Resilience: 5 ways to help children and teens learn it
To say that the last two years have been difficult for children and teenagers is an understatement. Major world events like the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted our daily lives and tested us in new ways. Racial conflicts and political tensions are also constants, affecting young people of all ages.
Parents have a multitude of worries and questions. What will all this anxiety, turmoil, isolation and change mean for my children? How can I help them cope? Are they okay? The good news is that resilience – the ability to overcome difficulties and stress – is something we can learn and grow stronger at any age. We cannot prevent our children from experiencing deep sadness, stress or setbacks. When possible, however, we can nurture their ability to cope and grow from difficult experiences.
How can families foster resilience?
Resilience begins for each of us in the bond between parent and child, a key factor in the healthy development of children and adolescents. Research on childhood trauma, such as exposure to violence, divorce, grief, and natural disasters, shows that a secure, stable relationship with at least one caring, responsive adult is a powerful buffer against the stress. And recent studies suggest young people who feel connected to a parent or other caregivers and peers, and who follow consistent daily routines, are best equipped to handle COVID-related stress (read more here, hereand here).
Aim for warm, non-judgmental relationships
- Offer an empathetic, non-judgmental and open-minded ear. Make space for your children to candidly share what they think and how they are doing.
- Help them identify and name their emotions. Explore what triggers these feelings, then connect these feelings to specific coping skills.
- Acknowledge what we are all going through right now and confirm that it is okay to feel what they are feeling.
- Ask what questions they have, then offer facts in a developmentally appropriate way. If you don’t have the answers, reassure them, you will find out together.
Helps practice coping and emotional regulation skills
- Encourage problem solving, big and small. Explain how you approach problems in your own life and see if they can think of solutions for theirs.
- Cultivate calming skills with a self-soothing activity. Take four slow, deep breaths together, snuggle up to a pet, list what they’re grateful for, or watch a happy video.
- Focus their attention on the here and now, rather than the past (which cannot be changed) or the future (which has many unknowns). This is the essence of practicing mindfulness, which can reduce the intensity and discomfort of negative thoughts and feelings.
Try to encourage healthy thought patterns
- Help children embrace uncertainty instead of fighting it. Recognizing that uncertainty and change are an integral (albeit stressful) part of life allows us to be more flexible, focus on what we can control, and move on.
- Exercise control where you can. We may not be able to do everything we want right now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything! Even when the going gets tough, kids can still choose to do something that makes them feel good, like a hobby they enjoy, taking a break, connecting with a friend, or helping out a family member.
- Reminisce with your child when they have been through difficult times in the past and remind them that things are about to change: “It’s really hard, and it won’t be like this forever.”
Giving meaning together and finding reasons to hope
- Reflect on your family values and try to draw strength and inspiration from them. Whether you prioritize being brave, giving back, or spending time with family, your child can feel good about what they represent.
- Participate in activities that connect your family to society and to your cultural or religious communities. Knowing that you are part of something bigger is comforting and safe.
- Cultivate joy. Celebrate important milestones, even in modified form. Create new rituals with your children that they will remember long after the pandemic is over.
- Highlight your child’s strengths. Identify the ways they have grown during this time and how they can use their strengths to continue.
Try to model healthy coping habits
- In difficult times, children look to their caregivers for clues. When you use coping skills, you are not only meeting your own needs, but also encouraging them to try those skills.
- Encourage consistent routines, which provide a reassuring sense of structure and normality for the whole family during turbulent times.
- Prioritize your physical health: try to get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet (somewhat), and find ways to stay active.
Feeling overwhelmed? Take courage and take care of yourself
Parents, remember that you don’t have to do this yourself. All the important people in your child’s life can foster resilience and teach them ways to cope. Relying on your community of family, friends, neighbors, teachers, coaches, and cultural leaders can increase your own sense of connection and remind you that you are not alone in the struggle.
The limitless demands placed on parents have increased dramatically during the pandemic, and burnout is understandably high. Although self-care may seem guilt-inducing or time-consuming (and at weather?), your ability to be there for your kids depends on having gas in the tank. Try mini-stress breaks: something as simple as taking a few minutes to enjoy your morning coffee, listening to music or talking to a friend on your commute, taking a short walk, journaling, or praying before bed can help you rejuvenate.
Above all, practice self-compassion and treat yourself with the kindness and empathy you offer others. You can’t and won’t be the perfect parent, because no one is. Give yourself permission to feel overwhelmed or frustrated, to make mistakes, and to bend the rules a bit.
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