Can I just bubble wrap my child?!
I am only half kidding.
Our role as parents waltzes this thin line of letting them explore and experience, and keeping them safe, allowing them to dip their toes in the ocean of life while teaching them about the tide of the waves.
Our worries run long:
- Will my son be exposed to punitive punishment on the weekends he stays with my ex? We have different parenting philosophies.
- What will my daughter internalize when others tell her she’s “good” or “bad”? I can’t control the words of others.
- I screamed at my son and swatted at him. Did I scar him?
- My daughter has been exposed to high stress. Will this stay with her forever?
The thing is, our children are resilient, which means they are wired to bounce back from and overcome challenging life events, and there are certain factors that help stack the deck in their favor.
Building Resilience Through Trauma
Nearly 35 million American children will experience one or more childhood traumas. Yet, science tells us that not all children who experience trauma will be traumatized or permanently harmed. Why is this? What researchers have found is that there are protective factors that weave together like a shield to protect our children in the face of adversity and stress.
One way to understand the development of resilience is to visualize a seesaw. Protective factors and coping skills on one side counterbalance significant adversity on the other. Resilience is evident when a child’s health and development tips towards positive outcomes, even when a heavy load of factors is stacked on the side of the negative outcomes.
The single most common protective factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or another adult. These relationships provide personalized responsiveness, scaffolding, and protection that buffer children from developmental disruption. Let that sink in … that means the connection of one adult - just one! - makes all the difference.
So, in a way, with our love and connection, we can bubble-wrap our kids. Not from experiencing adversity, because that’s inevitable. But, being a nurturing adult in a child’s life, helps the child feel safe more quickly after experiencing the toxic stress of adverse experiences and helps to neutralize the physical changes that naturally occur during and after trauma.
Biology Of Trauma
There are three different areas of the brain: the thinking, feeling, and survival parts. If the survival brain is triggered, our bodies go on high alert to meet the challenge, making us highly adaptive during short-term stress. The accelerator of our nervous system, the sympathetic branch, goes into action, resulting in faster breathing and heart rate and activation of stress hormones like cortisol. When the threat passes, the brake of the nervous system, the parasympathetic branch, brings the body back into balance or the Resilient Zone.
However, when we experience prolonged stress and trauma, stress hormones become chronically elevated, which sensitizes our feeling hub, and it makes it more challenging to return to the Resilient Zone. This means that even minor stresses activate the reactive part of the brain, sending us into a protective fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode.
The good news? Our brains are neuroplastic, which means they are changeable and adaptable. Our bodies and minds have a natural inherent capacity to heal. Even after trauma, there are ways to soothe excessively reactive limbic firing to rebalance emotions and diminish the harmful effects of chronic stress.
Resilience, then, is birthed from the interaction of biology (the way our body works) and environment (including the protective factor of one safe and supportive caregiver) to build a child’s ability to cope with adversity and overcome threats to healthy development. And while our brain and biological systems are most adaptable early in life, it’s never too late to build resilience. In this way, adversity does not have to be our destiny, and we can reframe the human experience from one of shame and pathology to one of hope and biology.
How To Nurture Resilience In Children
When we - all humans - feel powerful, safe, and connected, we improve our well-being and increase our capacity to give and receive love. And because we are in a relationship with our children, we do this for each other through a process called co-regulation, which can be done via a Time-In.
When Time-Ins are playful, relational, tangible, empowering, predictable, and playful, we create a space where reactive brains can shift from survival mode to that of feeling, healing, and learning. The Time-In ToolKit is designed for these specific specifications based on the RULER model from the Yale Center For Emotional Intelligence. In a Time-In, we:
- Recognize emotions (Notice how emotions are expressed in our tone and bodies)
- Understand the cause of our emotions (Reflect on emotional responses and how they affect behavior)
- Label our emotions accurately (Choose a feeling word to describe the emotion)
- Express our emotions appropriately (Help children evaluate the best way to express the emotion)
- Regulate emotions effectively (Model different strategies for the future)
And this is all done through connection and play via feelings posters, mantra cards, and plush toys that make it safe to feel and be. When we can help our children notice and process emotions through storytelling and connected sharing, the brain shifts, and new circuits are created.
Resilience is tied to connection, and in teaching our children social-emotional skills through daily connection rituals, we strengthen the muscles for resilience - and not just in our children, but for us, too. We literally rewire our brains as we influence our children’s wiring, healing our hurts and trauma alongside theirs.