This article starts a series of understanding risk and protective factors as it relates to reducing the risks of youth engaging in risky behaviors. In prevention, research shows if we can surround kids with protective factors and reduce their risk factors, we can give them their best opportunity at a successful life.

Marissa always brings her stuffed cat on Sunday mornings, and usually has four adults in tow: mom, dad, grandpa, and grandma. Three generations cope with, and heal from, addiction together. Dad graduates from drug treatment court soon. Mom celebrates recovery and sobriety every day. Grandpa provides. Grandma seems to hold the whole thing together with prayer.

Marissa and I share a similar story. My parents walked their recovery road in my early childhood years. So, Grandma Teresa cooked me breakfast, read me stories, and said bedtime prayers. One long prayer happened every night: “Bless mommy and dad and grandma and….” trailing off to include every aunt, uncle, cousin, teacher, school friend, and most of my stuffed animals.

Grandma Teresa was no saint; she was just doing her part. She believed a close relationship with her grandson was going to count. How much difference do multi-generational relationships like these make in the lives of children like me and Marissa?


Assets, ACEs, & Resilience

Youth Connections publicizes “40 Developmental Assets,” a kind of playbook for communities raising healthy children. Developed by the Minneapolis-based Search Institute it is rooted in extensive research. Some quick mental math reveals that seven of the 40 Developmental Assets require multi-generational relationships, and the existence of committed multi-generational relationships is implied in almost all of them. Why does this particular kind of relationship count for so much? The answer is: resilience.

Resilience is a trait that helps children come away from setbacks with something positive. Dr. Vincent Felitti’s Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study sets the stage. ACEs, as they are called, accrue to children like me and Marissa before the age of 18. They reliably indicate lifelong negative health impacts. Living with someone struggling with drug and alcohol addiction is one ACE. Abuse, incarceration, mental illness, and divorce are others. It is worth a moment of your time to take the short quiz and know your ACE score. Some people have one or two ACEs. I know Marissa well and suspect she scores in the 4-5 range. The negative impacts start stacking up fast at 4-6 or more ACEs. I score in the 8-9 range. The good news is, when we name these tough realities for our children, the community can do something about it. What does that look like? Strong, healthy, multi-generational relationships help children build resilience.


Making Connections

In my work, I design parish programs. When creating content, the value of multi-generational relationships is always top of mind. Preparation for the “big moments” in our tradition requires families, children, and high school age youth to choose, and spend quality time with, a mentor. Parents who are bringing infants for Baptism will select godparents for their child. Adults preparing for Baptism choose a sponsor. In second grade, formation for First Reconciliation and First Holy Communion is a “with-your-child”, not a “drop-your-child-off” program. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other special grownups regularly take a turn. High school youth seeking Confirmation always ask: “Can my brother/sister/mom/dad be my sponsor?” My gentle answer is always: “No.” I invite them to find a faithful person they admire, age 21 or older, and not in their immediate family. If that is hard for them, I have a bench of safe, trained, loving adults ready to serve. My religious tradition teaches that everyone has gifts, and those gifts are taken, blessed, broken, and given away to others in the community. Perhaps nowhere is that theology more evident than in multi-generational relationships of support and care.

Maybe you don’t do religion. That’s ok. (Though consider this: involvement with a religious community is number 19 on the list of developmental assets.) High quality community-based programs help connect children and families across generations. Here are two of my favorites:

  • The Foster Grandparent Program, supported nationally by AmeriCorps, offers men and women, 55 years and older, the opportunity to mentor and assist children by sharing expertise, knowledge, and care on a volunteer basis.
  • Big Brothers Big Sisters creates and supports one-to-one mentoring relationships that ignite the power and promise of youth. They are a national model, too. One of my most valuable multi-generational relationships in my early career was with Colleen Brady, a former longtime Executive Director of a local chapter, now deceased. Her memory still inspires me, and so the good work continues.

You might not even need a program. Are there any senior citizens in your neighborhood who need a hand with some spring cleaning or summer projects? Service to others is number 9 on the list of developmental assets, and bonus points if you are fostering a multi-generational relationship at the same time!

All these strategies for multi-generational relationships foster resilience in children and youth. Depending on who you ask, I turned out ok. I think Marissa will too, but it is not an accident for either of us. When we intentionally mix generations in our close relationships, we guarantee exposure to people who a) know that bad stuff happens and b) have wisdom to share about how to get through it. That is resilience.

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