The bonding process begins in the womb. Once born, infants thrive on the voice and touch of a consistent caregiver. So, from the start, stability and security provide an anchor for human growth and development.
As a child, I instinctively knew if something bad happened — anything from catching chicken pox to navigating a personality clash with a classroom teacher — my parents would always be there to support me. I always had family to lean on and a home to escape to when the going got rough. At the time, I had no clue that this stable and loving environment would help shape me into a confident and grounded adult. However, I realize now that I subconsciously paid it forward when it came to raising my own children, providing a cushion when they stumbled and a safe haven filled with unconditional acceptance.
A stable environment provides nurturing caregivers, unconditional love, consistent discipline, and a dependable and safe living space. This secure and protective environment shapes a child’s perspective of himself and the world around him. It is the springboard that sets in motion a path to happiness and overall well-being. It is the bedrock to a child’s future success.
Family Stability in the New Millennium
Family life throughout the decades has changed dramatically. Entertainment mimics culture, so we can see how the family has changed over the years just by examining family structures on TV. Snapshot of the lives of the Cleavers, Bradys, Cosbys and Bravermans (Parenthood, NBC) provide a good comparison.
Susan Kuczmarski, Ed.D., a family expert and author of several books including the award-winning Becoming A Happy Family: Pathways to the Family Soul (Book Ends Publishing, 2015), points to a 2014 Pew Research report that analyzed the state of the American family. The research showed that American families today are more complex and less traditional — fewer than 50% of American children live in a traditional family structure. “It was this new model of the American family that I had in mind as I wrote my new book,” she reports.
Family stability is not inherent in the number of family members or its various structures (i.e. traditional, single parent, blended family, foster family, etc.). Instead, it’s about providing a consistent, safe and loving environment for children, one in which they can lean on family members under all circumstances. Strong family bonds, unconditional support, and predictable safety nets are the keys to a stable upbringing.
According to an article written by Shannon Rudisill, Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood Development at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “The quality and stability of a child’s relationships are the most critical factors in whether a child thrives developmentally and goes on to have success in school. Nurturing, long-lasting relationships are important for all children — but especially for the youngest children — who are learning to form secure attachments that will be the foundation for future relationships.”
Strong family bonds are crucial. “Bonding is the central component to a healthy child. A well-bonded child is secure and does better at everything,” explains Gail Gross, Ph.D., Ed.D, a nationally recognized family and child development expert, author, and educator. If a child forms strong bonds she “will have less anxiety and a higher threshold of security,” Gross adds.
The child who has been raised in a secure and reliable environment has been given the tools for success. “Your child will approach everything with a stronger sense of self and a strong central core,” Gross says. “As a result, he will learn to depend on his own resources and capacities, which allows him to be independent and self-actualized.”
Children should know that their accomplishments will be celebrated, but they should not be afraid to make mistakes because they understand that they will learn from them and be accepted anyway. Encouragement and acceptance breed a positive self-esteem, a healthy outlook on future relationships and confidence in oneself.
Kuczmarski stresses, “Family protects from the noise of the outer world. It is here where we first discover and experience who we are and what we might become. It is where we learn to work with weakness, inadequacy, deficiency, inability, and even failure.” Kuczmarski explains that flaws and insecurity are the heart of the individual, but can also point the way to learning and growth if a child is raised in a stable and safe environment. “Family can serve as a refuge for self-acceptance,” Kuczmarski asserts.
The Effects of Growing Up with Instability
Instability can affect a child’s self-worth and ability to achieve his greatest potential. It manifests in various situations. Frequent changes to the family structure and relationships, frequent changes to the physical environment (excessive relocations, etc.), a caregiver’s unpredictable, emotional dysfunction or maltreatment of a child in the form of physical or emotional care can all be catalysts to the decline of a child’s socio-emotional and physical health. Family instability is often the result of emotionally absent, distant, or abusive caregivers or when a child is insecure about her physical care (where she’ll spend the night, for instance).
Gross explains, “A child who experiences instability at an early age of development is under stress. Neuroscience tells us that when a child is stressed from consistent poverty, abuse, divorce, or insecurity that he overproduces cortisol. Cortisol changes brain architecture and impulse control. These stressors in a child’s life can lead to unintended consequences, including behavior problems, loss of impulse control, academic problems, social problems, and problems with substance abuse.” Gross warns that a child under severe stress will present with changes in eating, sleeping, school performance, relationships and motivation.
Instability can also cause health problems. Gross points out, “Stress can be directly correlated to the onset of illness, not only the anxiety type of illnesses, such as stomach aches, headaches, nail biting, and bed wetting, but also frequent colds and viruses. Stress impacts immunities in the body, including lowering antigen levels and lymphocytes.” She says that children are more vulnerable to compromised immunity when they lack coping skills to deal with erratic pressures and behaviors at home.
How Parents and Caregivers Can Ensure Stability
Parents can ensure stability by providing strong bonds, consistent discipline, unconditional love, and a safe environment.
“Bonding is the central component to a healthy child,” Gross states. She also advocates consistent discipline. “You must work together with your mate as a team, rather than allowing yourself to be split by your partner or your child.”
Kuczmarski believes that family rituals and events provide a strong family foundation. “Rituals act like glue that holds the family together. Any event the family enjoys and does regularly can be a ritual, such as a fancy Friday dinner or a Saturday morning walk. Events that feel special serve to provide stability and bring the group closer together.” She suggests that children be allowed to have input on establishing family rituals because this helps them feel like their role in the family dynamic is important.
Kuczmarski also counsels parents to be good communicators. “Selfless, compassionate listening is a prerequisite for sharing ideas, feelings, and values and is critical to developing meaningful relationships. Close and healthy families are built through frequent, honest, two-way talk with one another.”
Gross agrees. “Making your child feel part of a family team, valued, and validated goes a long way to building self-esteem.” She suggests that parents create a “safe space in which your child can express himself without defense.”
Finding Stability in Tumultuous Situations
There are times when instability is unavoidable. Divorce, death, separation due to military service or frequent career relocations can be disruptive to everyone, but especially to children, who sometimes feel the turmoil more deeply because they have no control.
Kuczmarski recommends that families seek help from friends during difficult times. “Friends extend the family boundary outward. When we are stuck in old patterns and habits, friends can help us climb out.”
Divorced parents should not allow anger toward each other to overshadow the love that each of them has for their children. Instead, parents should try to create an amicable tone and remind their children that their unconditional love will not waiver during difficult times. Kuczmarski advises parents to find it within themselves to forgive. “Forgiving opens the door to positive energy and intention.”
When family life is disrupted due to relocation, separation, or death, Kuczmarski suggests finding activities that allow for renewal. “Celebrations, get-aways, and community service create occasions for renewal.” She also encourages finding silver linings during times of struggle. “Struggle can strengthen or weaken a family soul. It can be episodic or enduring. Almost always, though, struggle can provide insight.”