By Casey Gwinn, Esq.

(Excerpted from Casey Gwinn’s new book – Cheering for the Children: Creating Pathways to HOPE for Children Exposed to Trauma)

Many years ago I read the story of a famous artist who late in life was asked how he became an artist.  He was clearly gifted as a young child, but early on things could have gone a different direction.  He came home from school one afternoon and his mother was not home. He found food coloring in the kitchen, found paper, and decided to draw a picture of his sister, Sally. The carnage in the kitchen was fully complete by the time he finished his sister’s portrait.  Nearly an hour later when his mother came in, he saw a stunned look on her face and then she gathered him up in her arms and said, “Why, its Sally!” She told him what an incredible picture he had drawn and what a gift he had.  Then, she kissed him on the forehead and told him to go get cleaned up for dinner.  Years later he never failed to give credit to that amazing woman.  His name was Benjamin West and his clear recognition of his Mom’s affirmation should never be forgotten:  “My mother’s kiss made me a painter.”[1]

Now, let’s play this out another way.  His mom came in, saw the mess in the kitchen, grabbed a wooden spoon or a paddle and beat him on the backside until he could not walk.  Or how about his mom came in and said, “Benjamin, how dare you!  What were you thinking!  You stupid, stupid boy!  Wait until your father gets home and you will answer for that!”  I can imagine a host of scenarios that might not finish with a kiss and words of affirmation.  Perhaps you as a parent have had a few of those moments.  I too have failed to respond to the stressful moments of parenting with the right words and actions.  Hopefully, I am having less and less of those types of responses as I have grown older and wiser.  But I do remember one when our two oldest girls were very young.

 Kelly and the Kite String

One Saturday, my wife Beth decided to run some errands leaving me at home with our two young daughters and son in our tri-level house in the suburbs of San Diego.  My wife and I had three kids in rapid succession so our kids are close in age.  At the time, Kelly was about 3 1/2, Karianne was 2 1/2, and Christopher was about 1.  I had herded the kids from the backyard into our downstairs family room so that I could try to make them some lunch in the kitchen.  As I was in the kitchen, I heard Kelly (3 ½) whispering to Karianne (2 ½) and saying, “I am cleaning it up.  Shhhhh. Be quiet so Dad doesn’t hear you.”  Being a prosecutor by training, and always interested in finding crimes in progress, I left the kitchen and went downstairs to the family room.  As I entered the room, all eyes turned toward me.  Christopher was on the floor with an empty bucket and remnants of sand around his mouth.  Karianne was frozen in place waiting for me to react.  And Kelly was pushing her plastic, pretend vacuum cleaner and smearing a whole bucket of sand all over the new Berber carpet in the family room.  I was beside myself as Kelly quickly explained that Christopher had brought the sand in from the backyard and then dumped it on the carpet after I brought them inside.  I had missed that little piece of the children’s trek into the house.

I told Kelly to stop immediately, told her she was ruining the carpet and asked them all to step back so I could clean it up.  I went and grabbed the real vacuum out of the closet, plugged it in and started vacuuming.  There was only one problem.  I did not see the roll of kite string.  Within seconds, fifty feet of kite string was in the vacuum!  The vacuum started to smell of burning kite string and I moved past simmer to boil.  Trying to avoid saying anything I would regret to my children standing ten feet away, I told them to leave the family room and go wait in the living room while I tried to get the kite string out of the vacuum.  My voice was tense; my body was rigid.  I was on the edge of exploding frustration.  I found a screwdriver and began taking apart the vacuum and unwinding the half mile of kite string!

As I was slowly removing the kite string from the vacuum, I heard the girls whispering in the living room.  I could not resist listening in on their dialogue.  Kelly, the oldest, was saying “Karianne, close your eyes.”  Then, I heard Karianne say, “My eyes are closed.  How can you see my eyes if yours are closed?!”  Still looking for an outlet for my frustration, I headed to the living room to intervene.  As I arrived, I said, “Girls, what you are doing?”  Kelly said, “We are praying.”  I said, “Girls, what are you praying about?  Praying is not a game.”  Kelly’s eyes started to well up with tears as she said, “We are praying you will be a good dad about the sand and the kite string.”  Zing!  Wow!  A knife straight to my heart! First, I was all amped up about nothing that really mattered.  Second, I was scaring and hurting my children for no good reason.  And finally, I was missing an incredible opportunity to affirm Kelly for being kind, helpful, and supportive as a big sister – a missed opportunity to be a cheerleader but a poignant reminder of how easy it is to miss the mark as a parent.

Why Affirmation Matters

We need to become experts in affirmation to become life-changing and society- changing cheerleaders for children.  Child psychologist and author Linda Chamberlain says it so well:  “We know more than ever before about how to help children exposed to domestic violence.   Positive, supportive relationships are at the core of recovering from trauma.  We need to instill hope while helping children to understand and express their feelings, validating their experiences and helping them to recognize and build on their strengths. Affirmations that help children to believe in themselves (confidence), recognize that they are good at something (competence) and encourage them to share their gift/skill with others (contribution) are essential building blocks of resiliency.”[2]

Research on the power of affirmation in the life of children has been rolling out for many years.[3]  There is little dispute.  You can be too negative.  You can be too critical.  You can be too angry.  But you can rarely be too positive.  You can rarely provide too much affirmation.

Strengths-Based Approaches

Just as the positive thinking movement paved the way for the positive psychology movement, the positive psychology movement paved the way for strengths-based approaches to working with trauma exposure. Strengths-based approaches focus on what children do well instead of what they don’t do well.  If you focus on the positive in a child and build that up, you will be far more successful than focusing on their negative behavior and trying to eliminate it or hold that down.  In social work practice, professionals distinguish between a “deficits” approach and a “strengths” approach.  Deficit approaches focus on problems while strength approaches focus on what the child does well.  It does not ignore the problems but it seeks to build on strengths instead of directly focusing on the weaknesses or problems.  Let’s look at a personal assessment analysis contrasting a strengths-approach with a deficits approach with a child living in a domestic violence and child abuse home.

Strengths                                                    Deficits

Loves math in school                                  Acts out near the end of school day

Very athletic                                                  Rage in conflict situations

Protective of siblings                                   Verbally abusive with siblings

Perseveres                                                      Defiant in the face of authority

We can choose to build on the left-column or we can focus on the coping mechanisms of the child because of the violence and abuse they are experiencing at home.

The deficits above are all pretty normal reactions to growing up in an abusive home.  They are not really abnormal reactions at all.  Children tend to react very similarly to abnormal situations that they don’t deserve to experience.  If we focus on their deficits, we are essentially making the problems of others the problem of the children.  If we focus on their strengths, we can help them develop better coping mechanisms to the trauma and injustices they are experiencing.  We can build up (positive approach) the strengths in the left column.  We can only try to eliminate or condemn (negative approach) the items in the right column.  If we focus on building on strengths, we are helping a child build resiliency – the most important concept of all in the work of helping children cope with trauma and abuse. One of the greatest goals of cheerleaders should be building resiliency in the lives of children.

Resilience

Resilient people are able to utilize their skills and strengths to cope and recover from trauma, challenges, and the setbacks of life.  Whether the challenge is loss of a job, financial problems, physical illness, natural disasters, medical emergencies, divorce, death or loss of a loved one, or violence and abuse, children and adults with higher levels of resilience tend to navigate the short-term issues and the long-term psychological consequences more effectively.

Throughout my career as a prosecutor, I was always amazed at how some people became overwhelmed by their victimization and others seemed to be able to move past it relatively quickly.  I did not know why the differences were so stark at the time, but it was all about resilience.  Some victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other abuse were much more resilient than others.  Those with low resilience tended to use unhealthy coping mechanisms (drugs, alcohol, bad relationship choices) and seemed to be much slower to recover from their victimization.  I did not see the low resilience as the cause.  I just focused on their bad choices.  I did not see the trauma in their lives.  I just saw their bad choices and focused on what was wrong with them.  But it was all about low resilience levels and I did nothing to help increase their resilience.  I didn’t know how.

Resilience does not wipe out stress or end life’s difficulties, but it does give a person the strength to deal with problems more directly.  Resilience helps us overcome adversity and move forward in life. Over the last seven years, I have been honored to work a great deal in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Our organization, the Family Justice Center Alliance, was brought in by the U.S. Department of Justice after Hurricane Katrina to help develop the New Orleans Family Justice Center to meet the needs of victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and related child abuse.  I fell in love with the people of New Orleans.  They have been through so much in the way of natural disasters but they also struggle with high poverty rates, complex challenges in the criminal justice and social service systems, and challenging racial dynamics.  But I have met many individuals who have demonstrated incredible resilience in the face of unimaginable struggles – many muster the strength to survive and even prosper.

Some resilient people come by resiliency naturally – it connects to key personality traits such as perseverance, courage, acceptance, patience, self-awareness, mindfulness, and optimism.  The research on resilience has found these character traits in people demonstrating resilience.[4]  However, character traits and protective factors (discussed below) are not just inborn traits.  Most experts today agree that resilience can be developed, learned, and enhanced.  Affirmation, encouragement, edification, and other strategies have the power to increase resilience in the lives of adults and children but particularly children struggling from trauma and abuse.

Much of the resiliency research has focused on children born into or growing up in high-risk conditions.  The most intriguing finding from most of these long-term studies is that 60-70% of these children and teens growing up in really bad situations did develop social competence and relatively healthy functioning as adults – the vast majority did overcome their issues and went on to lead successful lives.  Why?  Why did most of the children dealing with child abuse, witnessing domestic violence, living in poverty, or growing up in war-torn countries come through it and overcome their exposure to severe trauma?  The answers were found in both their own resilience and in the nature of the environments and relationships that helped them develop resilience.

We are all born with innate resiliency.  It is part of our genes and chromosomes.  Resilient survivors – of all kinds of stress and trauma – demonstrate certain traits:  problem solving; autonomy; belief in a bright future; social competence; and a sense of purpose including goal direction, educational aspirations, optimism, faith, and spiritual connectedness.[5]  For the majority of children and adults dealing with major stressors in the lives, the inborn capacity for self-righting and the desire for transformation and change help them move through and beyond their situation.[6]  But another factor plays into a person’s innate resiliency:  Resiliency created or enhanced by their environment.  In most of the research, these are referred to as “protective factors.”

Protective Factors

Protective factors are important to focus on here because they form a nest in which affirmation can thrive and grow in the life of a child.  Characteristics of environments that mitigate or even reverse the negative outcomes of stress and trauma fit into three broad categories: Caring relationships; High expectations along with a belief in the ability of the child to meet those expectations; and Opportunities for participation and contribution in a community.[7]

When my children were growing up, I made a commitment to find ways to affirm and edify them.  Sometimes it wasn’t easy. I would have to work hard to find something to affirm or edify especially if the children or I were in a particularly cranky mood.  I remember one time trying to find something to affirm in our son Chris after he had marked on a number of pieces of furniture and thrown things all over his room.  The only thing I could think of to affirm was his creativity and free spirit in making a mess in his room and his smile was priceless.  I could have come down on him hard and told him to clean up his mess – but instead I chose to go with the positive and it even made me feel slightly better about his messy room!

Sometimes being affirming means keeping your mouth shut. I remember Chris being really loud in this room playing the drums when he was 12.  I almost burst in to his room to beg him to stop.  But that still small voice in my throbbing head said, “You should be thankful he is in his room, at home, and happy.”  I went for the Advil instead of coming down on him.  Chris went on to love music, rhythm and the “spoken word.”  The non-profit I work for runs a program called the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention.  Last year, I was preparing for a session for expert witnesses on how to testify in court and my presentation on tips for experts seemed quite boring.  At 11:45 PM, the night before the presentation, I texted Chris and asked him if he could come up with a rap or rhythm for it.  Less than 20 minutes later, he emailed me a rap song on expert witnesses in strangulation cases that brought the house down the next morning!  Sheer musical genius from the now-grown drummer boy who gave me the headache of my life when he was 12!

Affirmation, in both words and actions, is the power to let your children know they are accepted, loved, and supported.  Children with affirmation in their lives tend to achieve at higher levels in school, have better interactions with peers, and ultimately develop a stronger self-image.  On the contrasting side of life – life without affirmation – there is no research that finds children without affirmation have any beneficial outcomes.

Reflections

High levels of trauma and abuse in childhood create negative, often lifelong consequences.  Most children have natural or environmental resilience that helps them overcome the trauma and abuse.  But many other children don’t have the same level of natural or environmental resilience.  Cheerleaders put that resilience in the life of a child or help trigger the child’s own innate resiliency characteristics.  But at the heart of resilience is the power of affirmation – believing in oneself, believing in others, and believing in something outside of oneself.  Resilient people do not let adversity define them.  They don’t become professional victims – living underneath the weight of the trauma all the time.  We all need to be strong enough to overcome the difficulties of life and then be able to affirm, support, and speak truth into the lives of children to help them define themselves as capable, confident, and loved.  Benjamin West experienced the power of affirmation more than 200 hundred years ago.  His legacy as one of the greatest artists of his time was made possible by his mom.  She chose to focus on his strengths and, I have no doubt, changed the destiny of his life.

To purchase “Cheering for the Children” click here…

[1] Jaynes, S. (2007). The Power of a Woman’s Words. Harvest House Publishers. p. 59.

[2] Gwinn, C., personal communication. (29 Dec 2014). Interview with Linda Chamberlain. See also www.fosteringresilience.org.  Dr. Ken Ginsburg has done excellent work on the topic of fostering resilience in trauma-exposed children.

[3] Seligman, M.E. (2011). Flourish: A new understanding of happiness, well-being, and how to achieve them. Nicholas Brealey Pub.

[4]Mayo Clinic. (4 March 2014). Positive thinking: stop negative self-talk to reduce stress. Retrieved January 3, 2015 from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/stress-management/in-depth/positive-thinking/art-20043950.

[5]Constantine, N., Benard, B., & Diaz, M. (1999). Measuring protective factors and resilience traits in youth: The healthy kids resilience assessment. In seventh annual meeting of the Society for Prevention Research, New Orleans, LA.

[6] Werner, E. E., & Smith, R. S. (1992). Overcoming the odds: High risk children from birth to adulthood. Cornell University Press; Lifton, R. J. (1993). The Protean Self: Human Resilience in An Age of Transformation. New York: Basic Books.

[7]Constantine, N., Benard, B., & Diaz, M. (1999). Measuring protective factors and resilience traits in youth: The healthy kids resilience assessment. In seventh annual meeting of the Society for Prevention Research, New Orleans, LA.