Raising a Resilient Child

It’s natural for parents to wish that they could prevent their children from experiencing heartache. But at some point in life, we will all experience disappointment and loss. We can’t stop all painful events from happening, but can we change how painful events affect our children? Researchers looked into the stories of almost 9000 ten-year-old children to see what could be learned. Archives of Diseases in Childhood released the results on August 3, 2006. The classroom teachers of the children were asked a single question – Is the child “worried or anxious about many things?” on a scale from 0 to 50 (very anxious). To examine the effects of a common major stress, the researchers focused on whether the children’s parents had divorced or separated in the last 5 years. They learned something very powerful. Not surprisingly, divorce and separation are linked to higher worry and anxiety. But some kids were far more likely to react this way to the pain of separation or divorce than others.

Breast-fed kids whose parents had divorced or separated were about twice as likely as other breast-fed kids to be highly anxious. But bottle-fed children who had gone through the same thing were more than 9 times more likely. The breast-fed children proved strikingly more resilient, even after accounting for a number of other variables.

There are a lot of possible ways to explain this effect. We know that, in some animals, the early close physical contact of nursing can physically change the way the brain is built. Stress hormone receptors are enhanced in the hippocampus of the brain. Serotonin effects are changed compared to those who received bottled breast milk. But beyond this, breast milk itself influences brain development. Perhaps the leptin in breast milk reduces stress by its actions on the hippocampus, hypothalamus, and the adrenal glands. Or maybe the breastfeeding is just a sign of closer attachment, on average, between parent and child. Or of something different in the personalities of the parents. It will take years to sort out exactly what is going on and why. My hunch is that all of these factors – and others – play a role.

I want to give my children the gift of resilient optimism…to teach them, wherever they may find themselves, to ask, “What is the best way forward from here?”

What do you want to give your children?

Published on: August 05, 2006
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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