The Benefit of Supportive Relationships

It all starts here. You see, all families go through some adversity. For some families, however, the trauma is too severe or too frequent for a child to cope with. If you’re a parent in this situation, fostering supportive relationships is the best thing you can do to help your child.

Why can a rough family life lead to long-lasting damage? When a child is stressed too often or for a long period of time, her body may react with a what is called a “toxic stress” response. Without the right support from a trusted caregiver, this toxic stress response can harm a child’s developing brain and body. But the good news is that children can avoid this fate—and you can help.

Simply being a loving parent to your child may give her the resilience to bounce back. Safe and nurturing relationships can protect children’s brains and bodies from the harmful effects of stress and trauma.

Parenting with ACES

For parents who have gone through Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) of their own, offering support may be harder than usual. If you have a high ACEs score, you’re in a group that is at higher risk of depression, substance abuse, anxiety, and other emotional disorders than people whose childhood was relatively nurturing and stable. (Try taking our ACEs Quiz to find out your score).

In addition, parenting is so demanding that you may find yourself reacting to toxic levels of stress. This may show up as impatience, difficulty calming down, and a quicker-then-normal temper. Stress overload may make it difficult to “read” your children or model good behavior.

But the secret of happy families is they’re not always happy. What’s important is learning how to handle occasional arguments and hard times in a way that leaves you and your loving relationships intact. Here are some ways to make that happen:

It Starts at Infancy

The little games we play with our babies have some pretty compelling science behind them. Playing peek-a-boo, singing or reading stories can help your baby develop millions of neural connections per second. So do the small things; they have a big impact.

Get Some Support
You need more than one person to have your back. Parents need reliable relationships for sharing their joys and fears. If you feel isolated, work on building strong relationships in your community by connecting with family, friends, and local networks such as parenting groups. With their support, you’ll be able to set some goals to improve your parenting and give your child a better chance.

Connect to Community

Human beings need social connection to lead healthy lives. Study after study shows that social engagement can boost our health and happiness. Family get-togethers, community and sports activities, faith programs, YMCA memberships, afterschool programs, summer camps and Scouting, and volunteering are all great options. For teens 14 and up, youth work programs may help them meet new friends and learn work skills at the same time.

Know Your Kids, Know Their Friends

Friends become powerful influences on children, especially as they grow older. Who are your child’s three best friends at school? Here are 20 questions you can ask instead of the usual “how was school?”

A Go-To For the Hard Stuff

Kids need someone to talk to about the difficult things in their lives. Who’s your kid’s go-to? It could be mom, dad, grandma or grandpa, uncle, auntie, a beloved teacher, sports coach or school counselor.

When kids have strong, supportive relationships in their lives, they’re far more resilient. And resilient kids—even those who have experienced high levels of adversity—have better school and health outcomes than those who are not as resilient. That’s huge.

The Power Of Hugs

Physical contact is a key ingredient in growing a healthy brain and a strong body. In fact, a hug goes much deeper than the skin. Hugs help calm the stress response, protecting and healing from the inside out. So, give your kid a high-five or a hug to let them know that they’re loved and supported. You can never get too many snuggles.

Give Undivided Attention
Make sure you enjoy special one-on-one time through play, stories, bath time, reading books together, and shared meals. Let your child take the lead by letting him choose an activity. But don’t try to play with him while sneaking peeks at your Facebook or Instagram account. When you’re together, put away the cell phone so you can give him your full attention. As MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle has said, “In my work with families, I see over and over again that children are craving, just craving, undivided attention from their parents. And they are just not getting it.”

Recognize When You Are Feeling Stress
For some people, the first sign of stress is having a tight chest or a clenched jaw; in others, it’s hearing their voice get louder. Have an action plan for these times: Consider taking an “adult time out” for a few minutes. This will allow you to take some deep breaths, regroup, and return to your family in a calmer state of mind. Let your kids know why you’re taking a break. The reason? When they see adults around them managing stress in a healthy way, they’ll learn to do the same thing.

What Else Can I Do?

Kids thrive on routines, like bedtime stories and eating together. Besides love and support, kids and parents alike benefit from home-cooked meals, daily exercise, good sleep, and mental health support if needed. Add some daily time for “mindful” deep breathing, and you have all the ingredients for a stable, healthy home.

Here are some parenting goals to aim for:

  • Help your child feel safe, cared for, and protected.
  • Provide a space for your child to explore, learn, and grow.
    • Teach your child words for different feelings, like sad, happy, worried, and mad. Help them recognize how and where they sense these emotions in their bodies. Labeling and understanding emotions is an important step in learning to manage feelings in a healthy way—for both adults and children.
  • Set limits that are appropriate for your child’s age, state expectations clearly, and be consistent with age-appropriate discipline that focuses on teaching, not punishment.
  • Treat everyone in the household with respect.
  • Keep adults in your household from using violent or abusive language around children.
  • Avoid spanking and other physical discipline with children.
  • Use daily routines to provide structure and a sense of safety.
  • Tell your child when there will be changes to the daily routine, and what these changes will mean for him.
  • Give your child some choices—like asking if she would like to brush her teeth before or after bath time.

Pay attention to your child’s signals and respond with love and care.

Healthy, supportive relationships start with you, so make sure you’re doing enough self-care. “Put your own oxygen mask on first”, as they say on airplanes. You’ll find that you may feel better, and have more capacity for everyone in your life.