting, or worse, provide the wrong kind of thinking that only encourages negative thoughts, a child is left to their own devices, which tends to mean runaway emotions and hyperactive fears. So all in all, children are less cognitively capable, and more dependant upon caretakers.
B) A child’s inexperience with life can work against them
Their lack of experience can also work against them when it comes to major life events or disruptions. As we grow, we learn that life is full of ups and downs. When we’re down, most of us realize that the pain won’t last forever and that things will get better. Children, who are much less experienced in life, are much less sure about this principle. When things go badly, it’s harder for them to imagine a time when it will get better. They struggle to recognize adversity as just part of the normal ups and downs of life. This is also a reason why, once again, adult responses and support of the proper kind are so important. Children draw strength and comfort from the adults in their world. They depend on them to show strength and offer reassurance that this is something they can get through. Yet if the caretakers in their lives are acting as though the sky has fallen, children revert into a state of deep despair, because their minds can’t imagine overcoming it, yet alone grasp what outlooks to take in order to get there.
C) Kids are powerless
Children are naturally helpless. Their size and immaturity leaves them dependant upon adults to take care of them and protect them. Obviously, being small and helpless can be a disadvantage in many ways, especially when those the child depends on are neglectful or abusive. They lack the capacity to rectify difficult situations on their own. Children are powerless to alter their environment. This can make certain situations seem more scary and chaotic than they might be to an adult. A perfect example of this is financial hardship. When a family is struggling, children can feel overwhelmed by this stressful development yet altogether powerless to do anything about it. Their welfare seems to ride the wind, whichever way it is blowing; or at least that’s how it can sometimes seem to them.
D) Kids are hampered by their developmental limitations
Children can only grieve according to what their developmental stage will allow them. (Webb, 1993) This means that in the case of extremely difficult or traumatic events (such as a parent’s loss, through either death or separation) it may leave a wound that doesn’t fully heal. They may have to revisit unresolved pain later.
Children mourn differently, and are less able to verbalize their emotions. Even though the average 4-year-old would seem to be at no shortage of words, parents need to understand that speech competency is not the same thing as being able to effectively communicate abstract states of mind. Children master talking relatively quickly, but even most adults struggle with communicating their emotions.
Other important concepts related to child adversity:
The first five years of life are an extremely sensitive time for development, and of great importance. (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000) This makes certain types of adversity during these ages more impressionable than that which might occur later.
On a positive note, children younger than 4 years of age do not have deliberate strategies for remembering things. (Istomina, 1975) This makes children of this age more resilient against isolated incidents of adversity. No memory = no social or psychological harm, provided the experience doesn’t happen repeatedly enough to build neuroplasticity or implicit memory. One study published in the journal Child Development found that 20% of 46 kids age 27- to 51-months could recall a “unique event” (a strange experience with a shrinking machine) six years after it occurred. Of the 9 kids who remembered, two were under the age of 3 at the time. (Hobson, 2011) So although it’s not impossible for a young child to remember a particularly unique occurrence, it’s relatively rare.