The five protective factors at the foundation of Strengthening Families are characteristics that have been shown to make positive outcomes more likely for young children and their families, and to reduce the likelihood of child abuse and neglect. Learn more about the research-based Protective Factors Framework below.
- Research briefs about each Strengthening Families Protective Factor
Being a parent can be a very rewarding and joyful experience. But being a parent can also have its share of stress. Parenting stress is caused by the pressures (stressors) that are placed on parents personally and in relation to their child:
- typical events and life changes (e.g., moving to a new city or not being able to soothe a crying baby
- unexpected events (e.g., losing a job or discovering your child has a medical problem
- individual factors (e.g., substance abuse or traumatic experiences
- social factors (e.g., relationship problems or feelings of loneliness and isolation
- community, societal or environmental conditions (e.g., persistent poverty, racism or a natural disaster)
Numerous researchers have concluded that how parents respond to stressors is much more important than the stressor itself in determining the outcomes for themselves and their children. Parents are more likely to achieve healthy, favorable outcomes if they are resilient. Resilience is the process of managing stress and functioning well even when faced with challenges, adversity and trauma.
Some stressors parents face can be managed easily so that problems get resolved; for example, calling a relative or friend to pick-up a child from school when a parent is delayed. But some stressors cannot be easily resolved. For example, parents cannot “fix” their child’s developmental disability, erase the abuse they suffered as a child or be able to move out of a crime-plagued neighborhood. Rather, parents are resilient when they are able to call forth their inner strength to proactively meet personal challenges and those in relation to their child, manage adversities, heal the effects of trauma and thrive given the unique characteristics and circumstances of their family.
Demonstrating resilience increases parents’ self-efficacy because they are able to see evidence of both their ability to face challenges competently and to make wise choices about addressing challenges. Furthermore, parental resilience has a positive effect on the parent, the child and the parent-child relationship. By managing stressors, parents feel better and can provide more nurturing attention to their child, which enables their child to form a secure emotional attachment. Receiving nurturing attention and developing a secure emotional attachment with parents, in turn, fosters the development of resilience in children when they experience stress.
Sometimes the pressures parents face are so overwhelming that their ability to manage stress is severely compromised. This is the case with parents who grew up in environments that create toxic stress. That is, as children, they experienced strong, frequent and prolonged adversity without the buffering protection of nurturing adult support. As a result, these parents may display symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other clinical disorders that inhibit their ability to respond consistently, warmly and sensitively to their child’s needs. For example, depressive symptoms in either mothers or fathers are found to disrupt healthy parenting practices so that the child of a depressed parent is at increased risk of poor attachments, maltreatment and poor physical, neurological, social-emotional, behavioral and cognitive outcomes. However, numerous research studies show parents can be helped to manage clinical symptoms and reactions to their own histories of poor attachments and trauma, to protect children from adversity and trauma as best they can and to provide more nurturing care that promotes secure emotional attachment and healthy development in their children.
All parents experience stress from time-to-time. Thus, parental resilience is a process that all parents need in order effectively manage stressful situations and help ensure they and their families are on a trajectory of healthy, positive outcomes.
People need people. Parents need people who care about them and their children, who can be good listeners, who they can turn to for well-informed advice and who they can call on for help in solving problems. Thus, the availability and quality of social connections are important considerations in the lives of parents. Parents’ constructive and supportive social connections—that is, relationships with family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, community members and service providers—are valuable resources who provide:
• emotional support (e.g., affirming parenting skills or being empathic and nonjudgmental)
• informational support (e.g., providing parenting guidance or recommending a pediatric dentist)
• instrumental support (e.g., providing transportation, financial assistance or links to jobs)
• spiritual support (e.g., providing hope and encouragement)
When parents have a sense of connectedness they believe they have people who care about them as individuals and as parents; they feel secure and confident that they have others with whom they can share the joy, pain and uncertainties that come with the parenting role; they seek timely assistance from people they have learned to count on when faced with challenges; and they feel empowered to “give back” through satisfying, mutually beneficial relationships. Several research studies have demonstrated that—for both mothers and fathers—high levels of emotional, informational, instrumental or spiritual support is associated with positive parental mood; positive perceptions of and responsiveness to one’s children; parental satisfaction, well-being and sense of competence; and lower levels of anger, anxiety and depression.
Conversely, inadequate, conflicting or dissatisfying social connections can be the source of parental stress, rather than a buffer. For example, maternal and paternal grandparents may be very willing sources of informational and instrumental support to new parents, but their advice and manner of caregiving may be at odds with the new parents’ beliefs and preferences. At the extreme end of the continuum of poor social connections are social isolation (i.e., the lack of available and quality relationships) and loneliness (i.e., feelings of disconnectedness from others). Social isolation is a risk factor consistently associated with disengaged parenting, maternal depression and increased likelihood of child maltreatment. Similarly, loneliness may be a major stressor that inhibits parents’ ability to provide consistent, nurturing, responsive care to their children. It may seem that increasing the number of people who could provide constructive social support to parents would be the “cure” for social isolation and loneliness. Providing opportunities for parents to create and strengthen sustainable, positive social connections is necessary but alone is not sufficient. Parents can feel lonely and isolated even when surrounded by others if relationships lack emotional depth and genuine acceptance. Thus, parents need opportunities to forge positive social connections with at least one other person that engender emotional, informational, instrumental or spiritual support so that meaningful interactions may occur in a context of mutual trust and respect. Constructive and supportive social connections help buffer parents from stressors and support nurturing parenting behaviors that promote secure attachments in young children. Therefore, parents’ high quality social connections are beneficial to both the adults and the children.
CONCRETE SUPPORT IN TIMES OF NEED
All parents need help sometimes—help with the day-to-day care of children, help in figuring out how to soothe a colicky baby, help getting to the emergency room when a bad accident happens, help in managing one’s own temper when fatigued or upset. When parents are faced with very trying conditions such as losing a job, home foreclosure, substance abuse, not being able to feed their family or trauma, they need access to concrete support and services that address their needs and help to minimize the stress caused by very difficult challenges and adversity. Assisting parents to identify, find and receive concrete support in times of need helps to ensure they and their family receive the basic necessities everyone deserves in order to grow (e.g., healthy food, a safe environment), as well as specialized medical, mental health, social, educational or legal services.
When parents are faced with overwhelmingly stressful conditions they need to seek help, but for some parents asking for help is not an easy thing to do. It may be embarrassing for some parents because it feels like an admission of incompetence; that they don’t know how to solve their own problems or take care of their family. Other parents may not seek help because they don’t know where to go for help, or the services needed have a stigma associated with them such as mental health clinics and domestic violence or homeless shelters. Thus, parents need experiences that enable them to understand their rights in accessing services, gain knowledge of relevant services and learn how to navigate through service systems. Family and child-serving programs must clearly communicate to parents that seeking help is not an indicator of weakness or failure as a parent. On the contrary, seeking help is a step toward improving one’s circumstances and learning to better manage stress and function well—even when faced with challenges, adversity, and trauma. When parents ask for help, it is a step toward building resilience.
When parents seek help, it should be provided in a manner that does not increase stress. Services should be coordinated, respectful, caring and strengths-based. Strengths-based practice is grounded in the beliefs that:
- It is essential to forge a trusting relationship between parents and service providers and among service providers working with the same families
- Regardless of the number or level of adverse conditions parents are experiencing, they have assets within and around them, their family and their community that can be called upon to help mitigate the impact of stressful conditions and to create needed change
- Parents have unrealized resources and competencies that must be identified, mobilized and appreciated
- Parents must be active participants in the change process and not passive recipients of services
- Parents must first be guided through, and subsequently learn how to navigate, the complex web of health care and social service systems
- In addition to addressing each parent’s individual difficulties, strengths-based practitioners must understand—and work to change—the structural inequities and conditions that contribute to these difficulties
A strengths-based approach helps parents feel valued because they are acknowledged as knowledgeable and competent. They develop a sense of self-confidence and self-efficacy because they have opportunities to build their skills, experience success and provide help to others. Thus, access to concrete support in times of need must be accompanied by a quality of service coordination and delivery that is designed to preserve parents’ dignity and to promote their and their family’s healthy development, resilience and ability to advocate for and receive needed services and resources.
KNOWLEGE OF PARENTING AND CHILD DEVELOPMENT
No parent knows everything about children or is a “perfect parent.” An understanding of parenting strategies and child development helps parents understand what to expect and how to provide what children need during each developmental phase. All parents, and those who work with children, can benefit from increasing their knowledge and understanding of child development, including:
- physical, cognitive, language, social and emotional development
- signs indicating a child may have a developmental delay and needs special help
- cultural factors that influence parenting practices and the perception of children
- factors that promote or inhibit healthy child outcomes
- discipline and how to positively impact child behavior
Gaining more knowledge about child development and developing greater skills in parenting are particularly important given the recent advances in the fields of neuroscience, pediatrics and developmental psychology. Scientists in these fields have provided much evidence of the critical importance of early childhood as the period in which the foundation for intellectual, social, emotional and moral development is established. Furthermore, numerous research studies show this foundation is determined by the nature of the young child’s environments and experiences that shape early brain development.
Developing brains need proper nutrition, regularly scheduled periods of sleep, physical activity and a variety of stimulating experiences. Developing brains also need attuned, emotionally available parents and other primary caregivers who recognize and consistently respond to the needs of young children, and interact with them in an affectionate, sensitive and nurturing manner. Such care gives rise to the development of a secure attachment between the child and the adult. Young children with secure attachments develop a sense of trust, feel safe, gain self-confidence and are able to explore their environments because they feel they have a secure base.
Numerous longitudinal studies have demonstrated that parental behaviors that lead to early secure attachments—and which remain warm and sensitive as children grow older—lay the foundation for social-emotional, cognitive and moral competencies across developmental periods. For example, when a young child solicits interaction through babbling or facial expressions and a parent responds in a similar manner, this type of parent-child interaction helps to create neural connections that build later social-emotional and cognitive skills. In addition, advances in brain research have shown that parental behaviors that forge secure emotional attachments help young children learn to manage stress. Secure attachments can offset some of the damage experienced by highly stressed young children as a result of trauma (e.g., maltreatment or exposure to violence.)
In contrast, parental care that is inconsistent, unresponsive, detached, hostile or rejecting gives rise to insecure attachments. Young children who experience insecure attachments display fear, distrust, anxiety or distress and are at risk for long-term adverse effects on brain development including developmental delays, cognitive impairments, conduct problems, psychopathology and relationship challenges. For example, young children who have limited adult language stimulation and opportunities to explore may not fully develop the neural pathways that support learning.
What parents do and how they treat children is often a reflection of the way they were parented. Acquiring new knowledge about parenting and child development enables parents to critically evaluate the impact of their experiences on their own development and their current parenting practices, and to consider that there may be more effective ways of guiding and responding to their children. Furthermore, understanding the mounting evidence about the nature and importance of early brain development enables both parents and those who work with children to know what young children need most in order to thrive: nurturing, responsive, reliable and trusting relationships; regular, predictable and consistent routines; interactive language experiences; a physically and emotionally safe environment; and opportunities to explore and to learn by doing.
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL COMPETENCE OF CHILDREN
Early childhood is a period of both great opportunity and vulnerability. Early childhood experiences set the stage for later health, well-being and learning. In the past, most of the focus was on building young children’s academic skills in an effort to ensure they were prepared for school. However, in recent years a growing body of research has demonstrated the strong link between young children’s social-emotional competence and their cognitive development, language skills, mental health and school success. The dimensions of social-emotional competence in early childhood include:
- self-esteem – good feelings about oneself
- self-confidence – being open to new challenges and willing to explore new environments
- self-efficacy – believing that one is capable of performing an action
- self-regulation/self-control – following rules, controlling impulses, acting appropriately based on the context
- personal agency – planning and carrying out purposeful actions
- executive functioning – staying focused on a task and avoiding distractions
- patience – learning to wait
- persistence – willingness to try again when first attempts are not successful
- conflict resolution – resolving disagreements in a peaceful way
- communication skills – understanding and expressing a range of positive and negative emotions
- empathy – understanding and responding to the emotions and rights of others
- social skills – making friends and getting along with others
- morality – learning a sense of right and wrong
These dimensions of social-emotional competence do not evolve naturally. The course of social-emotional development—whether healthy or unhealthy—depends on the quality of nurturing attachment and stimulation that a child experiences. Numerous research studies show that a relationship with a consistent, caring and attuned adult who actively promotes the development of these dimensions is essential for healthy social-emotional outcomes in young children. Actively promoting social-emotional competence includes activities such as:
- Creating an environment in which children feel safe to express their emotions
- Being emotionally responsive to children and modeling empathy
- Setting clear expectations and limits (e.g., “People in our family don’t hurt each other.”)
- Separating emotions from actions (e.g., “It’s okay to be angry, but we don’t hit someone when we are angry.”)
- Encouraging and reinforcing social skills such as greeting others and taking turns
- Creating opportunities for children to solve problems (e.g., “What do you think you should do if another child calls you a bad name?”)
Children who have experiences such as these are able to recognize their and others’ emotions, take the perspective of others and use their emerging cognitive skills to think about appropriate and inappropriate ways of acting. Conversely, research shows children who do not have adults in their lives who actively promote social-emotional competence may not be able to feel remorse or show empathy and may lack secure attachments, have limited language and cognitive skills and have a difficult time interacting effectively with their peers. Evidence shows, however, that early and appropriate interventions that focus on social-emotional development can help to mitigate the effects of negative experiences in ways that lead to improved cognitive and social-emotional outcomes.