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How to Encourage Kids' Resilience Amid a Pandemic

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Published October 6, 2020 at 10:00 a.m.

  • File: Elisa Järnefelt

COVID-19 has created prolonged and unprecedented levels of stress, which children respond to it in different ways. For parents, it can be hard to know what a "typical" response should look like in an atypical situation.

Joelle van Lent is a Georgia, Vt.-based clinical psychologist. For the first 15 years of her career she had a family practice and also worked with kids in residential treatment programs. About 10 years ago she began working with Vermont school districts to provide training, consulting and evaluations of students with special educational needs.

As this very different school year gets underway, van Lent offers advice to help kids become more resilient to stress.

KIDS VT: What emotional responses are normal in such abnormal times?

Clinical psychologist Joelle Van Lent
  • Clinical psychologist Joelle Van Lent

JOELLE VAN LENT: Kids can express stress in all kinds of ways. Some of the more common ones are irritability and grumpiness, and a rigidity or narrow focus on small details or specific things. Kids may be too high energy, too low energy, tired, forgetful or have trouble concentrating. Kids may become self-oriented and appear unable to look at things from another person's point of view. Losing motivation is a big risk right now. Anytime we experience repeated disappointment or failure, we are more prone to losing motivation.

KVT: How will kids' reactions differ based on their age?

JVL: This situation is going to play out differently for each of us. A child who is 2 or 3 years old, whose whole social world is their family, if they've been home more than normal with their parents, this may not necessarily feel stressful because, developmentally, they don't yet have the need for social connections outside their family. A 14-year-old who's been home a lot with their parents and has a much different need for social connection may feel a deep sense of loss or isolation. But the same scenario could play out very differently for two 14-year-olds if one is more introverted and the other more extroverted.

KVT: Will certain populations of kids have more difficulties coping with new school routines?

JVL: Yes. Definitely kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder or developmental challenges are more vulnerable, depending upon the sensory challenges of wearing a mask or the inflexibility of being unable to leave the classroom and access support in different spaces. For kids with language barriers, whether it's an English language learner or someone who has fewer verbal abilities, it may be harder for them to understand why we're doing things differently.

Any time people have prior exposure to trauma or adversity and they're in another situation that feels highly stressful, they are potentially more vulnerable. But it's so individual that it's hard to make global assumptions. The expression, "We're all in the same boat" doesn't apply right now. We're all in the same storm, but we each have different boats and journeys. Children who were high flyers before the pandemic may struggle through this, while children who struggled beforehand may thrive.

KVT: What warning signs should parents watch for?

JVL: Loss of motivation is a big red flag. When people are really stressed, they often act out of character — for example, somebody who is typically very flexible suddenly being very rigid. Or, somebody who's typically into trying new things isn't anymore. And then watch for basic warning signs such as loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, unexpected fearfulness or excessive risk-taking.

KVT: What can parents do to help their kids cope with prolonged stress?

JVL: Parents should establish home routines where kids have meals and bedtimes that are consistent with their school schedules. If your children have school five days a week, whether it's in-person or remote learning, having your kids eat and sleep on that same rhythm for all five days is going to make it dramatically less stressful.

Also, think about their media exposure. Many parents try to stay informed about the various global crises happening right now — COVID-19, the election, racism, climate change —but if you have CNN or NPR playing all day long, you have unmediated news access. Given the levels of stress right now, it's important for parents to consume media in thoughtful ways, and then decide how to give younger children honest information in developmentally appropriate ways.

For older kids who have their own access to media, set a time when you talk about what they're seeing, hearing and reading and how they're making sense of it. Remember that we don't have to "fix" the problem. The most important thing is to help our kids put words to their emotions and validate those emotions.

KVT: How do parents know when kids have had enough talk about the pandemic?

JVL: Kids can tolerate a significant amount of stress if it's patterned in a way that's predictable and they are supported. So if you, as a family, decide that every evening, you're going to talk about the pandemic and how it's impacting each of you, then the rest of the day you're going to park those thoughts and not talk about them. What will happen is that your kids will start predicting that hard conversations happen at a certain time. So you've patterned the stress to make it more predictable, which will make them more resilient and stronger.

KVT: What if kids ask questions parents can't answer, such as "Will I need to wear a mask next year, too?"

JVL: First and foremost, appreciate that your kids put words to their wonderings. A possible response might be: "Thank you so much for letting me know you're thinking about that. I have the same question!" Show them that you're strong enough to think that worry through with them. To be honest, the majority of questions kids ask us now about the pandemic we can't answer. But if we lie to kids, they learn that in a crisis adults lie, so they'll stop asking questions. It's really important that adults speak the truth to a degree that's developmentally appropriate.

KVT: Anything else?

JVL: You can figure out how resilient a child is to long-term stress by observing how they "story" their experience. And, you can influence their resilience by shifting their story. So, a resilient story is that, six months into this, we're focusing more on what we can control and less on what we can't control, shifting our attention from what's really hard about this to what's good about it. Finally, kids who have helping roles tend to fare better. So even if your kid is really stressed right now, don't take away all their responsibilities. They need a way to contribute and feel helpful.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.