Resilience in the Age of COVID-19: Parents Helping Children
In a crisis, resilience strengthens the ability to function more adaptively.
Posted Apr 05, 2020
Resilience is a well-known psychological phenomenon that involves the capacity to accept and master painful feelings. Resilience strengthens a person’s ability to function in an adaptive manner, especially during a crisis.
How can parents develop greater resiliency in themselves and then promote greater resilience in their children? In order for us to help parents and their children, we have to try to identify those factors which promote resilience.
Factors which can help deal with stress:
- The family
- Resources and assets from the community
- Capacity to regulate painful emotions
- Interpersonal connections: Generating care and love
Interpersonal connections are the hallmark of human life. Connections with other people promote the development of resiliency and more adaptive defense mechanisms. In times of crisis and stress, people tend to rely on others with whom they are close: family, friends, colleagues, peers, community buddies, and other social groups. These social groups include religious groups, neighborhood connections, interest groups (such as sports, reading groups, ethnic connections, mother groups and father groups), professional and business associations, and many others.
All of these interpersonal connections provide opportunities for us to share our worries and fears and try to sort out alternative options to our difficult personal problems. The care, the love, and the positive feelings generated by these connections can convert a pessimistic perspective to an optimistic point of view. Through discussions with those who care about you, an overwhelming situation often becomes more manageable, even if there are very difficult, realistic obstacles. In other words, the person is more able to regulate his or her painful emotions. In this way, greater resiliency is developed, and a more adaptive solution seems achievable.
In this time of social distancing, most of us are very lucky that various telecommunications are available. True, touch, such an important part of human connectedness, is absent. We cannot even shake hands. Yet, families can get together, “virtually,” for many interactions, including religious observances.
The Pope celebrated Palm Sunday in a virtually empty cathedral, though the ceremony was streamed. Passover will be celebrated on Wednesday, Easter next Sunday, and Ramadan beginning April 23. Many of us can participate virtually with iPads, iPhones, and laptops. (The needs of those who cannot connect requires greater social and governmental intervention, such as the FCC’s plans.)
The power of these connections, limited as they are, can promote our ability to regulate our painful feelings.
Regulation of painful emotions
The psychological (brain) mechanism of emotion regulation helps each individual to master painful feelings. These mechanisms modulate emotions so one can adapt more effectively to environmental stresses. Ordinarily, when novel problematic situations arise, such as our crisis with COVID-19, people often face these situations in an inflexible way. This can lead to paralysis when the usual way of responding does not work. An important goal is to help people approach challenges with greater flexibility in their way of thinking. Greater flexibility in thinking can promote greater resourcefulness as to how to approach critical problems.
There are two kinds of emotion regulation mechanisms: explicit emotion regulation and implicit emotion regulation.
Explicit emotion regulation
Explicit emotion regulation includes conscious, effortful attempts to influence a person’s emotional experience: that is, painful emotions. There are two conscious strategies that help a person regulate painful emotions: reappraisal and suppression.
Reappraisal involves the effortful negotiation of new, positive information in relation to a negative situation. In this way, negativity decreases, and the stressful situation appears more manageable. New and positive information can be produced internally, such as when positive prior experiences are called to mind, a different perspective is introduced, or alternate aspects of the situation are considered.
In our present state of social distancing, the painful feelings which accompany loneliness can be reappraised by focusing on the existence of telecommunications. Or imagining the endpoint, regardless of how indeterminate it is. Or utilizing our time for creative activities.
In contrast, suppression involves effortfully shutting out negative situations without thinking of an alternative perspective. Reappraisal is helpful because it is an internal process that does not require a change in external circumstances, especially those over which we do not have control, such as our social isolation. Reappraisal decreases symptoms such as depression and anxiety. The person can feel better about him or herself and become more available to sources of support. However, young children may not have enough neural maturation to effectively utilize reappraisal techniques. As I note below, children need their parents to help them promote their own emotion regulation.
Acceptance has always been a central tenet of psychodynamic perspectives. Acceptance entails a nonjudgmental stance towards emotions. With acceptance, the person acknowledges a willingness to remain in close contact with painful emotions that may otherwise seem intolerable. This emotion regulation strategy can be employed intentionally, or, with practice, it can occur automatically; it straddles the border between explicit and implicit emotion regulation.
Implicit emotion regulation
Implicit emotion regulation may be even more important to healthy mental functioning than explicit emotion regulation mechanisms. Implicit emotion regulation is defined as “any process that operates without the need for conscious supervision or explicit intentions, and which is aimed at modifying the quality, intensity, or duration of an emotional response.” Implicit emotion regulation is typically effortless, unintentional, and automatic.
Increased implicit emotion regulation capacities enhance resilience by decreasing emotional reactivity and the subsequent behavioral difficulties that leave people vulnerable to maladaptive responses. Implicit emotion regulation mechanisms enable the individual to rapidly process and respond to a multitude of emotionally charged stimuli, without significantly depleting internal resources or interfering with overall functioning. These ideas are virtually identical to the psychodynamic concept of defense mechanisms. Implicit emotion regulation avoids the common pitfalls of conscious, explicit cognitive processes, which in the extreme can result in rumination that can increase negative affect and depression.
Effective emotion regulation can influence the stress response and, in turn, strengthen the capacity for resilience. The key to promoting psychological health and resilience in all of us is through understanding how we respond and how more adaptive automatic affective processing occurs. This is particularly true for parents and children.
Power of parenting: Promoting more effective defense mechanisms (implicit emotion regulation mechanisms) in children
Children, like adults, utilize defense mechanisms to negotiate internal and external conflicts and the concomitant unpleasant emotional states. Defense mechanisms are automatic protective responses to external stress, threats to the sense of self, or internal anxiety and distress. Some defense mechanisms are inherently more adaptive (humor, sublimation, and identification), while others may be more maladaptive (denial, projection, or externalization).
The self-regulatory process of implicit emotion regulation has wide-ranging implications for overall psychological health, including parenting. Effectively improving the implicit emotion regulation (or addressing the use of maladaptive defense mechanisms and promoting the use of adaptive defense mechanisms) of parents can enhance their resilience to the stressors. In turn, they can promote their children’s implicit emotion regulation and implicitly help them utilize more adaptive defense mechanisms.
The relationship among family members, including specifically that between parents and children, is an ongoing, dynamic interaction. Parents’ moods, behaviors, verbal and non-verbal communications directly affect how children feel and act. In turn, children’s feelings, thoughts, and behavior impact how parents respond.
Greater attunement to and support of their children moderates the child’s experience of stress. Parents need to utilize support from their family, from their clergy, from their therapists or counselors, as well as the many other supportive situations. These supportive situations implicitly and automatically reinforce parents’ capacity to regulate their painful emotions.
Developing a more empathic mindset
A valuable method for trying to understand the way a person deals with inner conflict in a maladaptive way involves utilizing The Conflict of Defense Triangle, first proposed by David Malan. In this conceptualization there are three poles:
- The manifest maladaptive behavior or symptom is considered to be a defensive maneuver protecting the person from a painful emotion that needs to be avoided.
- Situations trigger a painful emotion.
- Conscious awareness of that emotion needs to be vigorously avoided, thus leading to the maladaptive manifest behavior or symptom.
For example, a fight may occur between two adults. One partner may observe the other one having an outburst. Instead of engaging in a rancorous fight, the recipient of the aggression may be able to acknowledge his or her own stressful state and painful feelings. Such an empathic response can lead to a conversation about their respective feelings. This can promote a higher level of communication, replacing the physical fight.
Similarly, such dynamics can occur between parents and their children. For example, when children are disruptive, rather than simply attribute the misbehavior to naughtiness, parents can think about the child’s reaction to the stress. Such a mindset can lead to a more empathic interaction.
Prout, T. A., Malone, A., Rice, T., & Hoffman, L. (2019). Resilience, defenses, and implicit emotion regulation in psychodynamic child psychotherapy. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10879-019-09423-w
Hoffman, L., Rice, T. R., and Prout, T. A. (2016). Manual of regulation-focused psychotherapy for children (RFP-C) with externalizing behaviors: A psychodynamic approach. New York, NY: Routledge.