Many years ago, I overheard a coworker reflecting on parenting. She had 13 children—an astonishing 10 of them adopted. She said that the parent-child relationship was “everything.” She said that if all else failed, parents should focus on maintaining a relationship with their children. As a young mother, I recall thinking that this sounded way too abstract, not like the concrete parenting tips I craved at the time. But years later, as a person who cares deeply about human development, her words feel deeply wise and, frankly, downright prophetic.
Now immersed in the study of the development of young people who can form meaningful lives in an increasingly complex world, I concur that parent-child relationships are “everything.” And so does a mountain of research. Researchers now think far less about linear stages of development and far more about holistic context of the child or adolescent, notably the nature of their relationships. The emphasis has also shifted toward interventions that facilitate a network of caring relationships around young people. It seems that even children with the best inputs—things like education and material resources—wind up with developmental gaps if they are not nested within loving, empowering relationships.
What do healthy relationships with parents and other caring adults do for children? Many good things, but a significant outcome relates to resiliency. Resilience has been defined as “the manifestation of positive adaptation despite significant life adversity.” Resiliency is important because instead of sustaining setbacks from adversity, it allows children to actually grow from the stressful things in their lives. And despite the widespread belief that individual grit or some other in-born strength of character is necessary for children to grow from calamity, research paints a different picture. Rather than innate qualities within the child, it is the reliable presence of at least one supportive relationship (inside or outside the family) as well as opportunities for developing effective coping skills that matter most when it comes to learning resilience.
Of particular interest to me as a social worker is the remarkable reality that high-quality relationships can actually offset some of the negative developmental effects of social problems. This is important because while we may actually be unable to eliminate chronic stress in the lives of many children, we may be able to build their resiliency levels through high-quality relationships. This does not negate the importance of combating those problems, of course. We need to continue to address macro-level issues like chronic poverty and substandard educational offerings. But in doing so, we must be exceedingly careful not to ignore the power of relationships.
This both excites and worries me. On the one hand, it means that bolstering adult-child relationships has far-reaching impact, far greater than we once realized. On the other hand, it means that children remain incredibly vulnerable to the maturity of the adults around them. If children learn resilience from adults, this, of course, requires resilient adult role models.
Several national organizations focus on identifying the characteristics of resilient children. They agree that resilient children demonstrate strength in three areas—executive functioning, self-regulation, and agency.
It is easy to see how strong executive functioning—those mental skills that allow you to actually complete tasks—benefits a child academically, but how does it lead to resilience? In reality, the same skills that allow a child to learn grammar rules can assist them in dealing with adversity. The skills extend to the ability to look at a complex problem (say, a parent’s substance abuse) and to direct their attention toward solutions. A child will typically be unable to “solve” such a problem, but strong executive functioning leads them to find individualized, but important, ways of coping.
Related to this is agency. All of us have a need for agency—the ability to make choices about our own lives. But this need is magnified in children whose lives regularly include frustrating realities that lie outside of their control. Children who are empowered enough to identify even small choices for themselves will fare considerably better in light of chronic stress.
Finally, self-regulation refers to a child’s ability to label and express emotions and to consider the outcomes of their thoughts and feelings before acting on them. But as you might imagine, children do not learn this skill on their own. Self-regulation is learned through relationships with adults who listen without judgment, respect emotions, and suggest healthy ways of coping.
Indeed, my colleague with the full quiver had her finger on something important. Young people need healthy relationships with adults, especially young people with chronically stressful lives. But the need for adult self-examination is equally high. Are we persons with qualities worth emulating? The power of relationships to form resilient young people is enormous. But leveraging this power will always be contingent on adults who come close enough to listen, empower, and encourage those following directly in our footsteps.