Resilience and the Parent-Child Relationship

The needs of children and their primary caretaker are closely related and often connected. When the parent-child relationship is strengthened, children have a better chance at experiencing resilience and thriving. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that for children who have experienced early childhood adversity and significant stress “the prevention of long-term, adverse consequences is best achieved by the buffering protection afforded by stable, responsive relationships that help children develop a sense of safety, thereby facilitating the restoration of their stress response systems to baseline" (1).

Nurturing relationships

Studies show if a primary caregiver has a nurturing and responsive relationship with a child, that relationship supports brain development and helps buffer the impact during traumatic events or when experiencing high levels of “toxic” stress (2).  Social–emotional cues of acceptance, understanding, compassion, and empathy calm a child's stress response.

The key to keeping a tolerable stress response from tipping over into the toxic stress zone is the presence of a buffering adult to adequately mitigate the impact of the stressor....The developmental neuroscience suggested that before kids could learn grit and resilience, or math and science, for that matter, they needed a basic foundation in healthy attachment, stress management, and self-regulation......Number one, (we need to) reduce the dose of adversity; number two, strengthen the ability of the caregiver to be a healthy buffer.
— Nadine Burke Harris, MD

Dr. Lowell from Child FIRST encourages us to look at the challenges children and their families might face that greatly influence the environment in which the child lives and a parent’s ability to nurture and support their child’s development (4). Parents often share how being in a relationship that is abusive exhausts their energy. We can look for resources and strategies a parent uses to help them parent during this time and protect their children. Pointing out these survival tactics can help a parent rebuild their faith in themselves as a parent. Even just acknowledging the parent, and what they have and their children have survived, can help them reframe their understanding of themselves and their children. When we connect parents with the resources that they need so they are more prepared to be nurturing and facilitate the growth and development of their children. Click here to learn more about Child First

Supporting a parent’s safety, mental health, and well-being is critical to supporting a child’s experience of resilience. 

Validating experiences

Critical to the success of strengthening a parent-child relationship is also having a clear understanding of how intimate partner violence might affect that particular family. When working with parents, it is important to understand the basics of intimate partner violence and how a person who is abusing may have manipulated the other parent in ways that might influence how they act towards their child.

Validating each person’s experience and feelings, and reinforcing that violence is neither the non-offending parent’s fault nor the child’s fault is important. Listening to and supporting parents and children helps them to better understand what their own goals are, both as individuals and as a family. We can do this by listening without judgment and being thoughtful in our responses.

Rebuilding relationships

There is much we can do to help strengthen or repair damage in a parent-child relationship. In our time with parents and children, we can create opportunities for parents and children to strengthen or rebuild their relationship by creating new memories. We can brainstorm with them to help find opportunities to have stress-free time together. If families are having a hard time finding something that they can bond over, we can provide multiple options. Different support mechanisms or activities might be preferable to each parent and child, but even the conversation about options can promote connection.

Cultural sensitivity is key when working with families. We can work to understand people’s behavior and circumstances within the context of their customs and norms, and be aware of the filter of our own customs and norms. We will talk more about this in Module 9 – Enhancing Cultural Responsiveness.

We need to be sure to also determine what the parent and child want, not just what an agency/worker has determined are the best solutions. When we remain focused on how parents and children define their own needs we can help build upon the parent’s strengths and resilience to effectively parent, provide for, and support their children.

When helping children strengthen or rebuild their relationship with their parent, we can share with children positive things about their parent that communicate that their parent is worthy of respect. This helps reinforce alternatives to violence they have seen or negative messages they may have heard. When we do this, it is helpful to be specific—tell children the good things their parent does and have them talk about those good things to you. These messages are also important for children to hear about themselves. Children may feel a lack of status or importance in their families and also need to hear good things about themselves.


  1. Andrew S. Garner, Jack P. Shonkoff, Benjamin S. Siegel, Mary I. Dobbins, Marian F. Earls, Laura McGuinn, John Pascoe and David L. Wood (2011) Early Childhood Adversity, Toxic Stress, and the Role of the Pediatrician: Translating Developmental Science Into Lifelong Health Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, Committee on Early
    Childhood, Adoption, and Dependent Care, and Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics 
  2. Ludy-Dobson & Perry (2010) The Role of Healthy Relational Interactions in Buffering the Impact of Childhood Trauma. Eliana Gil (Editor) Working with Children to Heal Interpersonal Trauma: The Power of Play. The Guilford Press. 
  3. Burke Harris, Nadine, M.D. (2018) The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity. Houghton Harcourt.
  4. Darcy Lowell, MD. Founder, Child FIRST