Life is full of adversity. Being human in this world means that we will face our fair share of stresses and difficulties, whether they be relational, financial, professional, or personal. As parents or caring adults, we want to imagine a world for our children that is free from adversity. But we are also faced with the harsh reality that life comes with trials. So what are we to do? Let’s give them a chance at weathering the storms. Let’s talk about resilience.
What is resilience? As defined by the National Scientific Council of the Developing Child, resilience is the ability to handle, move through, or cope with adversity. At its essence, resilience helps us access within ourselves a positive and adaptive response when facing significant adversity. Some might take this to mean that this is a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” kind of mentality. Yet, this is not a capacity that just shows up in oneself when needed. It is less self-sufficient and independent and more interpersonal. Research shows that this capacity is actually built mostly through supportive relationships throughout a development period. It is not simply supportive relationships, but having the presence of a supportive adult while gaining effective coping skills that are the ingredients to the foundation of adapting and thriving in adversity.
Let’s look closer into these ingredients and what characterizes a supportive relationship. The work of neuroscientist Dan Siegel includes the concept of what he calls the “Yes Brain” and the “No Brain”. The yes brain is a state of mind that is open, curious, willing to face challenges, insightful and empathetic. The yes brain develops its ability to function in this way through interactions with caregivers or important adults in a child’s life. This “Yes Brain”, open state of mind, fosters the abilities to focus attention, solve problems, plan ahead, adjust to new circumstances, regulate behavior and control impulses.
The “No Brain” is characterized by being shut down, reactive, perfectionistic, unwilling to take chances, disconnected, lacks access to curiosity and the feeling of belonging. The no brain has difficulty accessing resources to draw from that support resilience. The no brain develops through consistently harsh interactions with important caregivers with the lack of being seen, understood, and supported through big emotions.
So as a parent or caring adult, we want to interact with a child in a way that cultivates the yes brain. So what does that look like? Here is an adaptation of Dr. Dan Siegel’s 4 S’s that provide a good starting point:
Seen – Attend to the inner mental life of the child vs. giving all of your attention to their behavior. For example, (behavior) little Johnnie kicked over his brother’s tower of blocks in a moment of rage. (Inner mental life) He’s been feeling overlooked but the family a lot lately. Of course we don’t want to guide little Johnnie to believing he can be destructive when he’s dealing with hard feelings, by ignoring his behavior. The goal here is to strike the balance in attending to the inner life and dealing with unacceptable behavior. Staying completely in one camp or the other will not do the foundational work to resilience. We can teach to better behavior while acknowledging the tough feelings he’s struggling with. Johnnie is also learning how to get positive attention from us around his pain through our guidance.
Soothed – Parent or caring adult is a reliable source in which child feels they can go to experience soothing when emotions get big. Child learns emotional storm will pass. It’s important to note that the expectation of being perfectly reliable is not the goal here. No parent can show up perfectly in all their child’s storms. Your aim is to build the relationship where your child experiences you overall as reliable. When you miss that opportunity, because you will, making a repair with your child will reinforce that you are for them and still a reliable source.
Safety – Parent or caring adult is not a source of fear and protects the child physically and emotionally Security – The child expects that when thee is a difficult interaction with their parent, Mom or Dad will repair and establish reconnection of their relationship. We want the child to know that feeling what they feel will not cause mom or dad to leave them, but the door remains open to revisit the tough interaction and talk about it.
Interactions characterized by the 4 S’s are helping to build a neurological structure within the child’s brain that allow them to face challenges, facilitates learning, growth and believing in themselves. The child develops the ability to be proactive rather than reactive. Your helping build a solid mental structure that can weather the storms.
I want to make a small note here that this isn’t an expectation to always interact perfectly with your child. You have your own yes brain and no brain. You have your no brain moments where you will be reactive to your child’s behavior and not be the resilience fostering parent you want to be. I would encourage you to be attentive to your own yes brain and no brain states of mind and get the support you need if you find yourself in a no brain state of time too often. Even if you can’t find your way out of the reactivity state of mind right now, you are still doing the work of resiliency building as you revisit the tough moments and make a repair with your child.
This article is by no means meant to be comprehensive to this topic, but if this sparks your curiosity and interest, I would encourage you to seek out the resources to expand your understanding and support you in being an agent of growth and change in your own child’s life or those in your community.
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2015). Supportive Relationships and Active Skill-Building Strengthen the Foundations of Resilience: Working Paper No. 13. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2018). The yes brain: how to cultivate courage, curiosity, and resilience in your child. First edition. New York: Bantam.
Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2020). The power of showing up: How parental presence shapes who our kids become and how their brains get wired.