Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden - 29/04/2019

Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden -

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Raising resilient children through healthy relationships

When we hear of the overwhelming, and often heart-breaking challenges that some families face it can be easy to feel despair. Social scientists and policy-makers label these families and children as “vulnerable” and “at-risk”—in some cases, labels can seem like destiny. But studies of “resilience”—asking why some children and families who experience adversity “beat the odds” and flourish—can offer hope amidst the despair, and next steps instead of labels. Recent research shows how loving parental relationships are a key factor for children.

Committed relationships are at the heart of resilience. “The single most common factor for children who develop resilience,” according to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, “is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.” This parent-child relationship, they say, scaffolds, buffers, and protects the child from adverse experiences and the subsequent damaging effects of toxic stress.

In some cases, labels can seem like destiny

MSD recently released two related reports that paint a picture of childhood adversity and resilience. The first showed how adverse childhood experiences like a parent’s divorce, domestic violence or substance abuse in the home hinder a child’s readiness for school. The second explored the protective factors that helped children and families to thrive in the face of those experiences.

The authors ran an impressive 749 potential factors through their model, and in a “striking” and “surprising” finding it wasn’t the parent-child relationship described earlier that was the most influential protective factor, but the mother-partner relationship. “A higher reported inter-parental relationship warmth was the single factor with the largest standardised effect on “beating the odds,” the report says. A loving relationship between parental figures makes a real difference—a shelter within an otherwise stormy life.

This finding needs to inform and guide policy, seeking to increase the effectiveness of “co-parenting” as the report puts it. Despite the significant gains made through psychological attachment theory and neuroscience-informed interventions focusing on improving parent-child relationships, the authors argue that “programmes that focus solely on mother-child interactions, without attending to the mother-partner relationship, might be missing an important opportunity for reducing adversities in childhood.” In other words, helping mothers form a strong bond with their children remains important, but without supporting the whole family as a unit, including fathers and other caregivers, we aren’t giving children the best chance to “beat the odds.”

A loving relationship between parental figures makes a real difference—a shelter within an otherwise stormy life.

The report calls for further research here—while “positive correlations of fathers being involved with their children on child cognitive, emotional and social development have been well documented” (even for fathers living away from the mother), more can be done to identify just what it is about these relationships that provides children with the security they need.

Privacy and data collection issues aside, this kind of risk modelling is good at identifying and labelling vulnerable children and families, but not so helpful when it comes to informing how best to help them. Research like this can help guide policy focused on hope rather than despair. Whole-of-family support needs to become the norm.

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Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden -

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