Bouncing Back by Moving Forward: Transactional Models of Risk and Resiliency

by Christopher A. Thurber, Ph.D.

 

 

Big Questions

If someone told you that you had a "retrospective, unidirectional bias" and had contracted the "availability heuristic," you might think you need to visit a doctor right away. Actually, you'd be right. But you wouldn't need a medical doctor. You'd need a research psychologist — someone with expertise in statistics and child development. Someone who could explain to you that your bias and heuristic — although unhealthy — were common and easily removed. Once cured, you could see more nuances in your campers' behaviors.

The fact is, some adults see just one side of child development. They see a behavior and attribute it to parenting, pedigree, or some single, historical factor. (This linear way of thinking is called a retrospective, unidirectional bias.) Or, they recall one or two dramatic examples of a behavior and conclude that it is more common than it actually is. (This overestimation is called the availability heuristic.)

The three revolutionary studies reviewed in this article corrected these misconceptions and helped explain the complex, dynamic interaction between children and their environments. In addition, these studies pinpointed some of the essential transactions that determine whether adversity strengthens or weakens a child. We have the clearest ideas yet of how children and adults interact to shape development and of what makes some children resilient — while others falter.

You Can Have it Both Ways

In 1968, psychologist Richard Bell changed the prevailing unidirectional bias in socialization research. For centuries, most adults believed that parents influenced children's behavior, but rarely did children influence their parents' behavior. Socialization was something adults did to children, not vice versa. But Bell reviewed dozens of studies of child development and found considerable evidence that children do indeed shape their parents' behavior. Socialization, concluded Bell, was bidirectional. It had effects in both directions.

For example, simply introducing an infant to a group of adults causes the adults' behavior to change. Suddenly, almost all of the adults' behaviors will become directed toward that infant. If that infant begins to cry, the adults will do just about everything they can think of to soothe and quiet the infant. When an older child is introduced to a group of adults, they simplify their language according to the child's verbal abilities. These are two obvious examples of children influencing adult behavior, but subtler influences also exist.

Who Started It?

One way that adults work hard to shape children's behavior is by offering social reinforcement, such as verbal praise. However, some children — for reasons like hyperactivity or irritable temperament — do not respond well to social reinforcement. In turn, this affects the way adults treat them.

Take Stephanie and Seth. Both children are terrible at hitting a baseball, but Stephanie responds to her coach's encouragement by smiling bashfully at him and trying again to take a level swing at the ball. Her coach responds by smiling back and offering more praise. Seth, on the other hand, misses the ball on his first try and throws the bat to the ground in disgust. At first, Seth's coach offers the same smile and encouragement that he offered Stephanie, and Seth picks up the bat for a second swing. But after missing again, he stomps the ground and screams, "This bat stinks!" The coach keeps his temper, but proffers no encouragement. Instead, he rolls his eyes at Seth and coolly demands, "Take another swing, Seth." Seth responds by throwing the bat into the woods.

Prior to Bell's enlightening thesis, people might have been tempted to interpret this interaction by simply saying that the coach's eye rolling and cool tone of voice sent Seth into a tailspin. Although the coach's response certainly contributed to this end result, we also now understand that it was Seth's initial unresponsiveness to social reinforcement that discouraged his coach. Consequently, the coach decreased the amount of warmth and praise he offered Seth.

Stephanie is an example of the kind of child whose behaviors elicit positive social behavior from adults, whereas Seth's behavior elicits negative or neutral responses. Seth's congenital irritability and low frustration tolerance make some adults feel powerless and unappreciated, so they change their behavior. As Bell explained it, children reinforce parent behavior just as much as parents reinforce child behavior. One might argue that Seth caused the poor coaching, not that poor coaching upset Seth.

Self-Righting Influences

University of Rochester psychologists Arnold Sameroff and Michael Chandler expanded Bell's ideas about bidirectional socialization and introduced the notion of resiliency in children. Despite Sigmund Freud's keen emphasis on the importance of early childhood experiences, Sameroff and Chandler argued that no one could take a single biological or environmental event and predict a child's future. In their words, "Transactions between the child and his caretaking environment serve to break or maintain the linkage between earlier trauma and later disorder and must, according to this view, be taken into account if successful predictions [about child development] are to be made."

One major flaw Sameroff and Chandler uncovered was researchers' use of the availability heuristic in their estimations of developmental risk factors. For example, retrospective studies (studies that looked back in a child's lifetime) had found that many children with learning disabilities or below-average intelligence had experienced anoxia (lack of oxygen) during birth. From these studies, researchers had concluded that brief oxygen deprivation during birth caused minor brain damage. That seemed reasonable enough.

The problem was that these retrospective studies started with a population of children who had diagnosed problems, went back in time to identify one common risk factor (anoxia), and then used inductive reasoning to generalize about future cases. Sameroff and Chandler pointed out that this method of reasoning leaves an important piece out of the equation — all those newborns who had experienced anoxia but developed no learning disabilities or IQ deficit later in life. To solve this problem, newer studies started with a large sample of anoxic newborns and measured their IQs at different points in their childhood. These studies found little or no reliable effect of anoxia on later intelligence. The vast majority of anoxic infants developed normally. How was this possible, especially when some of these infants had gone without oxygen for nearly thirty minutes?

The answer, said Sameroff and Chandler, lay in consistent, loving parenting; sensitive, enriched teaching; and stable, supportive environments. These "self-righting influences," wrote Sameroff and Chandler, "are powerful forces toward normal human development." In most cases, for example, only those anoxic newborns who lived in socioeconomically disadvantaged homes, characterized by neglect and a dearth of learning opportunities, tended to perform below average on IQ tests in childhood. Under the proper conditions, many children do bounce back. But what if the conditions are far from proper? Then the prognosis is less hopeful.

More Than Just a Two-way Street

A second line of research reviewed by Sameroff and Chandler included studies of abused children. One disturbing but reliable finding was that "children with difficult temperaments or physical disorders were more likely to be abused than their less bothersome siblings." Obviously, no child is intentionally responsible for his or her own abuse or neglect. However, just as Bell might have suggested, "the temperament of a child appears to contribute in important ways to the abusing tendencies of his or her parents."

Even with this evidence in hand, most people do not want to think about child development in these terms. We may be more comfortable with the Freudian notion that early trauma seals our fate or with the simplistic notion that caregivers are 100 percent responsible for the behavior of their children. Certainly, it is easier to blame parents for children's problems — or at least absolve children for problems "they were born with." Unfortunately, the Freudian notion leaves out qualitative shifts in brain development and the beneficial effects we know healthy caregiving environments can have. But just blaming caregivers leaves out the influence of children's temperaments and all the ways their behavior affects their caregivers' behaviors.

Perhaps the best explanation for development is Sameroff and Chandler's transactional model. According to this model, development is more than a two-way street. It is not simply caregivers influencing children and children influencing caregivers. That interactional model is inadequate because it assumes that children's constitution and the caregiving environment are constant over time, which they are not. Instead, Sameroff and Chandler proposed that "the child is . . . in a perpetual state of active reorganization and cannot properly be regarded as maintaining an inborn deficit as a static characteristic."

The transactional model of development holds that "the child and his caretaking environment tend to mutually alter each other. To the extent that the child elicited or was provided with nurturance from the environment, positive outcomes were a consequence. To the extent that the child elicited negative responses from the environment, he was found to be at ‘high risk' for later difficulties." Seen in these terms, child development is more than a two-way street, it is an intimate dance where both child and caregiver are leading.

No Person Is an Island

The most ambitious and revealing longitudinal study of the child-caregiver dance was conducted by psychologists Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith. They studied 698 children of various ethnicities born on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in 1955. The children were studied from birth to age forty, and the results are summarized in a remarkable book called Journeys from Childhood to Midlife: Risk Resiliency, and Recovery. Among many noteworthy findings is confirmation of Sameroff and Chandler's hypothesis — infants with complications at birth developed later physical and psychological problems only when persistently poor environmental circumstances existed. In essence, many problems early in a child's life need fuel — in such forms as poverty, family stress, malnutrition, or poor parenting — to persist.

Naturally, many of the children in the Kauai study faced challenges in life. Some got into trouble with the law. Others became addicted to alcohol or other drugs. Still others developed severe emotional problems. Some dropped out of school or lost their jobs. About 8 percent of the girls in the study became teenage mothers. What is particularly fascinating about the Kauai study is that the researchers collected enough data, over a long enough period of time, to conclude how the participants overcame such challenges. Or, in some cases, why they did not.

One woman's testimony, at age forty-two, revealed key factors that contribute to resiliency in the face of adversity. Despite growing up in a poor, bicultural, blended family with seven children and an alcoholic father, Merv is now a happily married, gainfully employed mother of seven. What made a difference in her life? At a 1997 conference at the University of Maryland, she identified four factors: (1) parents who instilled a strong work ethic; (2) caring and supportive relatives and teachers; (3) quality education; and (4) faith in God or a higher power.

In addition to these factors, Werner and Smith cite the importance of:(5) sensitive, reliable parenting; (6) parents' educational level and socioeconomic status; (7) easygoing, adaptable temperaments; (8) autonomy and social maturity; (9) scholastic competence; and (10) a sense of self-efficacy. Interested readers will find intriguing discussions in Journeys from Childhood to Midlife of how these factors interact across the lifespan to predict physical and psychological health. Suffice it to say that Werner and Smith's data prove that bouncing back from adversity is seldom something a young person does on his or her own. Resiliency is a function of child characteristics, such as temperament, as well as environmental characteristics, such as emotionally supportive friends.

What to Pack for Camp

The studies discussed in this article have revolutionized child psychology by suggesting the following:

  1. A correlation between a caregiver's behavior and a child's behavior does not prove which behavior influenced the other. As much as caregivers may socialize children, so do children determine their caregivers' behaviors.
  2. Child development is best conceptualized as a transaction between children and their environments. Both children and their environments are evolving over time and influencing one another. Development is partly a function of biological maturation and a by product of the child-environment interaction.
  3. Resiliency in the face of adversity depends on a multitude of factors, the most important of which seem to be caregiver quality and socioeconomic status. Just as many problems early in life need negative forces to be maintained, they can be overcome at any stage in life with myriad positive forces.

How can you use these findings at camp?

  • Recognize that campers' mere presence will change your staff's behavior. In staff training, emphasize ways adults can be sensitive to children's developmental level. Coach your staff to adjust language, expectations, and caregiving for different age groups. Warn your staff about the tendency to act like the children they are with. This "regressive pull" can take appropriate, playful forms, but it can also take risky, permissive forms that fuel misbehavior.
  • Challenge your staff to let the positive influence children have on their behavior pervade their out-of-camp lives. For example, if they do not swear in front of campers, why swear when campers are not around? If they show good leadership-by-example in their unselfishness at camp, why not show this same leadership at work or school?
  • Heighten your staff's awareness of how certain children discourage them. For example, children who do not respond positively to social reinforcement often elicit disgust and discouragement from their counselors. Ironically, these are the children who most need approval and encouragement. If social reinforcement does not work initially, keep trying, set concrete goals, and stay focused. If the child falters, switch to an alternate activity, take a time-out together, or, as a last resort, use material rewards. Steer clear of the disapproval or dismissive attitude that such children usually elicit from other adults.
  • Emphasize that a negative life event, a psychiatric diagnosis, or a learning disability provides some helpful historical information about a child's past, but it does little to predict future behavior. Professional treatment and other positive forces for change are usually already in place. This alone guarantees that the child's future behavior will differ from his or her past behavior. Maintain optimism and high expectations for every child's behavior at camp and treat each child as an individual. Avoid labels that unfairly pigeonhole campers into categories, such as "ADHD kid" or "whiner" or "bully."
  • Be a positive force for change in each camper's life. You may see immediate benefits in the form of happiness and an increase in social skills, positive self-image, independence, leadership, and the like. Or, you may simply plant a seed for change, which does not bear fruit until that child is much older. Either way, each staff member has an opportunity to be the support that a child needs to head in a healthy direction later in life.
  • Understand that children themselves — no matter how obnoxious they may be — are never responsible for abusive behavior. Although staff may feel, from time to time, like treating a troublesome camper harshly, those staff are the adults. And adults — at camp, home, school, and on the playing field — are always responsible for the physical and emotional health of the children they serve. There is no excuse for mistreating a child.
  • Encourage staff who feel stressed out by a particular child or situation to seek adult support from their unit head or camp director. Train your senior staff to counsel your junior staff on these challenges. Provide at least one twenty-four-hour day off and one evening off each week. Do everything possible to offer all staff relaxing, healthy options for time off.
  • Conceptualize your camp as a "resiliency factory." Intentionally design elements of your program to provide social support, guidance, opportunities for success and collaboration, and education for all campers. Whether you are a religiously affiliated camp or not, consider including a secular vespers service or other ceremony that recognizes God or a higher power and promotes values such as unselfishness, respect, and helpfulness.
  • Above all, maintain hope. No child (or adult) is ever a "lost cause" or "hopeless." Considerable bodies of research show what powerful forces for change one human being can be in the life of another human being. Even if you see no evidence that a child's camp experience has changed him, know that it has, in subtle ways. At the very least, you have exposed every camper to your camp's way of life. You have exposed them to your ideal of how people should get along, help each other, and learn from one another. Never underestimate the power of that exposure.

I have the privilege each year of working with many gifted camp directors. These are men and women with enthusiasm, vision, wisdom, faith, and the sheer will to carry out their camping mission . . . often in the face of considerable adversity. They are among the most resilient people I know.

When asked by this group about the most powerful thing they can do to improve their camps, I always offer the same answer. Do whatever you can do to get as many of the same staff back from one year to the next. More than anything else, I believe that realizing any of the suggestions I have presented in this six-part series depends on a sustained commitment from the people who share your values and work day in and day out with your campers. The relationship staff develop with campers is the essential factor upon which the success or failure of any camp depends.

References
Bell, R. Q. (1968). A reininterpretation of the direction of effects in studies of socialization. Psychological Review, 75, 81-95.
Sameroff, A. J. & Chandler, M. J. (1975). Reproductive risk and the continuum of caretaker casualty. In F. D. Horowitz (Ed.), Review of child development research (Vol. 4). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Werner, E. E. & Smith, R. S. (2001). Journeys from childhood to midlife: Risk, resiliency, and recovery. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Originally published in the 2003 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.

 

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