Most families are dealing with more than their share of obstacles right now, including economic distress, school or childcare woes, health concerns, grief, anxiety, isolation, and more. Kids, parents, and caregivers are under stress—that’s a given. And it’s hitting many of us even harder because there seems to be no definite end in sight. But it’s how we deal with the stress that’ll determine whether we come out of this crisis—and other obstacles life throws at us—stronger.
Kids have been affected by the pandemic in more ways than we can know, but kids are naturally resilient. Amy Morin, LCSW, social worker and author of 10 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do, explained to Fatherly, “You want children to be able to handle setbacks, hardship, and failure … and learn and grow from them and bounce back and become better.” Luckily, Morin says, “Little kids know how to do this inherently. They fall down and get back up.”
Here’s how to encourage resilience—that falling-and-getting-back-up attitude—throughout childhood and into adulthood, especially during these tougher-than-usual times.
Validate kids’ feelings
Don’t shut down strong emotions, like when your kid cries about something that you don’t think is a big deal. Rather, tell them that it’s natural to feel sad, angry, disappointed, or scared, but they can also choose to be brave and strong to get through that moment.
“You want to acknowledge a child’s feelings and tell them that their feelings matter,” says Morin. “That makes a big difference in whether they perceive if their feelings are okay, that it’s okay to be scared and still do something anyway.”
Model good ways of handling stress
As an adult, when you’re under stress—whether you’re overwhelmed with work, frustrated with technology, stuck in traffic, or getting some upsetting news—it’s okay to express your emotions too (in a way that’s not completely overreacting or hurting other people’s feelings). But also be sure to let your kids see you get to the part where you’re calmly problem-solving to make sure that things go more smoothly next time. Seeing you learn from stressful situations will give kids the message that they can react with grace and bounce back too.
Show that mistakes are okay
Let kids take reasonable risks and make their own mistakes. So when a kid is getting frustrated with failure, or making a minor mess, don’t swoop right in to fix it. If they seem to need help, ask open-ended questions to guide them through finding a solution. Sometimes simply saying, “I’m over here if you need me” can make kids feel supported enough to try to figure it out on their own.
Similarly, acknowledge when you make mistakes. Whether you’ve overreacted to something your child did, or just messed up an ambitious dinner recipe to the point of no return, it’s a good idea to apologize and share your plans for how to make it go better next time. This shows to kids that everyone makes mistakes and it’s okay to admit them, learn from them, and try again.
But don’t be too uninvolved
Yes, kids should be encouraged to figure things out on their own, but they also need emotional support while they’re doing so. According to the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, “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.” That’s because, with the support of a loving adult, children can get through stressful situations in a way that actually helps them grow—turning it into “positive stress.”
It’s never too late to get better at this
Don’t worry if you never focused on this “resilience factor” when your kids were small. While young kids are the most adaptable, the Center on the Developing Child emphasizes, “The capabilities that underlie resilience can be strengthened at any age.” For kids of any age, and adults, regularly maintaining physical and mental health and actively working on self-regulation skills go a long way in helping you handle stress during hard times.
Self-regulation is a skill that can be improved just like an academic or physical skill. “When you think of it as a skill to be taught—rather than, say, just bad behavior—it changes the tone and content of the feedback you give kids,” Scott Bezsylko, executive director of the Winston Prep schools for students with learning differences, told the Child Mind Institute. So just like anything you want to get better at, you need to find challenging situations in order to practice. And the current climate should provide plenty of challenges.