Building Resilience in Our Children: Parent First Know Thyself

Resilience, or the capacity to recover or adjust from difficulties, is a vital characteristic to nurture for coping in our complex, ever-changing world.  Children can experience stressors at school with teachers, academics, and peers, with extra-curricular activities such as sports, and within the family with parents and siblings. The newest research on resilience indicates that both internal factors such as the capacity to problem solve, exhibit self-control and emotion regulation, and to feel a sense of self-efficacy, as well as external factors such as supportive primary caregivers, close relationships with other loving adults, and close relationships with friends, encourage its development.

Research also indicates that effective schools and neighborhoods, and the qualities of hope and faith as part of larger spiritual and cultural beliefs help to nurture resilience in our children. But, of all the factors that foster resilience, researchers have found that the relationship a child has with his or her primary caregiver is the most potent contributor. Philip Fisher, Ph.D., from the University of Oregon says, “The presence of a supportive, consistent and protective primary caregiver…is the factor that makes the biggest difference in healthy development”.

Factors within the child that aid in coping, such as the capacity to self-regulate, have been shown to relate to primary caregivers’ behaviors and the home environment. Parental responsiveness, sensitivity, attunement, and warmth can encourage the development of emotion regulation and can help to buffer the effects of other stressors. So, while research indicates that resilience is related to internal and external factors, it is the parenting external factor that helps to shape the internal factors related to this capacity.

Demonstrating parental responsiveness, sensitivity, attunement, and warmth can be more complicated that it seems, however. Anyone who has ever tried to parent a screaming two-year-old or a rebellious teen can attest to that. And to further complicate matters, it is becoming increasingly clear that how parents make sense of their own childhood experiences greatly influences how they parent their children.  Therefore, the first step in parenting is to better understand ourselves and how we were parented.

As Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell write in, Parenting from the Inside Out, “As we grow and understand ourselves we can offer a foundation of emotional well-being and security that enables our children to thrive.”  Even if we have had a difficult childhood, it is the self-understanding and the knowledge that we can ‘do things differently than our parents did’ that allows us to be responsive and attuned to our children in a way that encourages the development of resilience in them. Siegel and Hartzell explain that: “By freeing ourselves from the constraints of our past, we can offer our children the spontaneous and connecting relationships that enable them to thrive. By deepening our ability to understand our own emotional experience, we are better able to relate empathically with our children and promote their self-understanding and healthy development.”

Mindfulness, or the capacity to be in the present moment without judgment and with lovingkindness, is also at the core of responsive relationships. Mindfulness allows us to be aware of our own thoughts and feelings while we are also open to those of our children.  Nurturing the ability to be more fully in the present moment does not preclude integrating an understanding of our past and how it might be influencing the present moment, however. We can notice how our past is influencing the present without getting lost in the past. We notice, allow, and move back to the present.

Nurturing resilience in our children is one of the most important tasks of parenting. Parental responsiveness, sensitivity, attunement, and warmth help our children develop a sense of self-efficacy, self-regulation, and self-control, along with the capacities to problem-solve and demonstrate flexibility, which are important components of resilience.

Understanding ourselves as parents, who we are, based on how we were parented, is vital if we are going to provide our children with the building blocks of resilience. When we first understand ourselves and our past, we will then be better able to parent more fully in the present and instill the capacity to cope within our children.

Marcia Kaufman, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist

** Maximizing Children’s Resilience by Kirsten Weir, an article in the September, 2017 APA Monitor, was also referenced in this blog.