“The beauty of being human is that we constantly evolve and change. We have experiences every day that can alter the course of our lives to help us rebuild what was broken and rediscover what was lost. We, as humans, are never irreparably broken because our brains and bodies are built to change and adapt. And young children are often able to change more easily than the rest of us, when makes the earliest years of life the most full of hope. The key to that hope is in relationships.”
- Sara E. Langworthy, Bridging the Relationship Gap: Connecting with Children Facing Adversity
Not every child has an easy start in life. Bad things can and do happen—and often despite the best intentions of those who care about that child.
The good news is that a warm relationship with a caring adult can make a world of difference for a child who has faced early struggles.
That’s a message that comes through loud and clear in Sara E. Langworthy’s practical and hope-filled book Bridging the Relationship Gap: Connecting with Children Facing Adversity (St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press, 2015): a guide to fostering recovery and resilience in children who have experienced trauma or other adverse childhood experiences.
Langworthy has a gift for choosing the perfect analogy to bring complicated and abstract concept to life. Consider, for example, the way she explains the transformative power of relationships on the life of a child. Just as baking powder is “the active ingredient in cake batter that is necessary for your cake to rise properly…relationships serve as that active ingredient in our development,” she writes.
While this book is intended for early childhood educators and others who work with young children, many of the messages will resonate powerfully with parents as well, thanks to the tone of acceptance and compassion for parents and for children that permeates every page of this book. “Begin with the assumption that every family is doing the best they can given the context in which they live,” Langworthy tells her readers. Likewise, treat children who are struggling as “resilient, active creators of their own lives” rather than “passive, needy receivers of assistance.”
Langworthy has written a practical and compassionate guide that is deeply rooted in messages of hope and possibility: “Despite living in a world fraught with the pain and suffering of trauma and loss, we must cling to the hope of the possibility of change,” she tells us. The book then spells out the recipe for change -- one that is powered by the ultimate "active ingredient": relationships.
Q & A with Sara Langworthy
I recently had the opportunity to connect with Sara Langworthy by video conference. I found her to be every bit as warm, caring, and genuine in conversation as she is in her book. Our conversation inspired me to want to explore a couple of the issues raised in her book in greater depth, so I followed up with her by e-mail, asking her if she’d mind answering a couple of additional questions for me. What follows are my questions and her answers.
Your book really emphasizes the potential for early childhood educators and others working with young children to transform children’s lives through the power of relationship. What do you want these professionals to know about their impact and importance?
I think this question raises such an important point about the hard work of early care providers: They are often forgotten. Because children are so young when they are in early childhood settings, they often don't remember their teachers in the same way that they'll go on to remember their teachers later in life. It's also tough because early care providers don't often get to see how their kiddos turn out when they grow older. Providers don't get to know if the children they cared for went off to college, got an awesome job, or had families of their own. They don't get to see the effect they had on those children blossom over time.
But we know from the research on early relationships that those connections are some of the most formative and important for later health, achievement and wellness. The multitude of hours care providers spend working hard to connect with and teach young children - even and especially those children who are hard to work with - are hugely important for setting kids up for success later on. Even though children may not remember you, your care, attention, and teaching have long-lasting effects on who they grow to be.
You also talk about the importance of self-care. What advice would you offer to professionals who are tempted to put self-care on the back burner?
Self-care can be so hard! I'm no expert in effective self-care myself, but one thing I hear over and over again is that it's impossible to care well for others if you are not caring for yourself first. But even if you agree with that sentiment, it can be really hard to operationalize self-care in your own life. It can feel selfish or indulgent to take that time to care for your own needs, be they physical, emotional, intellectual, or social when there are so many others in need your care and attention. But truly, you are only able to be your professional best when you give yourself the time and attention you need to be your personal best.
One important point about self-care: it looks different for everyone. The self-care activities might be different (time with friends, getting a massage, taking a night off, watching a movie, going for a run, seeing a therapist, etc.). But also the amount of time you spend on self-care to feel at your best might be different from other people. That's okay! I tend to think that I actually need more self-care time than a lot of people to remain balanced. I have a hard time not feeling guilty about that, but I'm learning that taking that time for myself makes me more effective in my work AND in my play.
You're also never going to get it right all the time. That's okay too! Give yourself permission to fall down and mess up sometimes. Despite feeling like I was pretty good at maintaining balance and taking care of myself, I learned in a really big way recently that I needed some recalibration of my own. I wrote about it over on my blog on Medium, but essentially it took falling into a pit to realize that everything was not okay. I'm still working my way out of that pit, but I'm learning so much about myself and what I need in terms of self-care because of that experience. Know that just because you mess up (and you will mess up), it doesn't mean you're a permanent failure, or that you're not worthy of the care you need to feel better in your own life. Take that time in the ways you need. That is MORE than just okay. It's essential.
Reviewed by Ann Douglas, author, Parenting Through the Storm.