We all know someone who overcame a difficult childhood to become a happy, well-adjusted adult. Why do some kids seem to be more resilient (able to handle life’s ups and downs) than others? Studies show it often boils down to relationships—and sometimes just one relationship—that gave the child a secure home base during hardship.
Parent-child relationships are important, but a child can also benefit from a healthy relationship with a trusted adult. Teachers, coaches, grandparents, friends’ parents and other dependable adults can play that role for a child. Maybe you can play that role for a child in your life. Here’s how.
The phrase “safe, stable, nurturing relationship” was officially coined by the CDC in the context of child abuse prevention. You don’t need to memorize the words, but here’s what they mean:
- Safe: The relationship is free of physical or psychological harm.
- Stable: The adult is dependably there for the child.
- Nurturing: The child’s physical, emotional and developmental needs are sensitively and consistently met.
Safe, stable, nurturing relationships have a huge impact on building resilience in children. “They create a sense of safety and security, and with that foundation, the child feels confident taking risks and trying new things,” says Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life licensed therapist Jody Baumstein, LCSW.
You can be somebody’s rock and not be on your game 100% of the time. Maybe you had a stressful week at work and lost your patience with the child—or didn’t notice she had a bad week too. “Part of the safety of those relationships is the ability to make mistakes and repair them. As long as you’re paying attention and meeting needs a majority of the time, the child is going to feel that,” says Baumstein.
By making and admitting to mistakes (and then making things right), you also show the child you are human, and no human is perfect. That’s a powerful message for a struggling child.
By filling the role of a safe, stable, nurturing relationship for a child, you are showing him that he is worthy of love and care. Here are a few ways to help give that to a child.
- Talk to the child, and check in about his life. Above all, be a good listener. Put down your phone, and make eye contact when he speaks. Repeat back exactly what he said to show you paid attention.
- Be consistent. Consistently doing what you say you’re going to do allows the child to know what to expect and to feel safe.
- Show up. Attending important events and prioritizing the child’s needs will help make him feel special and wanted. Of course, if something comes up and you can’t be there, be honest and apologize.
- Avoid shaming the child if he makes a bad decision. The most important part of a safe, stable, nurturing relationship is the unconditional support.
- Don’t aim for perfection. Again, you don’t have to be perfect to make a positive impact on a child’s life.
The reality is that plenty of kids—and even adults—have never had that supportive presence in their lives, notes licensed therapist Erin Harlow-Parker, APRN. “You might become that person later in that child’s life, even if it’s for a brief time,” she says. Even if the child is older or is only in your life for a short time, you can still make a long-lasting impact.
Maybe you’re the first person to truly listen to a child’s problems. You might not have all the answers, but at least you’re paying attention. “This kind of relationship is a foundation for the rest of that child’s life,” says Baumstein. “It teaches them ‘I have value. People care about me; my needs can be met—I’m worthy of that.’”