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No one wants or plans for their child to have a traumatic
experience in childhood, but that’s not how most trauma works. As we all know,
unexpected life twists and unforeseen accidents can happen to anyone, big or
small, old or young. And they can cast shadows for years, sometimes for the
rest of our lives.
According to a recent
study in the journal "Health Affairs," almost half of all children in the U.S. have a traumatic event in childhood that can have serious consequences on the child’s health and academics. And
what researchers deem as “trauma” isn’t always what you’d expect.
Christina D. Bethell (PhD, MPH, MBA) from the Johns Hopkins
Bloomberg School of Public Health and her colleagues analyzed data from a
2011-12 survey of parents, including nearly 100,000 U.S. children under 17. The
survey highlighted a range of traumatic experiences like domestic violence,
neighborhood violence and parental jail time, as well as more ordinary trauma
like poverty, divorce, mental illness at home and the death of a parent.
Researchers also included racism and unfair ethnic treatment as a form of real
trauma for kids.
The scariest thing for parents is how little we can control all of the traumatic events that might affect our children.
The scariest thing for parents—myself included—is how
little we can control all of the traumatic events that might affect our
children, sensitive little beings who absorb so much more toxic stress
than we like to admit. I mean, we don’t plan
on losing our jobs and falling below the poverty line, or slipping into a
chronic depression, or explaining why daddy was killed in a car crash and won’t
be coming home. I certainly never expected for my husband’s painkiller
prescription to lead us down a painful, suffocating path for the last five
years. I never expected to ask the man I love to move out, away from our son,
because the tension is too much. Which trauma is worse: Living with an addicted
father or having divorced parents? According to these researchers, they both
can lead to chronic health problems and academic struggles. Pick your trauma.
For parents like me, simply trying to stay afloat and
minimize the myriad of ways we can mess up our children, the study did find a
silver lining in the form of one word: resilience.
In fact, the importance of resilience has been widely
explored from scientific journals to TED Talk stages in recent years. It’s now pegged
as a key component to success, happiness and health and is an important part of
parenting because, as we know, adversity and trauma can enter our children’s
lives in a blink. But for those of us already teetering on trauma, instilling a
sense of resilience—the ability to bounce back from challenges and
effectively cope with stress—can make all the difference.
“Adverse childhood events don’t automatically have to have
long-term traumatic impacts for children,” Bethell concluded from her team’s
research. According to her press
statement, “Among children with two or more adverse experiences who already
had a chronic condition …those who had learned and showed even the one aspect of
resilience evaluated in the study were 1.5-times more likely to be engaged in
school and nearly half as likely to repeat a grade in school compared to those
who had not learned this skill.”
So how do we do instill resilience in our kids?
Kids need to know that they can make mistakes, that it’s OK and normal to face problems, that they are masters of their own fate.
Well we can head to the bookstore and pick up books like "Raising Resilient Children" by Robert
Brooks and Sam Goldstein, or "The Resilience Factor" by Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte,
Ph.D. We can get lost in the rabbit hole of YouTube videos on resilience
(which, as I can attest, isn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon). But there are
two very basic ideas that I’ve gathered from my research.
First of all, kids need inner strength and self-worth to be
resilient. (You can read eye-opening
tips here, including why empathy, unconditional love and honest acceptance
of our children are so important.) Kids need to know that
they can make mistakes, that it’s OK and normal to face problems, that they
are masters of their own fate—no matter what life throws at them. They need hope.
The second, and arguably most important, factor is that
parents have to model resiliency for their kids. It’s really that simple. If kids
are going through something traumatic—say the pain from divorce or the
inconsistency and confusion from an alcoholic parent—then there’s likely
other people in the house who are also affected by said trauma. How do our kids
see us cope? Do we have the courage
to effectively solve problems in our lives, or do we sink into the same
self-defeating patterns? When we make mistakes or face adversity, do we blame
others and fly into a rage, or do we use it as an opportunity to learn and
It’s not easy to practice resilience, just as it’s not easy
to be a parent or to be a child or to be a human. But here we are, faced with
traumas, adversity and challenges every day. Although it’s detailed in a
black-and-white study, we don’t really need researchers telling us that kids
have traumatic childhoods—we know it from our own lives. We know how
stressful life can be, and how the uncontrollable events of our childhood
shaped us for better and worse. This is unavoidable, no matter how much we’d
like to protect our children in a fantasy world of magical elves and pixie
dust. Kids go through tough things; we all do.
But there’s that silver lining again: resilience. And if
embracing resiliency in our lives is the best way to instill this crucial life
skill in our children, then we’ll all be better, healthier and stronger in the