The kids will be all right

Children are generally resilient to acute events and trauma

crying child and mother

Parents can't always protect their kids from bad things. But when it comes to acute traumatic events, children are generally as resilient as adults.

Tanya Little/Shutterstock

As I was getting Baby V into the car recently, she pointed to her arm and said, “Owie! Bit!” Sure enough, she had the angry red imprint of a snack-sized mouth on her arm. It turns out she had tangled with a little boy who used his teeth to make his point.

I know that biting is a totally normal way for a frustrated kid to communicate. And I know that Baby V has probably gotten her fair share of licks in. In the grand scheme of things, this bite is really no big deal. But moments like these remind me of one of the most terrifying parts of being a parent: As much as I want to, I can’t always protect my kid from bad things.

That fundamental truth shifts my focus away from trying to insulate my daughter from all of the cruel parts of the world to figuring out how to help her handle them and move forward. How do I help my kid bounce back from inevitable pain, both small and large?

Some scientists study extreme cases, tragedies that go far, far beyond a single bite.  A litany of heart-breaking results from children who have been through massive trauma early in life, like abuse and neglect, catalogs the damage that extreme, unrelenting stress can cause, both to body and brain.

But the question of resiliency — the ability to recover after a trauma — isn’t one that’s received as much attention.

In part, that may be because health care professionals are focused on helping people who are struggling, says clinical psychologist George Bonanno of Columbia University’s Teachers College. “The whole mental health world is oriented towards dysfunction,” he says. But research by Bonanno and others on people who have been through ordeals such as spinal cord injuries, military deployment and the World Trade Center attack has revealed a surprising number of sunny results: The majority of people, he says, show no lasting signs of trauma.

With time, children who survived the 2011 tsunami in Japan exhibited fewer symptoms of trauma such as appetite loss, headache and anxiety, scientists reported October 23 in PLOS ONE. That group included over 10,000 children, so there’s lots of variation in how they handled the tragedy. But for still mysterious reasons, some of them had the ability to withstand tremendous stress and come out OK.

Scientists don’t know what’s different in resilient people, but they have a few ideas. Biology clearly has some say, as genetics studies have found. Although these sorts of studies are tricky to do, they suggest that people with certain versions of genes appear to be more likely to bounce back after adversity. Some studies have found that people who are resilient to trauma are more likely to have certain versions of genes that make proteins involved in the stress response. Particular versions of one such gene, called CRH, were more common in people who had been abused as children but didn’t suffer from depression as adults, for instance. And versions of genes that make proteins involved in brain behavior, such as a serotonin transporter called 5-HTT, may also play a role in resiliency, though some studies have questioned those results.

Psychological and social factors also play a role in resilience. Intelligence, mental flexibility and the ability to self-advocate have all been linked with higher levels of resilience, Bonanno says, as well as strong social support and resources like good health care and a solid education. 

When it comes to kids, the data on chronic, unrelenting stress early in life, when the brain is still wiring itself up, doesn’t paint an optimistic picture. But for events that Bonanno calls acute — one-time situations like car crashes or a terrorist attack — children may be just as resilient as adults, he says.

So when it comes to these one-time stressful, unpredictable events, are there things that parents can do to help their kids get through them a little easier? A few hints come from recent studies of animals.   

One such thing is stress inoculation. Like a harmless vaccine, a little bit of low-stakes stress can better prepare a person to handle dicey situations. These dry runs might help a kid hone his coping skills before he’s faced with the real thing (think Toastmasters public speaking training). This is a concept familiar to anyone who has been trained for high-pressure jobs like those held by soldiers, pilots, police and firefighters.

Solid evidence for this stress inoculation concept comes from tests on squirrel monkeys. Young animals that were separated from their mothers for controlled, short times turned out to have lower hormone responses to later stresses, more curiosity about a new object and even differences in their brains. If a similar thing is going on in people, then parents shouldn’t even try to cut stress completely from our kids’ lives. A little bit of it might be just what they need to learn how to cope.

Another line of research suggests that resilience may come from having a strong body. I wrote recently about a mouse study that found a substance produced by toned muscles could protect the brain against a form of stress-induced depression. Fit mice were better able to withstand weeks of stressful events such as loud noises, strobe lights and hunger. It’s possible that fit kids are similarly more resilient against stress.

This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list of how to raise resilient kids. Plenty of those exist. But these tidbits from the research literature might be worth thinking about as parents look for ways to help their kids navigate the world.

Follow me on Twitter: @lssciencenews

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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