Published Date: 07/13/20
In the age of COVID-19 when children have been pulled from school and activities and isolated from friends and extended family, not a day goes by when you don’t hear someone say, “Children are resilient!”
Mothers and fathers (mostly mothers) have been put in the impossible situation to parent full-time, work full-time, and teach part-time. With children home 24-hours a day, parents have been scouring the internet for activities to keep their children occupied, with most of us resorting to too much screen time, out of ideas, out of time, and out of patience.
“Kids are resilient,” my mom says, trying to ease my guilt of my two-hour conference call during which my daughter watches Frozen II for the millionth time.
“Can I keep the iPad when the movie’s done?”
“Uh, sure,” I say, knowing that I have a full inbox, it’s 3:00 and I haven’t thought about what we’re having for dinner, and remembering that she outgrew her sneakers and I have to get new ones.
“Don’t worry. She’s resilient,” my well-meaning husband says as he sits ten feet away engrossed in his own work.
Resilience is the ability to recover quickly from challenges. Who doesn’t want that for their children? But simply saying “kids are resilient” ignores the fact that people need to be taught how to be resilient. It ignores that children may be traumatized and children, especially young children, haven’t yet learned how to process complicated emotions. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, many adults are struggling to process the emotions that go along with it as well. Saying “kids are resilient” assumes children will be just fine without addressing the reason we’re saying they’re resilient in the first place.
Some researcher says that resilience shouldn’t even be the goal.
Dr. Darcia F. Narvaez, Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame writes, “What does "resilient" mean? Among researchers, it usually means that the person is doing better than expected for the situation they are in; e.g., coping despite neglect. In child development it means that the person is not a clinical problem or a criminal or a drop out, even though they did not get their basic needs met in some fashion. I contrast resiliency with thriving. Thriving means that your needs were met during sensitive periods and that you have what you need for wellbeing.”
Professor Emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College Suniya S. Luthar, PhD agrees and writes, “It is never directly measured, but rather is inferred, based on knowledge of two conditions: (a) that a person is doing reasonably well; and (b) that this has happened in spite of significant adversity.”
She adds, “It must be emphasized that resilience is not a personal trait of the individual. Children can do well despite risk because of various assets – many external to their own personalities –such as supportiveness from parents, grandparents, or well-functioning, close-knit communities. In fact, it is prudent to avoid using the term resilient as an adjective (as in “resilient children”), as this implicitly suggests an innate personal capacity to evade risk. It is preferable to use terms such as “resilient adaptation” or “resilient pattern,” which carry no suggestions about who or what might be responsible for the child’s competence.”
So how do we raise children to demonstrate resilient adaptation and ensure they thrive?
Respond to a child’s needs
“The most expedient route to fostering resilient adaptation is therefore to ensure that children receive consistent care and support, as early as possible, from those who are primarily responsible for their care,” writes Luthar.
Children’s needs must be met from birth and their emotional needs are just as valid as their physical ones. Babies don’t cry for the sake of crying - they cry to communicate. Sometimes they’re communicating that they need to be held and some babies need to be held more than others. We’ll say it a million times over - you cannot spoil a baby by holding them. It is impossible. Children aren’t spoiled with love they’re spoiled with material things. In the late 1800s, physicians advised mothers to hold their babies as little as possible - terrible, right? This advice was rooted in concern for disease transmission and obviously, had no basis in child development. The notion that babies get spoiled by being held has been passed down by generations of parents and it needs to disappear. When babies develop secure attachments and bond to their caregivers, it actually fosters independence. Those bonds are a child’s safety net.
Encourage children to take risks
More and more we’ve seen risks eliminated from childhood, but it’s essential that children be encouraged to take them to build resilience and perseverance. In several countries, including Britain, Australia, and Sweden, cities and school districts are reevaluating their standards for playgrounds, reintroducing risk that has been eliminated. We’ve seen a dramatic decline in children walking to school. Two generations ago, 85 percent of children were walking to school. That number has dropped to 10 percent. The term helicopter parent was first used in 1990 by child development researchers Foster Cline and Jim Fay, who saw parents starting to hover over children, stifling their independence. Stranger danger is largely a myth, but parents believe it is everywhere. Litigation against schools for injuries to children has increased, leading to increased regulation of play equipment and activities. Case in point the game of tag has been banned in schools across the country. Child care regulations have increased dramatically across the country, leading to a significant loss of providers in some areas, yet there’s no evidence that those regulations keep children safe.
This needs to change. Parents and educators should push back against increasing regulations. Frivolous lawsuits need to end. We need to provide opportunities for children to take risks to help them build resilience.
Build problem solvers
It should come as no surprise that the ability to solve problems builds confidence in children. This in turn builds resilience. When a child has the confidence to solve their problems they are able to tackle tough situations in the future and apply the skills they have learned. Problem solving abilities also lead to improved social skills, leadership, and emotional regulation. It’s easy to step when we see children struggling to put a puzzle together or arguing with a friend. Instead of solving problems for them, give them the tools to resolve them on their own and empower them to do so. Remind children that they’re capable of doing hard things and use open-ended questions to promote thinking through situations.
Develop social emotional skills
With an increasing focus on academics at young ages, often parents and childcare providers overlook the importance of social emotional development, which should be the heart of any early childhood education program. There are five core competencies of social emotional learning and all contribute to building resilience in children and helping them thrive.
- Self-awareness: The ability to recognize and understand one’s own emotions
- Self-management: The ability to regulate emotions and behaviors and to set and work toward goals
- Social awareness: The ability to empathize with others and to see things from another person's perspective
- Relationship skills: The ability to establish and maintain healthy and meaningful relationships with others
- Responsible decision making: The ability to make positive choices and take responsibility for positive and negative outcomes
Help children learn these skills with the same patience and expectations you would have when teaching a child academics. Social emotional learning does not happen overnight and the core competencies build on one another. You wouldn’t expect a child to read before they knew their letters. In the same way, you can expect a child to make responsible decisions before having self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship skills. Recognize the difference between emotions and behavior, model language and behavior, name emotions, and allow children to express their full array of feelings.
Use trauma informed approaches
Nearly all children who are old enough to understand COVID-19 are now experiencing trauma, and how we help children work through that, or any trauma, is critical to building resilience and helping them thrive. Trauma occurs in children when there is an actual or perceived threat to their life or physical wellbeing, or to someone important to them. It can be a single event, a chronic occurrence, or can be complex, for example when there’s a pattern of neglect. Trauma informed childcare and trauma informed parenting have several characteristics:
They understand the impact of trauma
They recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma
They respond through language and behavior in a way that supports the child
They understand the impact of a child’s trauma on behavior
It’s important to recognize that experiencing trauma and being put in stressful situations are not the same. Stressful situations can be beneficial to helping build resilience if children are taught how to cope with them.
Teach coping skills
Teaching coping skills contributes to building resilient children and helps them thrive. Inevitably, children will find themselves in stressful situations and having coping methods will ensure they handle them confidently. Deep breathing exercises are a great tool for children. Prevent stress by incorporating yoga into their lives (PretzelKids can help both parents and preschools with that). Label feelings and ask children to describe how they’re feeling in happy, sad, frustrating, and stressful situations. Teach them to relieve stress through exercise, art, and books, and whatever hobbies they enjoy.
Embrace mistakes and failures and help children learn from them
Children need to know unequivocally that all humans make mistakes and that not only are they allowed to, it’s an opportunity to learn when they’re made. Failures are another opportunity to learn and this attitude should be taught from the earliest ages. As the saying goes, “failure is not the opposite of success it’s part of it.” Teaching children a growth mindset will not only build resilience but it will help prevent them from avoiding situations when they think they’ll fail.
Encourage children to ask for help and provide it when asked
Children are always asking for help and adults need to help them. That doesn’t mean we jump when a child says jump because they’re being lazy and don’t want to get themselves a glass of water. Parents and childcare providers still need to foster independence and encourage children do things on their own. But, when a child comes to you for help, you can encourage that independence and problem solving by asking what they’ve tried so far, why they think their approach isn’t working, and what ideas they have for doing it differently. Provide suggestions and guidance, and make it clear that it’s always okay to ask for help. No person should feel like they have to do everything on their own and knowing when to ask for help is a clear sign of a resilient person.
Teach children to exert influence
New situations are often intimidating because we lack control over them. This is true for children and adults alike. When you teach children to focus on what they bring to the situation and how they can influence it, it can help them build resilience. For example, a child entering kindergarten may be fearful of a new school, new teacher and new classmates. Many adults will default to telling the child how nice their teacher will be and how beautiful the school is. Those sentiments are fine, but also include how the child can influence it. “You’re going to be able to teach your classmates all about spiders,” or “You’re going to wow the teacher with your enthusiasm for learning.” The child can then walk into that first day in a brand new environment excited and confident rather than trepidatious and shy.
The bottom line
Resilience is important as it can help improve academic performance, contributes to lowering alcohol and drug abuse, reduces stress-related absences from work and school, and is related to lower mortality rates and better overall health. Help children develop resilience by building their confidence and self-esteem, equipping them with the skills to deal with stress, teaching them problem solving skills, and using trauma informed approaches, when appropriate. Doing so will ensure not only do they recover from challenges quickly, but that they thrive in childhood and adulthood.