Developmental psychologists have long discussed the impact of ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) in the lives of children, and why some are more impacted by them than others. Truly, any hardship for a child is heartbreaking, be it serious illness, loss of a loved one, or neglect. Why, though, do some children bounce back quickly and thrive, while others have a much more difficult time recovering from these adverse experiences? Experts in the field have labeled the children who thrive in almost any environment “dandelions” and those that need near perfect conditions to thrive “orchids.” The concept is based on the child’s level of biological sensitivity to their environment.
Of note, a third group was recently added for “medium-sensitive” individuals, which the researchers (Lionetti, et al., 2018) labeled “tulips”. For those gardeners in the bunch this will resonate, although anyone with a lawn can also relate, I am sure. Thus, your genes (possibly a gene called CHRM2), dictate that you are born a dandelion, tulip, or orchid, and there is little to be done about it.
Fortunately, there is a lot of new evidence that more successful coping capabilities can be developed, regardless of a person’s level of sensitivity. Some people call this Resilience, others Grit. Whatever it is, we know when our kids have it and when they do not. All children will face some form of adversity in their lifetime. While there are professionals who help to build these skills, there are some practices you can begin to incorporate into your own families in an effort to promote better resilience in your children. The benefit of this is phenomenally important. Those children with resilience demonstrate multiple improved outcomes in behavior, relationships (family and peer), academic achievement, and even mood (Cohn et al., 2009 and many others).
A good first step to building resilience is to understand the “Cognitive Triangle.” In a nutshell, this simply means that our feelings impact our thoughts which impact our behavior. This is non-linear i.e. behavior also impacts feelings, and every version thereof. This can work for or against our children. A positive example would be: I feel happy; I think people will respond well to me at school; I smile, approach others warmly. Usually this outcome is good all around, not unlike a self-fulfilling prophecy. A negative example is something like: I think I am no good at school; I feel frustrated; and I struggle my way through second grade. Obviously, we want our children to become more adept at utilizing the former example while minimizing the latter.
As parents, our goal will be to reinforce the positive triangle (and in so doing Resilience) by promoting:
Over the next few blogposts, I will explore each of these concepts in more detail, starting with optimistic thinking. By modeling each these important qualities, parents will begin to instill Resiliency in their children and themselves. The good news is, you do not have to be perfect. It is actually better if your child understands that you struggle with life’s challenges too, but in the end, you are able to handle them, and so can they.