When the COVID-19 pandemic first forced schools and workplaces to close across the United States in March 2020, Charlotte Klopp, a mother of three in North Carolina, thought, like many, that the shut-downs would be short lived. “We thought that it would just be a few weeks or maybe a month and that life would resume as normal pretty quickly,” she says. As the pandemic stretched on for many months, she began to realize that she would need to be intentional about helping her kids weather the challenges that such a long period of stress and disruption can bring. “Sometimes they get frustrated that they can’t see their friends or do the things we used to do, but it’s important to me that they be able to think of the positives and try to grow from this experience,” says Klopp. “I want them to be resilient.”
Resiliency—the ability to bounce back from tough experiences—has been a buzzword during the pandemic as parents wonder how months of isolation, anxiety and boredom will impact their children in the long term. Luckily, there are things parents can do to help their kids protect themselves against the negative effects of stressful times. “Resiliency is a skill that can be learned, practiced and developed as kids grow,” says Allie Riley, who oversees programming and evaluation for Girls on the Run, a non-profit that helps girls develop social and emotional skills through physical activity. “It’s important because everyone will face challenges or setbacks at some point in their life, and when they’ve had the chance to develop their resiliency muscles, they’ll be better able to move through whatever their challenge might be.”
Parents should not expect their kids to naturally just be resilient; it’s a skill that can be learned and practiced. “Helping youth develop resiliency isn’t something parents can do in one day or with one conversation,” says Anthony James, director of the family science program at Miami University in Ohio. “It’s something that happens over time through dynamic parent-child interactions as parents make intentional decisions based on what abilities they desire to see their children exhibit over time.”
There’s no manual on raising resilient kids, but experts say some parenting strategies can make a difference, no matter what your family context is or what challenges your kids might be facing.
Parents often have an idea of the kind of person they want their child to be when they reach adulthood. Whether a strong work ethic, kind personality or positive outlook on life is highest on a parent’s wish list for their child, a guiding philosophy can help parents make choices that will move their child in that direction. “When parents identify resiliency as a trait they want their grown-up child to possess, and as something that will take time and practice to build, they can make the sort of day-to-day parenting decisions that will help their child build their resiliency,” says James. Knowing that they value resilience can, for example, help parents decide when to step in when a child expresses frustration about completing a school assignment or guide the way they introduce new skills and chores as a child matures. James likens the process to teaching a child to drive. “The ultimate goal is to have a child that is able to drive safely anywhere, but you don’t start them out on the freeway. Instead, you start small and help them work their way up.”
Teach kids to recognize and name their feelings
When kids can effectively recognize and name their emotions, they’re able to connect those emotions to specific strategies that will help them move forward in a healthy way. For example, kids might recognize that they’re feeling nervous and know that talking to a parent or caregiver can help them relax, or that they’re feeling angry and that going for a run can help them clear their head. This sort of emotional management is a key aspect of resiliency.
“One of the first steps in being able to regulate emotions is being able to name what we’re feeling,” says Riley. Parents can start when their kids are as young as toddlers by pointing out facial expressions and physical reactions and tying them to specific feelings. They might say, “Molly, your mouth is making a frown and your fists are squeezed tight—it looks like you’re feeling mad, is that right?” As kids mature, parents can continue to help their child identify the emotions they’re experiencing as a first step in brainstorming a response.
Foster supportive relationships
Positive relationships often serve as a buffer for the rough stuff in life. While parents shouldn’t try to orchestrate their kid’s whole social life, teaching them how to have healthy relationships will enable them to do so on their own. Parents can teach kids about relationships by talking about how they choose friends, how they act as a good friend and how they handle conflict. And when parents have these types of relationships themselves, children notice. “Kids learn a lot about the world by watching their caregivers,” says Riley, “so it’s also important to try to model the sort of relationship we want them to have.”
Teach kids to ask for help
A resilient person doesn’t always bounce back from tough situations all by themselves. Asking for help is critical, and it doesn’t always come naturally, especially for kids. “Asking for help and support is an important skill for kids and adults,” says James, “but it can feel hard to ask for help for a variety of reasons.” Parents can help kids learn to ask for help by modeling what that looks like in their life, being open about times they’ve needed support and being receptive and supportive when kids come to them for help.
Help kids develop a range of coping strategies
“It’s good to have one strategy to help you feel better when you’re experiencing uncomfortable emotions, but it’s even better to have a whole range of strategies in case one is not working or not possible,” says Riley. Parents can offer suggestions like taking deep breaths, talking with a friend or going for a walk. As a child gets older, parents can ask questions, like, “What do you think would help you feel calmer right now?” to help them discover what works best for them when times get tough.
Give kids a chance to practice their life skills
“Every parent wants to protect their children from the hard things in the world,” says James, “and while that’s understandable, protecting them from every hard thing doesn’t allow them to develop and practice the skills they need to be resilient or effectively navigate life’s challenges.” While it might be tempting for parents to call the coach who cut their kid from the team or deliver the homework binder their child left on the counter on their way to school, parents should consider the skills their child won’t get a chance to practice if they step in every time.
While stressful times are rife with downsides, they can also bring opportunities to hone resilience. Klopp says that her children are weathering the pandemic as well as can be expected, and they’re practicing new habits and skills to cope. “We have hard days sometimes, but we do our best to look on the bright side and be really mindful about the things we’re grateful for,” she says. The family has started spending more time in their backyard garden to relieve stress, and Klopp has used all the together time to teach her children how to be a little more responsible for their own belongings and space. “I think that our kids are developing some new skills and some new gratitude,” she says, “and I’m glad we’ve been able to help them do that.”