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Helping Children and Teens Thrive Through COVID-19

An interview with Pamela King on how we can help youth pursue purpose and hope.

Not only is this current pandemic proving difficult for us as adults, but it has contributed a whirlwind of emotions and disruptions of normal life for our kids. In this interview, developmental psychologist Pamela King gives insight on how best to cultivate purpose and thriving mentalities for children during the midst of COVID-19.

Pamela King, used with permission
Source: Pamela King, used with permission

Pamela Ebstyne King, Ph.D. is Peter L. Benson Associate Professor of Applied Developmental Science at the Thrive Center for Human Development in the School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary. Her primary academic interests focus on the intersection of human thriving, moral, and spiritual development. Her current research includes studies on environments that promote thriving and on the nature and function of spiritual development in diverse adolescents and emerging adults. She has extensively studied and written on conceptualizations of thriving and positive youth development. King is coauthor of The Reciprocating Self: Human Development in Theological Perspective, as well as co-editor of The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence. She is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, USA.

Jamie Aten: How can we help kids and teens thrive through COVID-19, instead of just survive?

Pamela King: Many times in youth work, psychology, and generally in the media, we often look at kids as problems to be solved. A thriving perspective actually flips this assumption on its head and reminds us that “youth are not just problems to be solved, but are resources to be developed.”1 This is an important corrective and crucial to keep in mind, especially in chaotic and challenging times. A surviving mentality focuses on just getting by, whereas a thriving mentality emphasizes optimal, vital, and purposeful growth. A surviving mindset focuses on how we cope, where a thriving mindset focuses on hope.

Another distinction between surviving and thriving is that a surviving mentality focuses on “me and mine,” whereas a thriving mentality insists on “we or us,” or “yours or theirs.” The more we can enable kids to move beyond the survival mentality of focusing on themselves and instead being aware and responsive to the needs and desires of other people, the more able they will be to thrive. The more we can help them cultivate a sense of purpose that involves benefiting others, the more they will have a sense of thriving.

JA: What role does purpose play in helping kids thrive during COVID-19?

PK: Within developmental psychology research, the study of purpose has grown increasingly prominent because we have found that when kids have a sense of purpose, they have more life satisfaction and fewer mental health problems such as anxiety, loneliness, and depression. The science of purpose as studied by William Damon at Stanford University and Kendall Bronk at Claremont Graduate University identifies that purpose is not just an enduring and actionable goal, but it is meaningful to the self and also contributes beyond the self. Research shows that when youth have clarity about what they are interested in or passionate about, they become actively engaged, connect with like-minded peers and adults, and gain a sense of efficacy from contributing to something or someone beyond themselves.

Given the duration of the pandemic, we need not think about life as “on hold.” Rather, we need to be creative about enabling our children to pursue their passions and purpose in ways that they are not used to—whether it is online or in other socially-distanced ways. In addition, given that we are home and around them more often than usual, we can take the opportunity to observe what animates them and what brings them joy. Youth need feedback about what lights them up and affirmations about their gifts and strengths. For example, if your youth is creative, perhaps cooking is a new outlet or opportunity of expression for them.

JA: What can parents and caregivers do to support the spiritual development of our youth during this time?

PK: Supporting the spiritual development of kids will vary for different age groups. One of the focuses of my research and spiritual development as a developmental psychologist has been to understand how important it is for [religious] children to encounter God or your family’s understanding of transcendence. Regardless of how you understand the sacred, youth benefit from experiences beyond the mundane of everyday life. Transcendent belief systems offer hope, strength, and courage. Encouraging youth to engage in spiritual or mindfulness practices is not only good for their emotion regulation, but also reminds them that there is more to existence than quarantine, Zoom, and this moment in time. Spirituality is an often untapped resource for teens—the prosocial and hopeful beliefs systems, potential social support, and practices allow youth to find meaning and belonging, shaping their identity in profound and constructive ways. Spirituality can both inspire and direct youth towards pursuing their purpose, giving them a sense of solid ground in the midst of the many messages they receive through the media and life in general.

In these times, especially for teenagers, it is important to keep in mind that [religious] people have different reactions to God in this moment. Some are angry, some feel detached, and some will cling to their understanding of God. Many times, people will actually have moments of anger or despair, asking the question: "God, where are you in all this?" Ask your kids their thoughts and feelings. As we speak with our kids, we need to help frame this moment in history and our current challenges in the context of the broader story of humanity. We need to remind them that history has borne witness to seasons of growth, decline, renewal, and flourishing. Remind them that this season is a chapter in their lives and our planet, and encourage them to consider how they will actively contribute to writing the next chapter for humanity as we move forward from this pandemic.

Spiritual practices like prayer or meditation can not only serve to enhance a young person’s [personal] experience of God, but also enable youth to be more attuned to themselves. Youth are constantly bombarded by and have so many opportunities for distraction. Find practices or moments that allow them to get connected to their feelings—whether experienced as embodied sensations, such as tight shoulders suggesting too much stress, or being aware of elevated anxiety or delight and gratitude. Youth need to be in touch with their good, bad, and ugly feelings. I suggest that it’s important to allow young people to linger on their feelings—especially hard feelings. However, we do not want to allow them to loiter and get too stuck in negative emotions. If kids cannot process and move on, then it is time to get help. In addition, spiritual practices including gratitude or spiritual experiences like awe and holy humor can help. Cultivating positive emotions is vital to counter depression and anxiety and actually serve to motivate us towards purpose.

JA: What is the purpose of mentors, pastors, youth workers, and parents as they care for children in this time?

PK: As youth workers or parents, the more we can help young people identify what lights them up and sparks their attention, the more we can help them discover purpose. Purpose might be understood as pursuing something that one is passionate about, that makes a contribution, that's aligned with one's values, and acting on it. Now, I'm sure all of us hope that our children or the kids we work with can pursue purpose, but that is very difficult in the context of quarantine when we have so many obstacles and so much disruption of our normal rhythms and opportunities. Because of this unprecedented time, parents and adults need to get really creative about not just how they pursue their own purposes, but how they are enabling the pursuit of purpose for the kids in their care. Whether parents, mentors, neighbors, youth pastors, or other caring adults, we are in a privileged position to be in young people's lives. One of our responsibilities is to create a space where they can unfold and become more of themselves. Not only is this more challenging than ever, but it is a higher call we can respond to in this season.


(1) A common mantra of the Positive Youth Development movement.

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