Happy, Hardy Kids

WELLNESS-April 2012
By Genevieve Morgan
Photographs by Cara Slifka

According to Dr. Jeanette Andonian, associate professor of social work at the University of Southern Maine, "Resiliency is a most—if not the most—critical concept in mental health practice today. Rooted in decades of research now, resiliency is the one idea that allows professionals to help people see their potential, promote their own growth, and maintain a forward, future orientation....Evidence shows us that humans are by nature resilient in the face of adversity—it becomes our job as professionals, and as parents, to uncover the strengths and assets that our kids have and to support their efforts to become whole people."

We don't live in a perfect world, we aren't perfect parents, and no child is perfect. Kids may face a great deal of stress, ranging from physical disabilities and illness to school and family problems to negligence or abuse. As the landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences study of more than 17,000 adults revealed, the more toxic childhood stress factors are, the greater the potential for negative impacts on health and behavior in later life. Yet researchers have also identified certain assets, called "protective factors," that can offset risk factors. They are:

Dispositional attributes: Innate qualities of character and personality—especially a positive, sunny temperament—that elicit warm responses from adults (these attributes can be determined by genetics, but they can also be accentuated or undermined through interactions with important caregivers in a child's early life).

Affectional ties: Deep feelings of connection with a nurturing, consistently available caregiver that instills a sense of being loved and valued.

External support systems: Individuals, activities, and places that provide a positive sense of affiliation, affirming structure, high expectations, positive discipline, and opportunities for personal accomplishment and mastery of important skills.

If any or all of these protective factors are amplified during childhood, negative experiences tend to matter less, and a child is far more likely to encounter success and fulfillment in adult life. So how do we hapless parents go about accentuating the positive? First, take every opportunity to truly learn about your children and get to know them inside and out. Second, set aside your personal agenda and love them for who they are—unconditionally. Easier said than done, right? Well, the following guidelines, which are grouped by developmental stage and loosely based on the model of attachment parenting championed by the pediatrician Dr. William Sears, will help you out. (Warning to helicopter moms and dragon mothers: you may disapprove, but we'll save that for another column.)

Prenatal life: Research has shown that good in utero nutrition and development are associated with a range of positive adult outcomes, so take care of yourself or your pregnant spouse. Begin practicing unconditional love—for yourself. Tackle the hard, soul-searching introspection that's required to master your personal and emotional issues so you won't visit them on your children.

Birth to 1 year: You cannot spoil an infant child under one year of age. Period. Be responsive to your baby's cries. There is a wealth of evidence indicating that a mother's milk is the best nourishment for overall health and brain development. If you can't breast-feed, make feeding time a delicious, nutritious, loving experience. Sleep with your baby if it feels right for you, but make sure to take the appropriate precautions to avoid accidental smothering while co-sleeping. Keep your child close; this is how you begin to know your child's native temperament, and her likes and dislikes. It is also how your child comes to understand that she will be cared for and responded to, which will reduce anxiety.

1 year to 5 years: Be curious and open-minded, not judgmental, when it comes to your child's play. There is no wrong way to play or draw or throw a ball unless it's hurting someone. Learn your baby's fears and work with him gently. This is not the time to take away the night-light or push your child to give up his blankie. Follow the adage I heard from my son's early childhood teacher: "If he's not going to walk down the aisle with it, don't worry." Your goal at this age is to create a loving, holding environment in which your child will feel secure enough to begin exploring the outside world.

5 to 10 years: Model the behavior you seek. If you make good, healthy choices for yourself, those decisions will ripple out to your family. Stay calm in the face of conflict. Conflict is not always bad—it's a necessary part of growth and relationships. Emphasize the positive with your child, not the negative, and use rewards and incentives more than punishments. If punishment is necessary, don't let it come from a place of anger. Be mindful to avoid hurtful labels like "stupid" or "lazy."

10 to 15 years: Ease up a little. At this stage, you should know who your child is, where you can push, and when you should back off. Give her age-appropriate responsibilities. Ask her opinion. Make your expectations clear, but keep your relationship trusting and communicative—with the understanding, of course, that there will be times when you will lower the boom. Pick your battles and, as often as you can, avoid the power struggle. And don't forget to help your child accept failure as an important part of life by addressing your own expectations as a parent and passing down useful lessons, such as the importance of maintaining a sense of humor.

15 and on: Stay connected and keep talking. Affection, closeness, and security are still vital, even if it feels as if your child doesn't want or need you at this stage. Set curfews and other appropriate and realistic expectations that will encourage positive socialization while still communicating how much you value your child. If you sense that something is awry or on a downward spiral—which often manifests in adolescents as listlessness, sleeplessness, irritability, physical discomforts of unknown origin, and atypical behaviors, such as a sudden drop in grades or a withdrawal from family and friends—get help (see below).

It takes a village—so talk to the elders

In the large village of Maine, there are many professionals who can help you amplify the protective factors in your child's life. Since most parents have jobs and other responsibilities, finding loving, quality childcare is an important task. Ask a maternally inclined family member or friend for referrals, or check out Portland Nannies (portlandnannies.com) if you're in a pinch. Getting kids involved in activities is crucial to maintaining physical well-being, a positive outlook, and a sense of mastery. WinterKids (winterkids.org) helps children develop healthy lifelong habits through fun outdoor winter activities. Also look into the programs offered at your local YMCA (ymcasofmaine.org). In Yarmouth, 317 Main Street Community Music Center (317mainst.org) provides music instruction to kids of all ages on a variety of different instruments, while the Telling Room (tellingroom.org), downtown Portland's creative writing center for kids, offers an ever-changing roster of free workshops. If you would like some guidance on how to stay connected during tough times, a good place to start is with a couple sessions with a professional trained in family therapy. For a list of licensed clinical therapists in your neck of the woods, go to mymainetherapist.com.