Tired of hearing “kids are resilient”? If that’s the case, why are so many still struggling with emotional fallout, post-pandemic?
The resilience narrative.
For the past two-plus years, parents have watched helplessly as children of all ages struggled with mental health issues. Over and over again some folks would say simply “kids are resilient” when we parents voiced our growing concerns. But is this really true? Resiliency is developed, nurtured, and fostered through adult attention. When interactions were limited or removed, many of the outlets and resources were also limited and removed.
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Just like adult workers have reached unprecedented levels of workplace burnout, so have kids. Grappling with the downstream and long-term impact of limited in-person learning, play opportunities, and stifled social interactions, kids have reached an unprecedented level of “resilience burnout.” The demands of keeping calm, positive, on-track, and forward-thinking while the world as they knew it crumbled around them have left many currently spiraling into depression and anxiety.
The evidence acquired during and after the height of the pandemic shows that our kids are not “OK.” There are developmental delays, academic learning gaps, mental health providers at capacity, self-harm, and substance use proliferation. Extremely alarmingly, there was an increase of 50% in hospital admissions for suicide attempts among teenage girls; a 24% rise in mental health emergency room visits for children ages 5 to 11 (March 2020 to October 2020), and the deadliest stretch on record for overdose deaths all point to a profound mental health fallout for children.
What is resilience and how is it acquired?
Resilience is the ability to problem-solve and move forward. It requires perseverance, the capacity to handle adversity, a resilient mindset, strong emotional coping skills, and the self-belief in the fortitude to overcome the situation.
Research shows that resilient children have at least one caring and supportive adult in their lives. This adult demonstrates how to effectively cope with stress, problem-solve, identify emotions, relate to others, make good decisions, and experience empathy and acceptance.
Why the resilient narrative didn’t and doesn’t hold up.
In many instances, this caring adult is a teacher, academic adviser, or counselor. The resilience narrative assumes children have this adult, yet school shutdowns actually prevented millions of children from having this adult mentoring, not to mention essential services and support. This is particularly concerning for the children who are at risk and rely on accommodations.
In addition, the resilience narrative is contingent on kids self-actualizing and independently rising to challenges, yet food insecurity, uncertainty, layoffs, child care constraints, and loss of safe school environments and resources have instead left kids without the internal resources to overcome adversity. Resilience assumes that children feel the emotional connection to this adult and are confident they can and will help them through the hard times, yet a majority of teens report that they feel no one understands what they are going through.
Children are not naturally resilient.
The “Resilient Child” is a myth. It is time to face the uncomfortable truth that we shape their resiliency. Adults are the gatekeepers between a child in crisis and one that becomes a successful, thriving adult. Children have little control over their own lives, so almost every experience is the result of adult behavior. When something frightening happens, they may not have the skills to draw upon. We may think they are resilient because they go silent, but rest assured, they are internalizing how they feel. These poor coping strategies may inevitably affect their psyches.
The solution: Be “that adult.”
If only we could quickly and easily return to the predictability of the past, but unfortunately, the “back to normal” ship has sailed. Today, we are faced with a new frontier, one that looks unlike anything we have seen before. As we move toward uncharted territory, we do have tools that can help us forge new skills.
Combining resilience training strategies is the key to ensuring all children have the ability to bounce back from this major life detour.
Social-emotional learning skills to build resilience at home and at school:
We can’t expect kids to figure out resiliency alone. When we model empathy, overcoming adversity, genuine concern, attentive listening, and the ability to cope with disappointment and adversity, we positively affect the child’s resiliency development.
2. Encourage a resilient mindset.
Model and encourage children to spend energy on finding a solution rather than blaming others or (yourself). Kids with a resilient mindset are more likely to take healthy risks because they have confidence in their abilities and instincts. Emphasize that when we push ourselves outside our comfort zone, we often land in rewarding scenarios. As resilience is a skill, it means that with practice, anyone can get better at it.
One of the best gifts you can give a child is helping them identify an emotion. In order to avoid falling into a reactive, catastrophizing cycle, help the child first name the emotion, create distance from the experience, and build self-regulation skills by engaging their rational, neocortex “wise brain” thinking and loosening the grip of the adrenaline-pumping amygdala.
4. Learn from past mistakes.
Who hasn’t made a mistake? Yet if we don’t learn from them, we fall prey to not only repeating them but also slowing our personal development journey. Coach the child to recall a time when they overcame something difficult, how they did it, and how it made them feel. Help them extract and utilize the lessons they learned from planning, speaking up, problem-solving, and self-calming.
5. Calibrate the stress level.
Model how to recognize which sources of stress are under our control and which are not. Help the child calibrate how big the problem feels, how big it really is, and how they can use their strengths to cope with it.
6. Refuse to be a victim.
Do not shield children from setbacks and disappointments. Negative “coping” strategies such as withdrawing, yelling, denying, or blaming are counterproductive to positive problem-solving. Instead of falling into the “why me” cycle, demonstrate how a “cup half full” attitude can actually enable us to control our emotions and how we approach problems.
7. Impart problem-solving techniques.
With a knowledgeable and empathetic adult, children can engage in age-appropriate ways to approach problems logically. Demonstrate how, in the midst of a crisis, resilient people create a plan to move out of a bad situation, then how to use strengths to manage the situation, avoid overwhelm, and implement that plan step by step. Walk through a problem and take a bird’s-eye view of all the factors involved and how each can be addressed specifically.
8. Nurture a culture of connection.
In the classroom or on the field, no one will put themselves into the mix unless they feel happy and accepted; until they do, kids won’t really get all they need from the experience. Help kids build social skills so they can form friendships and bonds with their peers by making small talk, smiling, looking up, asking questions, staying off the phone, etc. In order for kids to become their best selves, they need human connection.
9. Model a healthy lifestyle.
Resilience is not possible without a healthy mind and body. Be certain to explain the importance of sleep, diet, exercise, and more. During stressful times, be sure to model positive coping styles and try to avoid substances yourself.
10. Get help when needed.
Even the most experienced parent needs outside support sometimes. Seek out a good counselor when a child is in crisis to help them get the support to grow strong again.
Nurturing resilience is the key to ensuring children have the ability to bounce back from disappointment, setbacks, larger challenges and adversity. It is the job of adults everywhere to stand up and take the baton to coach children on the social-emotional building blocks that foster resilience. Just as we can’t expect kids to just “get over it,” we can’t expect them to naturally be resilient. If we wait any longer, we can be almost certain that more damage will ensue.