Executive Functioning Across Generations

This article is about the parent and child curriculum I have been commissioned to write by The Family Partnership, Minnesota. We are currently piloting it across a number of organizations. Our most recent partnership, in addition to those described in the article, is with Family Service in San Antonio, Texas.

Conversations that Create Resilience

I have been thinking about blogging for some time. But I always found something more pressing that required my time and energy. As I walked down deserted streets today around my apartment complex in Richmond, thinking about the surreal world of coronavirus quarantine, I decided that this is the time.

My most recent workshops have been about trauma. Because of a new appreciation of trauma’s long term impacts, it has become a hot topic in education and health and human services. During this time of crisis and uncertainty, we need to focus our efforts the prevention of trauma and toxic stress and the building of resilience in the youngest members of society. In her book Ordinary Magic, Ann Masten shares the research about resilient individuals. Many individuals have endured significant trauma, and yet have emerged and gone on to become healthy and happy. Resilience is ordinary magic because its elements are not extraordinary or rare. They are part of everyday life. They include trustworthy and sensitive caregiving, supportive institutions such as school and faith community, and the elements for healthy physical development, including nutrition, shelter, and rest.
Human beings perform at their best with optimal levels of stress. That is, the stress is not so low that it dampens motivation. Neither is it so high that it hinders performance. Children who have experienced adversity/challenges with loving support emerge as stronger and more resilient.
So we have an opportunity during this time of crisis. An opportunity to prevent a traumatic impact on our children and to foster resilience for the future. The most important ingredient for resilience is a strong and loving relationship with parents and other adults. And their support during times of adversity.
One of the ways that we provide this support is through our conversations with children. They are acutely aware of what is occurring, even at very young ages. No longer at daycare or school, no longer with peers and supportive adults such as non-parental caregivers, grandparents, etc. Asked to learn with a computer screen in front of them instead of an adult’s smiling face. Their parents are attempting to work while taking care of them, distracted by bills, challenges with getting groceries, and in many cases, job loss. If the television or computer is on, our children hear reports of numbers of sick and dying, healthcare workers in crisis, and angry government officials. So there is no sparing them from an awareness of what is occurring. But there is an opportunity to support them through it. And to shield them from random and extraneous information.
While we need to be diligent about controlling the news they are hearing, children have access to many forms of information. During a recent Face time session, my nine year old grandson asked me if I knew the covid virus mortality rate for persons over 60, my age group. He is a very bright little boy, and he understood that information on a cognitive level. But no matter how bright children are, they are not equipped emotionally to deal with the potential death of significant others.
Children need to know that adults are keeping safe, and keeping them safe. We need to be in control for them, even when we don’t feel in control of the situation, or even ourselves. It is a part of being an adult in the world. When my daughters were very young, I shared with them my feelings. I appreciated how bright they were, and thought that in sharing my emotions, I would be a good model for them of sharing theirs. What I failed to realize is that children carry what we give them. They take responsibility for the adults in their lives, particularly if they sense that we are in need of help. Right now, our children need to be protected from our fear and anxiety. And supported through their own. We need to answer their questions carefully. And speculate about the potential question that lurks under the question asked. “What is the coronavirus mortality rate for people over 60?” might be “What are the chances that my grandparents will die of the virus?” Then the answer changes. It becomes “I am doing what I need to do to stay safe. And your parents are keeping you safe.” We will know if that is the question by the child’s response. My grandson seemed satisfied by my response and reassured. When children are not, they will continue to ask, or behave in ways that tell us they continue to struggle with a question.
We can also wonder out loud to children about emotions. We cannot presume to know what a child is feeling. But we can wonder. And we can address the possibility that there is fear and anxiety, just as there is for us adults. Sometimes, wondering is preferable to a direct question. “Are you scared?” will probably yield a “No.” Children protect us. And it can be scary to face the fear directly. But if we wonder, then we can say “I wonder if you are afraid. Your mom and I are doing the things we need to do to keep you safe.” No harm, no foul. And a message that it’s OK to talk about feelings. A message that can foster a lifetime of resilience.
Stay safe.