Are kids Really Resilient?
Recently it was brought to my attention that the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is currently telling foster parents that the research (from Dr. Bruce Perry one of the leading experts on trauma- senior fellow of the Child Trauma Academy) shows that kids are resilient and that separating children from an established care-giver does not have the effect on them we once thought it did. As a counselor who works in the field of adoption and with challenging children, my experience tells me otherwise. I often hear adults say that kids will “get over it” (a death, a move, a loss, abuse or other traumatic events that would completely undo most adults). As Dr. Bruce Perry puts it, “of course they get over it, they have no choice!” But Perry continues by affirming that during the course of “getting over it” the child loses a piece of themselves- the fundamentals of their true emotional, behavioral, cognitive and social potential are weakened (Perry, 2013). With so much research and information about the brain and how children are impacted by change, trauma, and lack of secure attachments, why, oh why, are we still holding onto the lore that kids will be fine no matter what happens to them? I would like to discredit the myth that all children are naturally resilient. It is my hope that we will learn how we can build stronger and more resilient kids able to overcome adversity and distress.
Since my state’s child welfare system used Dr. Bruce Perry to justify their position, this essay will look at what Dr. Perry and other leaders in the field of trauma and attachment have to say about resilience and attachment. According to Dr. Perry, “persistence in the destructive myth that ‘children are resilient’ will prevent millions of children, and our society, from meeting their true potential. It need not be so.” (Perry, 2013). Dr. Perry also says that resilient children are not born, they are made. He further states in numerous articles found at www. childtrauma.org, that children are not really resilient, they are moldable-for better or for worse. What I found is that children are at times what we might call resilient, but rarely is it by happen chance. Perry teaches four key factors that affect a child’s ability to be resilient.
The first factor according to Dr. Perry, is temperament. Some children are born with a higher tolerance level to stress and adversity. As infants and in early childhood, these children are usually easy to comfort and feel secure. Not all children are this way, some are very sensitive to any distress internally or environmentally and they are not easy to calm. Perry also notes that research is showing that the ability to overcome stress has a great deal to do with the mother’s level of stress, anxiety and distress during pregnancy (Perry, 2006). The stress hormones are passed to the child in the womb. Research shows that mother’s with a stable life, good nutrition, with no alcohol or drugs during pregnancy have children with easier to sooth personalities.
Secondly, Perry proves that no matter what the temperament of the child is, the ability to deal with stressors is molded by the child’s caregivers. A calm, experienced caregiver can create what Dr. Karyn Purvis calls “felt safety” for the child (Purvis, 2013). It is also true that an anxious, inexperienced and isolated caregiver can cause more issues, create more sensitivities, and mold a child less capable of dealing with stress. Dr. Perry emphasizes that the fit between the caregiver and the child plays an important role in developing resilience (Perry, 2006).
Healthy Attachments are the third factor in building resilience in children. Dr. Perry says that kids with poor bonding, and children who are isolated with limited or disrupted social and emotional connections are very susceptible to distress (Perry, 2006). These children often carry with them symptoms such as impulsivity, aggression, inattention and depression. Perry and attachment theory specialists all agree that connection with others and a child’s ability to relate to other people is a strength that progresses in the early years of life within the caregiver-child interaction.
The last factor in building resilience is that children need opportunities to practice building their stress response systems through gradual exposure to challenges in motor, social, emotional and cognitive areas. The slow but sure learning of new skills, while feeling safe, gives a child experience in building confidence and over time, resilience (Perry, 2006). In a loving and nurturing home environment and within a safe and caring community, children are able to fail, succeed and overcome difficulties (Purvis, 2013). This helps them to overcome greater difficulties and to take risks needed to succeed.
“Adults interpret the actions, words and expressions of children through the distorted filter of their own beliefs. In the lives of most infants and children, these common adult misinterpretations are relatively benign. In many cases, however, these misinterpretations can be destructive. The most dramatic example occurs when the impact of traumatic events on infants and young children is minimized. It is an ultimate irony that at the time when the human is most vulnerable to the effects of trauma-during infancy and childhood-adults generally presume the most resilience.” (Perry, 2013).
Over and over through researching attachment, trauma and resilience, I have found the family, whether it is foster, adoptive or biological, to be the essential support for the child and the greatest healing agent. It really does matter, when faced with adversity, trauma or difficulties, what our relational capabilities are. The sudden death, the abrupt move, and an unexpected separation may all ruin present emotional connection, often producing fear and intense emotional pain (Perry, 2006). As adults wemay know to reach out for help from those close to us to make sense of what is happening when faced with tough situations. In our struggle we may cling to what is familiar and look for help to make it through. For most children, loss and fear go hand in hand (Perry, 2010 and Purvis, 2013). Children do not know what will happen to them next or how to process loss, grief and they are afraid. Other emotions intensify when fear is at the core. Children with fear responses often struggle to concentrate in school, they typically misread and misunderstand social cues, and can be immature socially and behaviorally.
I couldn’t agree with Dr. Perry more when he says that as a society we need greater understanding that unpredictable, inconsistent, abusive or neglectful caregiving in early childhood changes the normal development of neural systems involved in both relationships and the stress response (Perry, 2010). This understanding needs to affect our policies and practices as well as our parenting. Research proves over and over it is through patterned, repetitive neural stimulations provided by consistent, nurturing, predictable, responsive caregivers that the brain gets what is needed to produce the capacity for healthy attachments and self-regulation (Perry, 2010). Over and over the findings are showing relationships in childhood can change the vulnerability-resilience stability for the child. Understanding healthy social and emotional development in children emphasizes why disruptions and disorganized attachment has far reaching repercussions.
Dr. Perry defines attachment as a continuing relationship with a specific person that is characterized by soothing, comfort, pleasure and safety (Perry, 2013). Clearly we must see there is power in relationships to rebuild or to damage children. Healthy interactions, emotional connections and nurturing caregivers offer a strong basis for surviving. Children who have experienced loss in attachments, seldom feel safe when placed in new healthy caregiving situations. They often work to circumvent close relationships. They don’t form secure attachments easily. Caregivers who provide a safe and healthy relationship to children impacted by multiple moves, and early trauma must understand and know how to establish predictable routines, create connections, be attuned, attentive and committed and provide solid therapeutic treatment in order for children to heal (Purvis, 2005).
Unfortunately, our existing mental health, child welfare and judicial systems as well as child placing agencies seem to be unaware of these essential finding in development, attachment and trauma (Perry, 2010). Children are moved from therapist to therapist, school to school, foster home to foster home, community to community. Our systems often intensify or even repeat the relational impermanence and trauma in a child’s life (Perry, 2010). It is presumed therapy or healing will take place in the child through superficial relational interactions with poorly nurturing strangers. And at great cost to our children our systems rate far too low the powerful therapeutic impact of a caring foster parent, a teacher, a coach, a neighbor or many other would-be healers.
After looking through article after article on development of attachments and creating resilience in children I want to make clear from the findings that resilience is predominantly fostered by the strength of a child’s connection to his core groups. The importance of attachment has been widely studied and it is time practices and policies catch up with research. The fitness of the parents or caregivers is the most substantial variable in the child’s well-being and we must give it equal merit in our decisions when placing children. Probably the most important lesson is when children begin to feel safe, they become free to heal, learn and grow. This sense of security should not be taken lightly when making decisions about a child’s resiliency or ability to attach.
Perry (2006) Resilience: Where Does it Come From? Found on Scholastic.com
Perry, B.D. & Ludy-Dobson, Christine R., (2010). Working with Children to Heal Interpersonal Trauma: The Power of play. Edited by Eliana Gil)
Perry B.D. (2013) “Children are not resilient, children are malleable”. Excerpts from Childhood Trauma, the Neurobiology of Adaptation, and ‘Use-dependent’ Development of the Brain: How ‘States’ Become ‘Traits’.
Purvis, Karyn, Phd & Cross, David, PhD (April 2013). From Fostering Families Today.
For more information go to www.childTraumaAcademy.org and www.postinstitute.com or www.empoweredtoconnect.com