Research shows that there is a strong connection between negative childhood experiences, such as abuse, neglect and parents’ mental illness, and problems in later life, like increased criminal behavior, chronic disease and lower school achievement.
However, not all children with a stressful childhood will have problems later in life. These children, and other children who are able to overcome and adapt to adversity in life, are said to be ‘resilient.’ Resilience can be increased throughout a lifetime.
One of the most common findings in child resilience research is that children who come from stressful situations do better if they have at least one supportive adult relationship. This relationship could be with a parent, caregiver, teacher, coach, neighbor or other adult, and is helpful if the adult is stable and committed to the relationship. Supportive adult relationships help buffer children from whatever is going on in their lives.
W. Thomas Boyce, M.D. stated, “The key active core ingredient to building resilience are the relationships the kids have to others who care about them.”
So what does a supportive, responsive adult relationship look like? It is a relationship where adults respond to and meet children’s needs. All humans have physical and emotional needs. Physical needs include things like food, water, shelter and sleep. Emotional needs include emotional safety, connection and confidence. Emotional safety is when children feel they can be their true self, can fail and can be listened to and understood by those in their life. Connection is when children feel friendship, love and belonging from everyday moments with others in their life. Confidence is when children feel that they are good at something and that they have the ability to change things for themselves.
One key feature of a supportive relationship, according to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, is a “serve and return” behavior between children and adults in their life. For example, babies often interact with adults through babbling, facial expressions and gestures. Adults respond back to children with similar sounds and actions. This behavior helps respond to children’s emotional needs of safety, connection and confidence.
If adults do not respond back or are unreliable in their responses, emotional safety, connection and relationships weaken. An absence of responsiveness in relationships tells a child that their well-being is threatened, and they feel stress. This leaves them vulnerable and less resilient to other stress in their life. Children who constantly lack supportive relationships in their life have changes in their biological stress response systems, which affects their ability to deal with difficulties in life.
Here’s a link to ways you can practice a serve and return relationship with a young child:
Just as responsive relationships are important to babies to help them grow up to become resilient, relationships are important and influential all throughout a child’s development and life. Consistency in and quality of the relationships in a child’s life greatly influence many critical aspects of their life, including their mental health, self-confidence, school achievement, conflict resolution, choosing between right and wrong, and more. The Center on the Developing Child states, “Relationships … help them define who they are, what they can become, and how and why they are important to other people.”