I was walking on a paved path beside the Pacific Ocean when a little girl approached on a bike, obviously in her first, tentative days of learning to ride. Spotting me in her way, she wobbled a bit to avoid hitting me. As I prepared to help her, she regained her bearings and quickly swerved around me.
“Are you okay, sweetie?” asked her mom, biking beside her.
“Yes, Mommy,” the girl answered. “I saved myself!”
I smiled. Her words reflect exactly the kind of abilities and attitude we strive to help children to develop. In that moment she experienced the feeling in mind and body of “saving herself,” a capacity that will serve her for the rest of her life. As humans, we are constantly called to save ourselves from difficult situations, “real” or perceived. What I witnessed in the girl was psychological resilience in the making.
What can we do to help children develop this kind of resilience? Through experience and information gleaned from neuroscience, I have identified three key factors:
- Having at least one adult in your life who notices a child’s emotions and physical state.
Infants and toddlers are excellent communicators through body language. Though they can’t talk, they have a diverse repertoire of ways to communicate with adults: they use their vision to look around for help or to play; their facial expressions and bodies to show joy, discomfort or distress; and the prosody or intonation of their voices as signals to the adults around them to indicate their needs. What’s essential is for to have people around them who notice these signals. When we notice a baby’s signals we support the development of a crucial back and forth process that builds healthy brains known as “serve and return.”
- Having an adult who responds to the child’s cues with attention, warmth and engagement, based on his/her unique needs in real time.
Every person experiences unique physical and emotional needs. A parent’s first job is to figure out what these needs are, since babies can’t tell us with language. It’s only by experimenting to discern what type of support helps the child feel better that parents and caregivers discover the best way to soothe a particular child. Some children enjoy being held, others like soft voices, some may respond to both; the variations are endless.
Eventually, having your emotional and physical needs met leads to the feeling of being loved, of being “held” in loving attention. Knowing that someone else is present and receptive to a child’s needs helps the child build the capacity for future independence, resilience, and self-regulation.
- Having at least one adult who notices and responds to a child’s emotional needs with consistency and regularity.
Having one person who understands and meets the needs of a child appropriately is a blessing. And the more consistently, this happens, the better. As the neuropsychologist Donald Hebb said, “neurons that fire together wire together.” In short, all learning happens with practice. When a child experiences emotional attunement from caregivers around her, it helps to build resilience. Children whose emotional and physical needs are not met consistently lack a stable base to draw from when they face stressors in their lives.
We cannot simply “teach” children and teens to be resilient. We need to help them to grow resilience through the daily interactions they experience over time. Having one’s emotional needs met consistently helps build a healthy mind. It all starts with the feeling of being seen, and having one’s needs understood, properly evaluated and lovingly attended to.
In the long run, those are the keys to teaching our children to save themselves.
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