Resilience: 5 ways to help children and teens learn it

Colorful blocks locked together in a maze. Two figures are finding their way through obstacles; concept of resilience.

Saying that the last two years have been hard on children and teens is an understatement. Major global events like the COVID-19 pandemic have rippled through our daily lives and tested us in new ways. Racial strife and political tensions are also constants, impacting youths of all ages.

Parents have a multitude of worries and questions. What will all of this anxiety, unrest, isolation, and change mean for my kids? How do I help them cope? Will they be okay? The good news is that resilience — the ability to overcome hardship and stress — is something we can learn and strengthen at any age. We can’t prevent our kids from experiencing deep sadness, stress, or setbacks. When possible, though, we can nurture their ability to cope and grow from difficult experiences.

How can families nurture resilience?

Resilience starts for each of us in the bond between parent and child, a key contributor to healthy development in children and teens. Research on childhood trauma, such as exposure to violence, divorce, grief, and natural disasters, shows that a safe, stable relationship with at least one caring and responsive adult is a potent buffer against stress. And recent studies suggest that youths who feel connected to a parent or other caregivers and their peers, and follow consistent daily routines, are best equipped to manage COVID-related stress (read more here, here, and here).

As we weather the changing demands of the pandemic (note: automatic download) and challenges of our times, parents can nurture their children’s resilience in five evidence-based ways.

Aim for warm, nonjudgmental connections

  • Offer an empathic, nonjudgmental, and open-minded ear. Make space for your kids to candidly share what’s on their minds and how they’re doing.
  • Help them identify and name their emotions. Explore what brings those feelings up, then connect those feelings to specific coping skills.
  • Acknowledge what we’re all going through right now, and validate that it’s okay to feel the way they do.
  • Ask what questions they have, then offer facts in a developmentally appropriate way. If you don’t have the answers, reassure them you will figure it out together.

Help practice skills for coping and emotional regulation

  • Encourage problem-solving for issues big and small. Explain how you tackle problems in your own life and see if they can brainstorm solutions for theirs.
  • Nurture calming skills with a self-soothing activity. Take four slow, deep breaths together, snuggle with a pet, list what they’re grateful for, or watch a happy video.
  • Shift their attention to the here and now, rather than the past (which can’t 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 thinking patterns

  • Help children accept uncertainty instead of fighting it. Acknowledging that uncertainty and change are an inherent (though stressful) part of life allows us to be more flexible, focus on what we can control, and move forward.
  • 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 things are hard, kids can still choose to do something that feels good, such as a hobby they enjoy, taking a movement break, connecting with a friend, or helping out a family member.
  • Recall with your child when they have gotten through difficult times in the past, and remind them that things will change: “This is really hard, and it won’t be like this forever.”

Make meaning together and find reasons for hope

  • Reflect on your family values and try to draw strength and inspiration from them. Whether you prioritize being brave, giving back, or family time, your child can feel good about what they stand for.
  • Participate in activities that connect your family to society and your cultural or religious communities. Knowing you are part of something larger feels comforting and safe.
  • Cultivate joy. Celebrate important milestones, even in a modified form. Create new rituals with your kids that they will remember long after the pandemic is over.
  • Highlight your child’s strengths. Identify ways they’ve grown during this time and how they can use their strengths to carry on.

Try to model healthy coping habits

  • In hard times, kids look to their caregivers for cues. When you use coping skills, you not only attend to your own needs, but you encourage them to try these skills out, too.
  • Encourage consistent routines, which offer a reassuring sense of structure and normalcy for the whole family during turbulent times.
  • Prioritize your physical health: try to get enough sleep, eat a healthy(ish) diet, and find ways to stay active.

Feeling overwhelmed? Take heart and take care

Parents, remember you don’t need to do this by yourselves. All of the important people in your child’s life can nurture resilience and teach ways to cope. Leaning on your community of family, friends, neighbors, teachers, coaches, and cultural leaders can increase your own sense of connection and remind you you’re not alone in the struggle.

The boundless demands on parents have grown tremendously during the pandemic, and burnout is understandably high. While self-care may feel guilt-inducing or time-consuming (and who has the time?), your ability to be there for your kids relies on you having gas in the tank. Try mini stress breaks: something as simple as taking a few minutes to savor your morning coffee, enjoying music or talking to a friend during your commute, fitting in a brief walk, or journaling or praying before you fall into bed can help you recharge.

Above all, practice self-compassion and treat yourself with the kindness and empathy that you offer to 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 little.

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