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Harvard "Brain Architects" talk family resilience

  • Jun 22, 2020
  • Shannon Nickinson
A brain A brain
How do you help a child through a pandemic? And how do you help their parents through a pandemic?

That’s the question explored in the podcast “The Brain Architects” from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. 

“This is all about the environment of relationships in which young children are developing and which they are growing up,” says Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child. 

The social distancing question one that Shonkoff is most concerned about. 

“Actually, social distancing is exactly what we don’t want if social distancing means that we get further apart in terms of our interactions socially as opposed to physically,” Shonkoff says.

“Being together is a core concept for healthy development.”

Interaction and serve and return responsiveness isn’t all or none, he says. Some is better than none.

“When adults are struggling with pressures and stress, you don’t have as much energy to be on your best game all the time. It’s OK.. You also need time for yourself.”

“You can’t take care of your child if your basic needs aren’t met.”

“Meeting the needs of the adults caring for children is the only way of meeting the needs of a child in this case.”

To help our children, we need to help their parents and caregivers manage and keep the stress from moving from tolerable stress into toxic stress. 

What can parents do to help build resilience in our children, especially now? 

Shonkoff says play is the key. “Play is a critical valve for building resilience. Playing with your child, following their lead, will be tremendously protective for your child’s brain and the rest of the body.”

Connection -- even if we can’t be physically close -- is so important to helping children and parents manage through this pandemic. 

“So, what we have to do as a society—as human beings— is to recognize that some people are going to need more help from others to create that sense of safety and security in their homes while everyone is being isolated, and to be sure that we are protecting the developing brain, the physical and mental health for young children,” Shonkoff says. 

“There are a lot of families dealing with those kind economic insecurities now who have not dealt with this before. We absolutely have to pay attention to the needs of families who need extra support, who don’t have the reserves or the resources themselves—it’s an absolute imperative certainly for the well-being of the children.”

What adults can do for children is simple, Shonkoff says -- provide a sense of safety and securing, a time for play, and your time and attention. 

What we need to do is provide those things for each other as adults. 

“There is a lot of heavy-duty science behind it, but it can just boil down to a few things: take care of yourself, figure out how to reduce the stress you’re feeling—the stress you’re feeling is normal, if it’s feeling out of control, then get some help,” Shonkoff says. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help, we all need help.”

You can listen to the full podcast here. It's the first in a series of talks about the pandemic and its impacts.

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