Another major factor in helping children develop resilience is helping them make connections with other people. We are social animals and are hardwired to be part of a community. Many studies have noted the importance of support networks and communication between family members. Another study from last fall found that advantageous childhood experiences (dubbed counter-ACEs in the study) actually can neutralize negative experiences. This finding is important because, as the study notes, “Eradicating ACES, such as a mother’s mental illness, may not be feasible. Increasing counter-ACEs may be a more realistic goal.”
This principle is important for those of us who parent children who have suffered trauma or loss. We cannot erase their past. But we can realize that their trauma does not determine their destiny, and we can help them find positive experiences. The most effective counter-ACES that show up in the mental health studies so far seem to be support systems. We may not be the parent that they want in their lives, but we can provide positive support and perhaps become one of the trusted adults in their lives.
Where possible, we also need to help them build a positive relationship with their biological family. If we are stepparents, we need to help our children forge as solid a relationship as they can with their biological parents. If we are foster parents with a reunification plan, we need to help them stay in touch with their parents and facilitate whatever contact we can. If our childens’ parents are no longer in the picture, then we need to help them connect with siblings or other members of their biological family. These ties are too important to let our children lose them.
We also need to help our children find friends. The strongest friendships come from working toward common goals, so volunteer work or extracurricular activities that encourage teamwork can be helpful. “Team” doesn’t mean only sports. Kids can get the same benefits from theater groups, dance companies, or speech competitions. Any activity that hones a skill or helps your child learn to work with other people can help them build their resilience.
Finally, don’t forget one of my favorite childhood activities, which was summer camp. There is a reason that generations of parents have found camps to be character-building experiences for their children. The American Camping Association has a wide range of resources for families trying to find good options for either day camps or overnight camps. Even in the pandemic, it is possible for your children to learn skills and make friends in a safe environment.
If your child has come to you with a background of loss or trauma, don’t despair. They can develop the resilience to overcome those experiences. Helping them develop as strong a support network as you can is one of the best gifts you can give them.