The Case for Imaginal Social Buffering
David R. Johnson, PhD
The world would be better served if our children did not experience traumatic or stressful events in their early years. Certainly efforts to reduce the incidence of these events should proceed. However, another tactic than reducing trauma is to increase resilience to trauma, through what are known as social buffers, that is, supportive relationships.
Jack Shonkoff, MD, of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, has been a leader in the study of toxic stress in children. Their major finding has been that children who have been exposed to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can avoid the impact of toxic stress if they have at least one caring adult whom they trust, and who is trustworthy.
“The single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult. These relationships provide the personalized responsiveness, scaffolding, and protection that buffer children from developmental disruption. They also build key capacities—such as the ability to plan, monitor, and regulate behavior—that enable children to respond adaptively to adversity and thrive. This combination of supportive relationships, adaptive skill-building, and positive experiences is the foundation of resilience.” (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2012).
Having such a relationship can provide a sense of safety, reassurance, and confidence even in the midst of terrifying events. One merely has to remember being held close by a parent in the middle of a terrifying storm, or having seen the movie Life is Beautiful (Benigni, 1997)and the incredible efforts made by the father to buffer his son’s experience of the concentration camp.
Decades of research however have also shown that social buffers have significant impact on adults during stressful times. Studies beginning with the Vietnam War through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars of recent times have consistently shown that the morale of the combat unit is the best predictor of the occurrence of PTSD after returning home (Oliver et al, 1999). The higher the sense of support, belonging, and camaraderie among a combat unit buffers each individual from being harmed by the traumatic events being experienced together. In Vietnam, the military chose to send soldiers in one at a time so each member of a unit was “on their own clock”, whereas in World War II, units were sent over together and kept together , and sent home together, resulting in far less incidence of PTSD.
The single best predictor of survival among miners in a mine collapse is how quickly people on the surface communicate to the miners trapped below that they know what has happened, know they are trapped, and are going to come to get them. Miners who hear that message are able to withstand the psychological stress ten times longer than those who do not hear it. That is why the very first thing done in a mining accident is for a speaker to be guided down into the mine that blasts as loudly as possible that message (Toro, 2011). Hoping that someone will come to rescue them is not enough; the miners have to know they are coming.
So in attempting to help highly stressed children manage their lives so they can attend to their academic work in school and not develop dysfunctional behaviors or symptoms, having adults who are consistently caring and available in their lives is critical. Here is where a problem emerges: who will these adults be? Efforts to train their parents and adult family members to be consistent and trustworthy is often challenging; often these are the people who have let the child down through neglect, sometimes abuse, and sometimes due to other pressures (working two jobs; having PTSD themselves). Mentoring programs make sense, but too often the mentor does not stay with a particular child for long due to job transfer, student’s moving, or inconsistent funding. Given the breadth of the issue in the United States, we would need several million mentors.
The Miss Kendra Program guides teachers and counselors to provide care and attention to stressed children, in structured and limited times. However, the key ingredient in this program is framing the work within an imaginal context of the Legend of Miss Kendra. The fictional figure of Miss Kendra is evoked in the children and then substantiated through their writing letters to her, and receiving letters back from her, as well as receiving red wooden beads when they report a stressful experience. The children develop strong emotional relationships with her and what she means. Like the other caring adults in their lives (teachers, counselors, parents), Miss Kendra provides a social buffer by caring, listening to, and protecting children. Unlike these other caring adults, she is imaginary, which means she never gets sick, never goes on vacation, never has other work to do or other children to care for. Her age, location, race, and personality are never given, so each child fills in these gaps with what for them is needed. Thus, Miss Kendra is an imaginal social buffer.
Imaginal social buffers are few and far between, but of great importance to most children. They include characters from stories and movies, imaginary friends, guardian angels, and struffed animals. All of these figures provide solace and comfort at difficult times. One of the most influential imaginal social buffers was Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers), a character seen by millions of children on television over 30 years. Unlike other children’s shows, Mister Rogers looked directly at the camera (the viewing audience) and spoke slowly and directly to the children, repeating key elements of the social buffer: “I like you just the way you are.” “Will you be my neighbor?” “It’s okay to make mistakes.” “I’m glad we’re together.” He showed much patience and desire just to be with his audience at their own pace. Jerome and Dorothy Singer, psychologists at Yale University, discovered in their research studies on the impact of the show on children that children were mesmerized, often speaking back to Mister Rogers during the show. Overall psychological health, imaginative capacity, and happiness increased for children who watched the show in comparison to similar groups who did not (Singer & Singer, 1976). Other scholars have examined the positive impact of the show and the letter-writing Rogers engaged in with his audience (Klaren, 2016), concluding that the imaginal component was essential. Indeed, Miss Kendra follows closely in Mister Rogers’ footsteps.
The innate mammalian instinct to reach out for warmth, succor and protection from the parent is essential to our psychological immune system. We carry within us an internal nurturing parent whom we seek out in the environment, and hopefully find in our parents and caretakers. In too many cases, children have not found that figure in their family or community, typically due to adults also struggling to survive in overwhelming states of stress and survival.
Benigni, R. (1997). Life is beautiful. (Film). Los Angeles, CA: Miramax.
Klaren, A. (2016). Intergenerational dialogics in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood viewer mail. Communication Quarterly, DOI: 10.1080/01463373.2016.1176944
National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (2012). The Science of Neglect: The Persistent Absence of Responsive Care Disrupts the Developing Brain: Working Paper No. 12. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
Oliver, L., Harman, J., Hoover, E., Hayes, S., & Pandhi, N. (1999). A quantitative integration of the military cohesion literature. Military Psychology, 11, 57-83.
Singer, J., & Singer, D. (1976). Can TV stimulate imaginative play? Journal of Communication, 26, 74-80.
Toro, M. (2011). Buried alive: The true story of the Chilean mining disaster and the extraordinary rescue at Camp Hope. London: St. Martin’s Press.