Sense of safety in early childhood is key to lifelong mental health – Palm Beach Post

Every child is filled with tremendous promise, and as a community, we have a shared obligation to foster that potential.
The current state of the world has taken a toll on everyone’s mental health, well-being and hope for the future. Our families and communities are struggling with threats to our sense of safety: overwhelming grief and loss from the pandemic, economic insecurity, racism and discrimination, political unrest, and now a war and the most recent Robb Elementary School mass shooting.
Safety is the lynchpin for healthy development. The stress of these experiences is potentially traumatic for our children, and if unbuffered, may have long-term health consequences – mental and physical. The cumulative impact of social isolation, loss, fear, and stress have amplified mental health concerns for children and teens. 
Research has shown that unaddressed mental health problems among children can lead to lower educational achievement, greater involvement with the criminal justice system, and poor health and social outcomes overall. 
The science of early adversity shows that in the absence of protective relationships, toxic stress in childhood can change the architecture of the developing brain. Adverse childhood experiences impact everything — classroom behaviors, learning and comprehension, the ability to self-regulate — and can dramatically heighten the risk for future mental and physical health concerns. 
For children and adolescents, many consequences of adverse experiences will not be immediately visible but could be lifelong without immediate action to support mental health and well-being. 
As mental health providers, we simply can’t address these issues alone.
How do we build hope and resilience when it feels like our world is burning down?
Anyone who has looked into the eyes of a newborn baby knows that from infancy, humans seek connection. We carry this need for connection throughout our lifetime. Studies show that connection can build resilience in individuals exposed to adversity and trauma. Newer research is looking at how isolation impacts adults struggling with mental illness and the importance of creating networks of support as a part of the treatment process. 
Building hope and resilience for the future means building a community where all children and families feel loved, protected, nurtured and connected. As increased societal struggles threaten our sense of safety, we need to work on developing positive social connections and relationships. We must shift our concept of resilience from an individual trait to a community trait. Rather than conceptualizing resilience as being up to the individual to fix themselves, we must look at systemic issues that may keep adversity and trauma firmly in place and put our foremost efforts into creating communities where we care for EVERY child and family.
Every one of us has the opportunity to make a difference for a child facing adversity – whether as a teacher, coach, mentor, or attorney. 
The science of prevention shows that we don’t have to wait for a child to fall apart emotionally before we do something. Building a safe, connected community with an increased capacity of caregivers is at the foundation of preventing so many of society’s problems, from substance abuse to mass shootings. 
Childhood adversity doesn’t mean a death sentence. With the help of a caring community, resilience grows and builds through each adverse outcome. Children have tremendous potential which we have a shared obligation to foster and protect. Know your role: be a buffering influence in the life of a child who needs you; be a child’s hope for the future.
Renée Layman is CEO of Center for Child Counseling in Palm Beach County.


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