Protection Before the Danger
Secure beginnings lead to secure adults. Perhaps this is an audacious statement. But this is what we know. There are high rates of child and adult anxiety and depression in our towns and cities. Ventura County alone has had a severe increase in psychological distress in every zip code. Maternal depression and hospitalization rates are higher in Ventura County than the California average. Self-injury during adolescence is on the rise, as is substance abuse. Out of the top four health concerns in Ventura County, mental health is number one.
On the heels of another violent episode on a school campus, it’s necessarily important to look at and nurture our families’ security nets. Healthy communities are only as healthy as are their families. What can you do to keep yourself and your child happy enough to be safe, healthy and prosperous? You and your child are part of community, you matter. If you don’t have children, then society’s safety net should be of great importance to you, too. Why? Because you have a personal stake in the success of every child. Every child grows into an adolescent and every adolescent into an adult. And each and every one of those individuals deeply affects you and your hometown.
We know the markers of a good town. We want workers and jobs, good schools, affordable housing, low crime rates, children who graduate from high school, fathers who father and mothers who are healthy. We want individual citizens who have respect for themselves and each other and who feel a deep sense of competence in the company of others. We want health care and healthful lifestyles, fresh vegetables and fruits, low rates of heart disease and other chronic illnesses. Healthy communities tend to have open space, or places where adults and children can experience nature. Healthy communities tend to have a rich compilation of the arts, both beautiful and compelling. Really healthy communities have citizens and leaders who trust each other and who communicate with honesty and clarity. Super healthy communities have citizens who feel listened to, with a strong moral compass on care and love for their neighbor.
There are actually road-tested protective factors for building a safe community, family by family. All the above “good town” and “healthy citizen” markers are only possible with a community that invests in family. The high-risk family is already a family whose nervous system has had crisis or trauma of one kind or another. They are determined high-risk because there are already indicators that something has gone awry. In Ventura County it’s likely to be associated with paternal or maternal depression, domestic violence, or other mental health concerns. These high-risk families are told to participate in anger or anxiety management classes, parent education classes, or rehab. These groups tend to be diverse ethnically and socio-economically.
The protective factors are:
1) Nurturing and Attachment (“A child’s early experience of being nurtured and developing a bond with a caring adult affects all aspects of behavior and development.”)
2) Knowledge of Parenting and of Child and Youth Development (“Child abuse and neglect are often associated with a lack of understanding of basic child development or an inability to put that knowledge into action. Timely mentoring, coaching, advice, and practice may be more useful to parents than information alone.”)
3) Parental Resilience (“Handling everyday stressors and recovering from occasional crises, accepting help and/or counseling when needed.”)
4) Social Connections (“Reducing social isolation and real or perceived lack of support.”)
5) Concrete Supports for Parents (“Providing or connecting families to concrete supports like counseling, health care and childcare, or referrals for housing, clothing, transportation.”)
The true nature of protection happens on the upstream. This implies that there is literally protection before the danger. Healthy communities require everyone’s helping hands to protect, nurture, and teach. When babies and tots grow up to be peaceful citizens it’s because they have felt loved by and understood by their grown-ups, they have experienced safety, and they have healthy mothers and fathers. And children learn that it’s possible to:
- be listened to
- be part of a group
Now, here’s the part that’s absolutely stunning. The first three years of life are when a human brain develops the emotional and regulatory brain cells that last a lifetime. This is where we understand first relationships — you and me [us], each other. Never, never is a parent-child relationship perfect, but it ought to be good enough. And when it’s good enough, it’s good for the world!