Psychologist Ashleigh Yaman, chats to us about resilience in kids.
WHAT IS RESILIENCE?
Today’s world requires us to understand resilience as a process, for our children but also for ourselves. Resilience is an area of research that came about when people started to ask the following question: why, when two people are exposed to a similar stressor, one seems to present with a positive outcome and the other a negative outcome? This is a good question to ask, especially considering that there are steps to be taken with regards to influencing a positive outcome. However, considering resilience as merely an outcome would be folly, resilience does not just come about. Instead, it’s a complicated process that is influenced by a complex interplay between risk factors and protective factors. A range of risk factors exist and the literature typically distinguishes between individual (biological, internal) risk factors and external risk factors (those which exist in the environment). Now, the mere presence of a risk factor does not automatically diminish an individual’s capacity for resilience. In fact, the presence of risk factors are more of a probability statement or a gamble, in which the actual impact of the risk factor depends on the time, context, perception of the situation as well as the combination of risk factors that the individual has experienced throughout their lives. The risk factors then interact with the protective factors that are present in the individual’s arsenal and this complex mix then influences a person’s capacity for resilience at that time in their lives.
Now considering that we are focusing on this process in little people and that certain protective factors (i.e. self-esteem, emotional intelligence, internal locus of control, self-concept) develop through a process over a number of years, we need to consider childhood development. When the lay person thinks about development it’s usually around physical milestones (i.e. sitting, crawling, walking, talking, toilet training, etc) but there is so much going on cognitively and psychosocially as well. Without getting into too much theoretical detail, this essentially means that children go through different stages in their lives where they have different emotional needs. The negotiation of these needs allows them to develop psychosocial characteristics and impacts their perceptions of themselves in the world. However, these needs present themselves as the child navigates their way through different stages of cognitive development. This is important to consider because not only do the needs change through development but the manner in which they are negotiated also changes through development also changes. Considering that the parent is responsible for both these processes, we need to be aware of this. THIS CAN BE COMPLETELY OVERWHELMING IF YOU THINK OF IT, so many needs, changing all the time, requiring to be met in different ways. However, this need not be too overwhelming because through connection, we are able to understand and adapt to our children’s needs. It’s connection that helps parents distinguish what ‘kind of cry’ their infant just made – a nappy or a bottle cry, and it is connection that helps parents lend a little more kindness than usual to their feisty teenager because they know something is up without her having to say a word.
CONNECTION AND RESILIENCE
Connection is the cornerstone of resilience: it both precedes and maintains resilience.
The Neuro Affective Relational Model (NARM) is an integrative approach that states that people develop through 5 fluid stages, namely Connection, Attunement, Trust, Autonomy and Love-sexuality. It is no coincidence that Connection is at the forefront. The theory states that when we are able to authentically connect, we are able to understand what it is the child needs. Through consistently connecting and meeting the child’s need, the child starts to develop a sense of trust and safety in their environment. Likewise, through the parent’s consistent meeting of the child’s need, the child can start to mimic the process of needs being met and the parent can start to trust that the child will eventually be able to develop autonomy and enter into relationships as an integrated individual. This theory offers a solution to the overwhelming thought of constantly having to meet your child’s changing needs.
Connection is also paramount in the development of the brain structures that are implicated in the stress response. In the first two years of life, the development of the right hemisphere of the brain is prioritized, this is where our ability to emotionally regulate is found. Research has shown that if connection is lacking during this time, these structures are underdeveloped and may have long term implications. The stress response in some ways mimics the complex interplay between risk factors and protective factors – the components of resilience, and so allowing for sufficient development of the brain structures involved in the stress response through connections, means that you are taking steps to set your children up to be resilient. Not only does connection impact the development of the brain and allow us access into the needs of our children and how to meet them, but connection in and of itself has also been proven to be a protective factor.
Now, I am fully aware that parenting is not for sissies and sometimes connection just does not seem possible (and even at times is not desirable) or at the very least, just does not seem to be a priority when merely surviving is the only thing you can think of. As a result, some practical tips will be discussed after this case study.
1) Connect to yourself!!
Is the manner in which you connect child-focused or are your needs as the parent at the forefront? If this is the case, instead of passing judgement perhaps a more helpful response would be to explore how your needs as the parent can be sufficiently met elsewhere. If parents are struggling with difficult emotions or negative thought patterns, it makes your need-detecting abilities really cloudy. Parents themselves need to be well-regulated and aware of their own needs so that when they arise they can identify them, park them and clearly identify what it is their children require from them.
2) Prioritise connection with your family as a whole.
Family structure is essential. Is there cohesion in the family, is there a reliable structure that can provide a sense of familiarity and safety for your children? Are the roles in your family clearly defined?
3) Connecting through boundaries.
Boundaries are not a swear word. They have become notorious for keeping things out, but actually the purpose of boundaries is to keep whatever is in inside, safe. Consistent boundaries, structure and routine allow the child to have some grasp over their environment and thus help them feel safe and contained.
4) Connection and discipline.
Can we say those words in the same sentence? Yes, of course! Children use misbehavior as a means of communication. Due to their limited vocabulary and cognitive development, children have a hard time communicating their needs, desires, or pain (we even have a hard time with this as adults). Children’s misbehavior is thought to revolve around four general goals that arise in response to a misperception of their sense of belonging. Children typically have 4 goals of misbehavior: power, attention, revenge and inadequacy.
5) Connecting to your child during trauma/stress.
Understanding the stress response has led us to understand that if the stress response is not complete, emotional energy remains in the brain which prevents the individual from deactivating from the initial activation of stress. This understanding has helped us respond in more effective ways to children experiencing a traumatic event. For example, when a child who has been in a car accident starts to cry, what is our typical response – ‘oh no, stop crying you’re okay’. While this is completely well intended, it disallows the child the opportunity to release the emotional energy and deactivation does not occur as it should. Instead we should acknowledge what is going on for the child (you’re safe everything is okay, I can see you’re crying) and then allowing them to continue however it is they need to relieve the stress (carry on crying, that’s perfectly okay). This communicates validation for their experience, it communicates that you are regulated enough yourself to deal with their dysregulation and that you are prioritizing connection and attuning to their needs.
6) Connecting to your child’s individuality. Children are wonderfully different, it our job to help them understand and celebrate that. When we deny a child’s individuality we invite them into a space of shame with regards to their very essence, which is very counterproductive in the quest for resilience.
Ashleigh Yaman, is a councelling Psychologist at Impact Therapy Centre
083 695 1432
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