“Did I Do Something to Cause This?”

The terror and fear lurking behind that question is not unfounded, as parents seek to understand their role in creating the current concerns or symptoms they are seeing in their child. And to be honest, I may think the same thing about my own children at times. Discussing the traits of myself or my husband that we see in our children, as well as how they respond in novel ways to their environment, help us gauge how much to push, pull, or lay low when it comes to interacting (and disciplining) them. However, as we cannot undo anything we have done in the past, I would prefer to instead discuss what we can do to assist our children. What protective factors are present?

Now, before you think this is going to be moving into a Pollyanna-like conversation, that is not the case. Rather, we know (from research into this very topic) that adjusting our parenting methods, even into later childhood and early adolescence, can indeed result in improvements for our child. However, perhaps even more important to discuss are the protective and resilience factors that are present for a child.

So what are protective factors? I’m not talking about physical protection or safety measures like a helmet or seatbelt. Instead, I am referring to the things already in place that protect against the worsening of a child’s symptoms or difficulties. These may include parents who continue to seek improvement for themselves and their families, a strong extended family or friend network, healthy opportunities for some type of mentorship (such as through sports, music, or dance), or your child’s own cognitive skills and resources. As a parent, you also have some power over increasing the number of protective factors in your family, such as increasing stability and consistency, adjusting the way your family schedule runs, and tweaking your communication and parenting strategies.

And what about resilience? This is a harder one to define or manufacture if not already present, but you may know it when you see it. When there is a setback or significant issue that may disrupt the lives of your family or children, but one child deals with it and seems to recover, that is resilience. I think of it as the facing of trials, struggles, or failures and being able to pick yourself back up and not let it define you. Before I was a parent but long after I had started practicing as a pediatric neuropsychologist, I remember sitting in a baby education class and the instructor asking each soon-to-be parent or couple what they would most wish for their baby. As the others mentioned things like “happy” or “smart,” when it came to our turn, I said “flexible” and got a surprised look from the entire group, along with a chuckle or two. I still remember feeling like I should have just responded with a similar characteristic like what was already mentioned. However, I will say that my children’s flexibility is paramount in how their day goes, regardless if stressors abound or not. And truly, flexibility is in some ways the heart of resilience.

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