One of the most important things we can cultivate in kids is resiliency. It is at the root of being able to survive adversity, face stress with confidence, and thrive despite obstacles. The capacity for resiliency is inherent to human nature and is how we become transformed in the face of hardship. While we are born with the ability to adapt to life’s circumstances and be resourceful, this potential isn’t fully realized in everyone without support.
There are a number of factors that underlie resiliency but there is one in particular that seems to be consistently overlooked when it comes to kids. What is taken for granted according to psychologist Gordon Neufeld, is how a child “is insulated against a wounding world by safe emotional attachments to caring adults” (1). It is caring relationships with adults that serve as a shield for their vulnerable hearts, protecting them from the wounding words of peers, other adults, or siblings. In a National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health, Michael Resnick and his colleagues found that the single most significant protective factor against emotional distress in a sample of over 90,000 adolescents in the United States was a strong caring relationship with an adult (2). In other words, resiliency is a byproduct of the strong attachment between a child and adult.
How Do Adult Relationships Help?
Caring adult relationships can take the sting out of a child’s emotional injuries and prevent shame from setting in or a sense ‘that there is something is wrong with who I am.’ When a child cares more about what their adults think of them, then the words and actions of others will matter less. It is adult relationships that can shield a child’s heart so that it isn’t overwhelmed and without emotional refuge. If a child faces too much separation, loss, or hardship, it will be the relationships with parents that should help see them through. In caring relationships vulnerable feelings can be felt, tears can be shed, losses can be named, and hope can be found once again. We don’t need to protect our children from having hurt feelings but ensure that they don’t experience them on their own. As Aletha Solter said, when a child cries tears, the hurt has already happened, and the tears are a means of healing (3).
The protective power of adult relationships is clear in the research on resiliency. In Emma Werner and Ruth Smith’s 30-year longitudinal study on resilient children on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, one-third of the children who faced poverty, mental health, or addictions in their families were emotionally healthy and socially successful despite their impoverished upbringing (4). The significant difference with this group was that they had strong caring attachments with emotionally healthy substitute adults, including grandparents, or in schools and church communities. Strong adult relationships have one of the most important protective factors in ensuring emotional and mental health in children.
Three Qualities of Adult/Child Relationships that Cultivate Resilience
For an adult attachment to foster resiliency in a child, there are three qualities to the relationship that are critical.
1. A parent needs to capture and hold onto the child’s heart – To be a shield for a child’s emotional system a parent will need to gain a child’s trust and affection. It is a child’s attachment to a parent that empowers them in their caretaking and protective role. Parents become guardians for a child’s heart when a child wants to be close to them, desires significance, a sense of belonging, to be cared for, and to share their secrets with them. Our children need to see us as the answer when they face adversity, it should be with us they seek console from. You cannot take care of a child’s heart if they have not given it to you in the first place. You cannot help a child find their way through a tough situation if they do not turn to you for guidance and direction.
2. A parent needs to be the one to matter more and to not be displaced by peers or technology – Parents sometimes find they have to compete to get a child’s time and attention when it comes to peers or technology. If their friends are the ones they turn to for help and we become displaced as their ‘go-to-people’, they will have little protection when they need it most. If a child’s attention is continually hijacked or distracted by screens or technology devices, parents may struggle to check in with a child or find spaces for uninterrupted time together. In short, we cannot let ourselves be replaced or displaced, nor let our love for each other grow cold.
3. A parent needs to keep from being a source of wounding experiences – If a caring relationship with an adult is one of the answers to a world that is sometimes too wounding, then a parent needs to take great care to not become a source of rejection, separation, or wounding. Given our human imperfections, it will mean we assume responsibility for repairing the fall-out from our overreactions when we have wounded. The goal would be to strive to be a gracious parent where we aim to preserve our relationship despite conduct and performance from our children. While we may need to be firm on behaviour and expectations, we can go easy on the relationship and communicate a desire for connection with a child across situations and circumstances.
It seems ironic to me that we that look to so many places for the keys to resiliency yet miss the one that is within our direct influence as a parent. The surprising secret to resiliency in kids is us – that nature was brilliant in designing us to hunger to be close to others. The simple truth is that whomever a child gives their heart to, has the capacity to protect it with their own. Our relationship is what protects them as they step into a world that won’t always be kind to them, work for them, or care for them like we do. What we need to ensure is that our children are at home with us and don’t have to face adversity alone. The secret to resiliency is how our relationship protects their emotional system and provides the antidote for heartache when the world is too much. We need to work at cultivating the type of relationships with our kids that make us irreplaceable and that deliver a shield to their vulnerable hearts.
(1) Gordon Neufeld, Neufeld Intensive I: Making Sense of Kids, course (Neufeld Institute, Vancouver, BC, 2013), http://neufeldinstitute.org/course/neufeld- intensive-i-making-sense-of-kids/
(2) Michael Resnick, Marjorie Ireland, and Iris Borowsky, “Youth violence perpe- tration: What protects? What predicts? Findings from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health,” Journal of Adolescent Health: Official Publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine 35 (2004): 424.
(3) Aletha Solter, “Understanding tears and tantrums,” Young Children 47, no. 4 (1992): 64–68.
(4) Emma Werner and Ruth S. Smith, Overcoming the Odds: High Risk Children from Birth to Adulthood (New York: Cornell University Press, 1992).
Copyright 2016 Deborah MacNamara, PhD
Deborah is on faculty at the Neufeld Institute and in private practice working with parent of children and teens. She is the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). All of her work is based on the relational and developmental approach of Gordon Neufeld, PhD, please see www.macnamara.wpengine.com for more information or www.neufeldinstitute.org.