, , , , ,

Growing Successful Children in a stressful world

Friday, October 11, 2013 Leave a Comment

Here's another book for your nightstand: How Children Succeed: by Paul Tough. I was fortunate to hear the author speak at a Town Hall sponsored by PBS and the Mental Health Center of Denver.

The premise of the book is this: what if our traditional notions for measuring a child's success - their cognitive skills (good grades, high test scores, general smartness) - were wrong?

What if success was actually influenced by a child's character more than their test scores? How do those unmeasurable factors like grit, curiosity, drive, optimism and empathy influence a child's future - and how do you build those characteristics?

It's a fascinating question, and one whose basis lies in science: namely, the biochemistry of stress.

All children experience some form of stress, from a baby crying for its mother to a child being put in time out, to traumatic events like the loss of a parent, divorce or worse. Even a family's worries about finances affect children. Imagine the stress levels of a child living in poverty, where the parent may be so overwhelmed by daily stress that they cannot properly form a secure attachment to their child!

The problem arises when children cannot properly cope with stress, or the stress becomes chronic. Children's bodies respond to stress like a fire station on full alert: bells ringing, engines roaring, fire hoses on full blast, pike axes swinging. Their systems respond before they fully assess the threat - everything just goes on the defense. A few of these five-alarm fires exercise the stress response in a good way; too many of these start to physically damage the body. Those damages manifest as inflammation, allergies, asthma, obesity and into adulthood, they are tied directly to the seven leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, etc.

Yes, there are scientific studies behind all of this. Kaiser Permanente stumbled on the connection between childhood trauma - things like losing a parent, a natural disaster, a parent losing a job - and overall health in a study on obesity. They discovered that people who had experienced a high number of traumatic events in childhood were more unhealthy: heart disease and cancer rates were double the general population!

One might conclude that fewer stressful events is better.

But they discovered that the people who had experienced zero traumatic events suffered from just as many ailments as those with a high number. Those who fared the best? People who had experienced one to several traumatic events.


Stressful events seem to help build character: living through a flood, for example, might create grit and drive and courage to get through tough situations; or empathy for others going through the same situation. Someone whose parent died of cancer might become curious enough to resolve to go to medical school and become the doctor who cures cancer.

OK, so there's a super simplified breakdown of the science underlying the book. Now the question is: how can we, as parents, help?

The good news is that the damages of the stress response - that five-alarm-fire response - can be mitigated by good parenting. Simply soothing your child teaches them to calm themselves; simply listening teaches them that their worries are valid; offering a helping hand- whether it's a parent, teacher, or kind stranger - teaches them trust; and letting them resolve problems on their own teaches them independence and grit. Once again, studies indicate that too little help from parents is bad, but so is too much help.

We are lucky to live in a community like Stapleton, where we are relatively secure financially. Our neighborhoods are safe (idyllic, some might say). We are insulated from a whole layer of daily stress that those living in poverty experience: stress of not having enough money to pay the bills, getting a job, paying for health care. Sure, some stresses transcend socio-economics: divorce, cancer, floods - but  the chronic stress is the most damaging kind. So a single-parent mother living in a poor neighborhood might be so overwhelmed by her own daily stresses that she cannot form a secure attachment to her child, and the child then suffers greatly from daily, chronic stress because he has no skills or tools to deal with it.

And by deal with it, I'm talking something as simple as getting a hug and a pat on the back and reassurance that the child is taken care of.

And luckily, these are things that can be taught.

But you - specifically - what can you do?

Go home tonight and hug your kids, pat them on the back, give them some encouraging words. Then do the same for a neighbor kid, or the kid at school who looks a little lost. Better yet, donate some of your time to help mentor kids who need it. (Denver Kids and Colorado Youth for a Change are two places that come to mind.)

Read more:
Losing is Good for You
What if the Secret to Success is Failure?
NY Times Review of "How Children Succeed"