It is inevitable. Life will bring really rough patches and things come our way that we did not ask for (unfortunately, some that we did ask for as well). I have come to accept that about fifty percent of life is hard. The same holds true for preschoolers.
SO WHAT IS REALLY GOING ON IN A CHILD’S BRAIN WHEN THEY EXPERIENCE SOMETHING CHALLENGING OR STRESSFUL?
When a preschooler goes through a time of stress or adversity, two things happen:
- The amygdala, the part of a child’s brain responsible for instinctive and impulsive responses, initiates a stress response. The stress response signals a release of the chemicals adrenaline and cortisol to help the preschooler’s body deal with the stress.
- The prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that controls attention, problem solving, impulse control, and emotion regulation, shuts down temporarily.
WHAT IS RESILIENCE?
Resilience is about calming the amygdala and activating the prefrontal cortex. When this happens, a preschooler is able to bounce back from stress and adversity. This is emotional resilience.
This is an excellent video from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University to describe resilience in children:
In this video, Linda C. Mayes, M.D., from the Yale Child Study Center states that, “Resilience is that ability or set of capacities for positive adaptation allowing you to keep in balance.” I like to think of it like a preschooler standing in the middle of a teeter totter. One end of the teeter totter is weighed down by negative outcomes and influences in the child’s life: the other end by positive outcomes and influences. Our goal is that the positive outcomes outweigh the negative outcomes. We want the positive side of the teeter totter weighted down more than the negative side. A child shows resilience when she or he is able to stay balanced and still tip their teeter totter toward positive outcomes even with a heavy load of factors stacked on the negative outcome side. Learning to stay balanced and having the muscle strength to keep the teeter totter tipping the way you would like it to go takes practice and skill.
The good news about resilience findings is that all children are capable of working through their stress and challenges. Although genetic predispositions are a factor on a child’s teeter totter, resilience is not something that preschoolers are either born with or not born with; all children can develop resilience skills as they grow and develop.
The more complex finding is that it’s not just in the person to be resilient; it’s in the interaction between the person and the environment (Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D., Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University).
Let’s look at two preschoolers’ scenarios to consider this interaction between person and environment.
Let’s look at this teeter totter before the child steps onto the middle. This teeter totter has many items weighing down the positive side. A very challenging inherited disease carries a lot of weight on the negative side. When the preschooler steps onto the teeter totter, all of the positives will give this child a head start in staying balanced and keeping his/her teeter totter tipping in a positive direction. If this preschooler continues to keep his/her teeter totter leaning in the positive direction, this preschooler will be showing signs of resilience.
This preschooler’s teeter totter is tipped in the negative direction. A list of many negatives weigh down this teeter totter and there are no positives to help the child weigh down the positive side. When this preschooler steps onto her teeter totter, she will need a lot of resilience to lean her scale in the positive direction.
LET’S ADD A POSITIVE BLOCK TO SCENARIO TWO AND SEE WHAT CHANGES
When this child starts to attend preschool, a loving and caring teacher provides this child with a feeling of safety and support. The child now has a positive weight on her teeter totter and the teeter totter slightly balances out. But something else also happens: the fulcrum on her teeter totter shifts to the right, adding even more weight to the positive side. When this preschooler steps onto her teeter totter, her skills in resilience may or may not help her balance and move her teeter totter in a positive direction, but she will have more weight to help her do so. With the fulcrum in this location, she will have more resilience than before.
LET’S SEE THE FULCRUM CHANGE FOR SCENARIO ONE
This preschooler experiences the unexpected loss of a close family member. A weight is added to the negative side and the teeter totter shifts its balance. At the same time, the fulcrum shifts slightly to the left. When the child steps on the teeter totter, it will now be a little harder for the child to balance and shift the teeter totter to the positive direction. This will require more resilience than before to stay balanced.
MY OWN PERSONAL EXPERIENCE WITH RESILIENCE
Throughout my life, I would say that I have generally been a child and an adult with very adequate skills to keep my teeter totter balanced and tipping in the positive direction. The weights in my life’s positive bucket have helped me tremendously to balance my teeter totter and my fulcrum usually sat pretty square in the middle of my teeter totter. But I did have a time in my adult life when it became very clear that my environment was adding too many negatives way too quickly. My fulcrum was constantly moving to the left and, eventually, all the resilience that I could muster was not enough to balance my teeter totter. It looked like this.
Not good. Not good at all.
It was a life-changing experience to not be able to use my resiliency skills to balance my life at that time. It was then that I was forced to dig deep, to very intentionally fill my teeter totter with some positive weights, and to move my fulcrum to the right by building up some new resiliency skills.
We sold over half of our belongings to create more space financially, physically, and emotionally.
I spent two years working with a life coach where I learned some amazing resiliency skills.
Positive weights times ten.
It absolutely took me on a journey that has changed me forever. Now I would consider myself more like this.
MORE TO COME
So there you have it- Emotional Resilience 101.
Over the course of this next school year, I will continue to share key resilience skills, research-based evidence to help create a balanced teeter totter for a preschooler, and ways to help a preschooler develop the resilience skills to balance things toward a positive direction.
Wherever you are on your own personal teeter totter, I want you to know that if I could, I would come sit in your positive bucket to help you weight it down!
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University
Article on psycom.net by Katie Hurley, LCSW
Article on heysigmund.com by Karen Young, Psychologist