It’s the third week of school and my son has already had his first cold.
Why can’t they stay healthy? I don’t have any specific ideas for the runny nose and cough. We all know that good nutrition, exercise, and sleep (and maybe extra hand-washing) are the likeliest answers there. But what about the other aspects of health that get less attention? What about emotional and mental health and how they affect our bodies?
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study
25 years ago, and quite by chance, a doctor at an obesity clinic noticed that most of his patients had a history of early trauma. This discovery set the ACE Study in motion. Working with another doctor and the Center for Disease Control (CDC), a large-scale research project was launched. They polled 17,000 (mostly White, mostly middle class) people about their childhoods, asking about experiences before age 18; five related to abuse and neglect and five around household instability (such as parent alcohol/drug abuse and intimate partner violence). In a nutshell, the investigation showed profound correlation between childhood adversity and future health, even when controlled for a high-risk lifestyle (smoking, etc.). This important research has now been replicated many times and is impacting health care—and even public policy—nationwide.
What Does This Mean for Parent and Child Well-Being?
It means that a good portion of child well-being depends on parent well-being. As Donald Woods Winnicott said, “There is no such thing as a baby, there is a baby and someone.” A family is a constellation of many people and the emotions, limits, and relationships can get downright complicated. However, parents have inherently more power in a family, and adults are the ones with the fully formed brains. (Even if it doesn’t feel like it when we “flip our lids!”) Here are a few practices you can focus on to help build your own resilience, which will in turn help build your child’s resilience, even when adversity is unavoidable:
- Boundaries. Having good boundaries protects your loved ones from experiencing your harsh anger, resentment and blame. When I step past my boundary, I go against my own integrity and set myself up for failure. The great news is that boundaries are adjustable. You can practice moving them around. One time my son asked me to go back into the house to get him his water bottle and I did. But as I did, I huffed and puffed, swore under my breath, and slammed the door. Obviously, I should have said, “No.” I could have said it pleasantly too, and then waited patiently while he got it himself. Lesson learned, but only by trial and error.
- Emotional intelligence. Part of why I shouldn’t have gotten my son’s water for him was because I was annoyed. Maybe a different day I wouldn’t have been annoyed. But that day I was, and I wasn’t aware of it until I was observing my own bad behavior! Present moment awareness (also known as mindfulness) would have helped me tune in and make a better decision. With younger children, we often have to do what needs to be done. We can’t say “No.” The toddler has to eat, the baby’s diaper must be changed. This lack of boundaries in early parenting can wear us out. In this situation, it is still helpful to be aware of and acknowledge our emotions.
- Witnessing/Compassionate listening. This is such an important piece of the puzzle. As I said, acknowledgement of our emotions is part of what makes us emotionally intelligent and resilient. Parenting can be tough. Being a child can be tough. The Listening Tools from Hand in Hand Parenting address both. Parents and caregivers get Listening Partnerships, a relationship where two adults take turns listening to each other without judgment or advice-giving. Even without being solutions-oriented, this tool grows parent bandwidth so they can offer the same non-judgmental listening to their children. Hand in Hand calls this Staylistening.
Put It All Together
Human beings are social creatures and we influence each other significantly. The truth is that our physical health is impacted by our mental and emotional health and vice-versa. You can’t really tease one out from the others. So, try some of these practices. They might keep you from flipping your lid and can help you pay attention to all aspect of health for yourself and your children.
Some Days I Flip My Lid by Kellie Bailey
Sarah MacLaughlin is author of the award-winning book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children and has been featured in The Huffington Post. She’s writing new book Raising Humans With Heart: Not A How-To Manual. A human development nerd, she brings over 25 years of experience working with children and families to her coaching practice. Sarah is also mom to a 11-year-old who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice.
This article was originally published in the November/December 2019 issue of Parent & Family.