Parenting Resilient Kids: ACE-ing the Test!
By Jacob B. Pierce, MD/MPH student
Northwestern University, Feinberg School of Medicine
From car seats to vaccines, lots of our time as parents and healthcare providers is spent trying to protect our children and patients from potential threats to their health. Most of this time is focused on threats to their physical health; car seats protect children from dangerous accidents, and vaccines protect against diseases. But what about emotional threats to our children? Do we know what they are, and how can we protect our kids against them? As it turns out, researchers have found that “resilient” children may be better equipped to handle future stressors. But what does resilience even mean?
In their Handbook on Resilience in Children, Drs. Sam Goldstein and Robert Brooks define resilience as “the ability to cope with and overcome adversity.” Basically, resilience is how well our kids can handle tough situations. And some of those tough situations end up having lasting impact on our children’s health throughout their lifetime. One 1998 study showed that certain tough childhood experiences can lead to increased risk for major diseases even in your 50’s and 60’s! They termed these challenging situations “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs for short. From being abused as a child to living with an alcoholic parent or guardian, this study related 10 different ACEs to higher rates of heart disease, mental illness, and even cancer. If you want to read more about the study, try here.
Even apart from ACEs, childhood stressors can be really tough on kids. One important thing you can do to help your children deal with challenging events is to give them the toolkit beforehand! Research shows that children of parents who are supportive and engaged are better able to handle stressors in their lives. Here are a few important techniques that researchers have discovered:
- Listening to your child’s feelings and try to understand them. Expressing feelings takes practice! Engaging your child in discussions about their feelings helps your child learn that it is okay to talk about them. It can also be helpful for you to understand what they’re feeling and why they feel that way. Additionally, talking about their feelings helps strengthen the parent-child relationship. Many parents might find it awkward or challenging to have this conversation with their kids, especially if it’s new to them. Check out the link below for a helpful article on this.
- Offer to help your child with what they are doing. This can be anything from play-time to homework. It helps let your child know that they have a support when things might be tough later on. For example, if your child is working on a school project, try helping them take it to the next level. Whether it’s building models or helping with PowerPoint slides, your help can make them feel supported in something they might find particularly challenging. Plus, it could be fun!
- Being a “responsive” parent. Basically, this means being in touch with your child’s needs and responding sensitively and consistently. Before young children can talk, this might be difficult! But the principle remains the same: practicing “responsive” parenting establishes a solid physical and emotional foundation from which your child can branch out as they learn and grow. And when challenging events happen in the future, their foundation will help them overcome those challenges. For some more practical suggestions, try this link:
- Help your child by helping yourself. Research has shown that when parents are dealing with their own mental health struggles, it can also affect their children. If this is something you are struggling with, remember you are not alone! If you are feeling down, depressed, or have other mental health concerns, you can always contact your doctor to get help. It can be good for you and your child!
Helping kids through challenging times can be tough, and hopefully you find these tips helpful in preparing your child to be more resilient. Here is a resource if your child is having a particularly hard time: https://childmind.org/topics/concerns/trauma-and-grief/
- Goldstein, Sam, and Robert B. Brooks. Resilience in children. New York: Springer, 2005.
- Brotman, Laurie Miller, et al. "An experimental test of parenting practices as a mediator of early childhood physical aggression." Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 50.3 (2009): 235-245.
- Lovejoy, M. Christine, et al. "Development and initial validation of the Parent Behavior Inventory." Psychological Assessment 11.4 (1999): 534.
- Valentino, Kristin, Steven Berkowitz, and Carla Smith Stover. "Parenting behaviors and posttraumatic symptoms in relation to children's symptomatology following a traumatic event." Journal of Traumatic Stress 23.3 (2010): 403-407.
- Felitti, Vincent J., et al. "Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study." American journal of preventive medicine 14.4 (1998): 245-258.