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Juliana Chen, M.D. and Tai Katzenstein, Ph.D.
Juliana Chen, M.D. and Tai Katzenstein, Ph.D.

Parenting and Fostering Resilience Through COVID-19

How parents can help kids and teens build resilience during difficult times.

Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels
Source: Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

While the stress and uncertainty that COVID-19 presents to families are profoundly challenging, times of stress and uncertainty also offer opportunities to build resilience in children. The following are some helpful strategies parents can use to foster resilience in their kids and teens.

Maintain Routine and Protect the Basics
Parents can teach kids and teens about managing uncertainty and the unknown by maintaining what resilience researcher Ann Masten calls “ordinary magic.” Ordinary magic comes from the feeling of predictability and structure at home. Showing kids how to maintain semblances of schedules and routines like consistent bedtimes, meal times, movement times, work times, and play times can make a real difference.

Protecting the basics supports daily routines and helps to support both physical health and emotional health. Sharing with children the goal of having some framework, while at the same time being creative and flexible as things arise, fosters coping and adaptability, both key components of resilience.

Expect a Wide Range of Reactions
Parents should know that during these times, some degree of regression and/or big feelings is normal, and both regression and big reactions may come and go. Parents should also know that like us, many kids and teens are likely experiencing stress too, though children may not be able to identify or express it in words. The goal is to keep a watchful eye: to monitor without over-worrying, to be supportive, and to offer extra flexibility, love, and attention. The better parents can be in managing feelings, the better children learn that they can make their way through hard-to-bear thoughts and feelings too, and better manage them effectively over time.

Ask, Listen, and Validate
Another way parents can support and foster resilience in their children is by really talking with and listening to them. The goal for parents is to be curious, compassionate, and open to discovery, and especially now, to be attuned to what children are experiencing. How do they feel about this current crisis? How are things going with their friends? What’s been easy or hard? What are their questions or worries? We want to learn to listen, then listen to learn.

Parents can make a point of validating their children’s emotional experience (e.g., “I know it must be so hard to not be able to see your friends right now,” “I know it must be so annoying to be cooped up with me (or your brother/sister) all day”). By doing so, children learn resilience in understanding and managing their own feelings, and gain trust in others as they feel heard, known, and less alone.

Make Things Talk-Aboutable
Another powerful thing that parents can do to foster their children’s resilience is to make things talk-aboutable. For the most part, kids and teens, like grownups, do better when they understand—in age and developmentally appropriate ways—what’s happening around them. Parents should be open to questions and make room for frustrations, 
disappointments, and sadness.

Be honest with things you don’t know, reassure in ways that feel genuine and honest, and be careful not to offer guarantees or promises you can’t keep. By making things talk-aboutable, we help our children make meaning out of things while building their sense of safety and trust, all of which helps to foster resilience.

Foster Positive Coping and Feelings of Agency
By supporting positive coping, parents help children learn to relate more comfortably to the unknown and gain the important belief that their actions can have an impact. First, parents can support positive coping by helping children find different ways to manage their feelings of frustration, boredom, or upset. Would listening to music or going for a walk outside help? What about talking with a friend?

Parents can also help children have a voice and give them the opportunity to make choices, with older children having increasing input on how things go. Could they collaborate on creating their daily routines, what to have for dinner, and/or creative ways to spend family time? And for teens, what decisions could they try to make on their own?

Lastly, parents can help children think about ways to contribute to the others in the community and world, whether that’s calling a grandparent, writing a thank-you note to a mail carrier, or donating to a food bank. When we feel small, helping others can help us to feel bigger and help fuel resilience and positive feelings in ourselves.

Work as a Family Team
COVID-19 has impacted families in both small and big ways with family dynamics oftentimes changing day to day, hour to hour, or minute to minute. Parents can help foster resilience by drawing on what has worked before to manage family conflicts, and by making a family plan. Approach your home situation the way you would a team project: make a plan together, set goals, practice, revisit, revise, and try again. Consider periodic check-in meetings. Help kids and teens understand some of this might be for the medium-haul. Regardless of age, bring them into an ongoing conversation about what’s working and not working, and the different things individuals and the family can do to help things go and feel better.

Share Family Stories
Kids and teens do not yet have the wisdom that comes with years. By sharing our own setbacks and hard experiences, children learn things do not last forever, and people can make it through difficult times. The natural richness and complexity that family stories often bring can also help children understand where they come from, and help them put their lives into a larger context. Though they may not yet know what their future holds, learning about family stories can help kids and teens find strength and hold on to hope.

Take Care of You
One of the most powerful ways parents can support kids and teens is by taking care of themselves. This means noticing your feelings and remembering you don’t have to have it all under control. Identify your most helpful self-care strategies and model ways to manage stress. If there are times when you get angry or lose patience, know that it is ok, and remember that repair statements are your best friend. Owning up to mistakes and apologizing for our “bad” behavior are opportunities to model handling big feelings and conflicts more effectively. Be flexible with expectations and yourself. Above all else, practice self-compassion and embrace the idea of 
“good enough” parenting.

Stay Hopeful and Remember the Positive
In the midst of so much negativity and worry about the unknown, it is especially important to slow down, connect, and where possible, look for moments of joy. Remember the positive and take note of silver linings, even and especially when they are hard to find. Intentionally expressing and dwelling in gratitude can change how we feel and help shift our overall outlook. Gratitude and positive thinking are also contagious and key parts of resilience.

Know this is not going to last forever, and help kids and teens be hopeful by focusing on things they can control. Consider keeping a list of things everyone is looking forward to, and what things everyone most appreciates now. Ask the question, “What would you like to remember most from this time?” to help everyone notice and one day remember the positive things in your lives now.

While parenting during a pandemic is something that no one would ever wish for, know that these times offer opportunities for growth, and helping our kids and teens to find their resilience is something that will help them manage difficult times now and into the future.

About the Author
Juliana Chen, M.D. and Tai Katzenstein, Ph.D.

Juliana Chen, M.D., is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Newton-Wellesley Hospital, a part-time clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School, and co-director of The Resilience Project Parents Program based out of Newton-Wellesley Hospital.

Tai Katzenstein, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist at Newton Wellesley Hospital and co-director of The Resilience Project Parents Program based out of Newton-Wellesley Hospital.

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