In these extraordinary times, many parents are feeling overwhelmed and stretched thin in a way that they have never experienced before. Not only are they navigating their own anxiety about how to care for their family in the midst of a global pandemic, but they are also concerned about the long-term impact that it will have on their children. After all, children worldwide have had their lives turned upside-down, in many cases with little warning or understanding. With the implementation of distance learning and stay-at-home orders, they have experienced sudden losses of routine, social interaction, participation in their hobbies via sports and clubs, and an overall sense of normalcy and safety. Though these are not the circumstances under which we want our children to live, there are ways in which parents can promote resilience in their children in order to help them survive – and maybe even thrive – in the most trying times.
- Allow your children to struggle. It’s never easy to see one’s child struggling or in emotional pain. Especially during the current circumstances, it might be tempting to jump in and fix it just to make things a little easier for them. However, resilience emerges from learning how to manage conflict and how to keep trying after experiencing failure. For example, if your child becomes frustrated when doing a puzzle because he is overwhelmed and does not know where to begin, make gentle suggestions (e.g., look for all the border pieces first) without doing it for him. If your children are arguing about what game to play, suggest that they talk it out and come to a compromise rather than you dictating what they do for the sake of eliminating the fight.
- Model your own resilience. It’s important for children to learn early on that failure is a healthy and expected part of life. By acknowledging your own mistakes and keeping your cool about it, your children will learn that everyone messes up sometimes and that it is not the mistake that defines our character, but how we deal with it. Remain calm, identify what steps you can take to correct the error, and apologize if appropriate. This includes apologizing to your children!
- Help your children identify and talk about their emotions. Young children tend to be reactionary and impulsive. Those who have a better understanding of their own emotions are better able to control their behavior. As a parent, you can help your children develop insight into their wants and needs and give them the vocabulary to name their feelings. If you see your child behaving in a way that is unacceptable, pause before immediately scolding or punishing her. Instead, talk to her about her behavior, the feelings that led her to act in the way she did, and how she thinks the people around her are feeling as a result of her actions.
- Teach children to plan and problem-solve. When a child feels anxious about trying something new, parents often give him the “out” so as to alleviate those bad feelings. However, this reinforces the message that we should not try things that make us uncomfortable. Rather, parents should normalize the anxiety while helping their child problem-solve and identify coping skills in order to make the challenge feel surmountable. For example, if a child is nervous about giving a class presentation, you can help him rehearse it in advance, email the teacher and notify them that your child is very nervous and would prefer not to go first, and practice deep breathing and other calming strategies, etc.
- Develop comfort with uncertainty. While kids typically thrive on structure and routine, life is not always predictable. Kids may express qualms about entering situations in which they are unfamiliar. “What if there’s a big dog at my friend’s house? Am I getting a shot at the doctor today?” Instead of providing an answer, parents can say, “I’m not sure. What can you do if that turns out to be the case?” This gets kids in the habit of tolerating uncertainty and identifying potential solutions so that they feel competent tackling any problem on-the-fly.
- Cultivate patience. In today’s modern world, people have become accustomed to instant gratification. We can receive package deliveries within hours of ordering them and binge-watch an entire TV series in one day. However, instant gratification is not possible in much of everyday life. Learning to tolerate boredom and the angsty anticipation of waiting is an important component of resilience. Games that involve turn-taking help promote patience (and as a bonus, they also provide opportunities to lose!). Listening to an entire music soundtrack (instead of skipping ahead to your favorite song) increases patience as well.
- Express gratitude. When it comes to resilience, attitude is everything. Especially now, it’s so easy to get bogged down by thoughts of negativity – sadness about what’s been lost and anxiety about an uncertain future. However, it is crucial to look for the good and show appreciation for what’s going well, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. Spotting a pretty bird on your walk, seeing a funny meme, cooking a delicious meal, finding that missing sock… the more we take notice of the positives, the easier they are to find and the smaller the negatives feel. Turn it into a family tradition by expressing gratitude every night during dinner or before bed.
Navigating this pandemic has not been easy on anyone. However, parents can help mitigate the harm to their children by strengthening their kids’ resilience, teaching them how to cope, helping them to persist, and expressing a gracious, hopeful attitude.
Ashley Kaplan, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist