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Resilience

Have Kids Run Out of Resilience?

We can build resilience through family storytelling.

Key points

  • Adolescents and young adults are displaying alarmingly high levels of depression and anxiety.
  • Family storytelling helps children learn emotion regulation skills and builds more positive relationships.
  • Families can start rebuilding resilience through storytelling.

Have our kids “run out of resilience,” as Dr. David Brumbaugh says in a recent interview about pediatric mental health?

Rates of youth depression are so high that Children’s Hospital Colorado has declared a "state of emergency" for pediatric mental health. In Virginia, at least 90,000 people under the age of 18 have suffered at least one major depressive episode; the state is launching the Virginia Mental Health Access Program to address this.

We are seeing similar alarming trends in our study of college students coping with the pandemic shutdown in a study with my colleagues Monisha Pasupathi and Cecelia Wainryb at the University of Utah, Jordan Booker at the University of Missouri, Andrea Follmer Greenhoot at the University of Kansas, and Kate McLean at Western Washington University. We have been following students who were college freshmen when the shutdown began who have now completed their sophomore year.

In my previous posts about this study examining our initial data, I wrote about higher levels of anxiety and depression in this group than in similar groups studied before the pandemic, but I also wrote about hope. In their stories about how the pandemic has impacted them, some students were able to find a silver lining, some redemption in their pandemic experiences, especially around themes of personal growth, learning more about who they are as a person and committing to a set of ideals and values to follow in their lives.

We just collected another round of data on these students as the spring semester drew to a close. Hope seemed to be in the air—vaccinations were becoming easily available, people were planning summer travel, and my university announced a fully in-person fall semester. Maybe life would return to some form of normal. So we expected a significant uptick in student’s well-being. We found just the opposite.

As a group (about 300 students, now sophomores), these students showed even higher levels of anxiety and depression than they had at the beginning of the pandemic. The rates of depression and anxiety increased at each of the four time points measured—that first spring, summer, fall, and then again this past spring. Even with hope in the air, these students are reporting more stress, more anxiety, and more worry. They are worried about the future, but also about the present. The anxiety of integrating back into social activity and interaction, the current job market and financial strain, the ongoing stressors and losses that have frequently emerged within their families. The pandemic has hit all of us hard, and has hit our youth even harder. We cannot simply “go back” to normal because no one knows what normal is. What does resilience look like in this new normal? And how do we help our youth build it?

Through stories. Sounds simple, and it is. Although there are multiple paths to healing, the more we learn about the power of storytelling, individually and within the family, the more we understand the ways in which stories build our sense of self, our connections with others, and, yes, our resilience. Decades of research from the Family Narratives Lab has shown that families that engage in more elaborated and coherent storytelling about their shared past (“Remember when we went to the beach with Grandma and Grandpa last year?”) and stories about family history (“When I was a little girl, my mother, your grandmother, and I would make jam every summer”) have children and adolescents who develop better emotion regulation skills, more positive relationships, and, as they grow older, a higher sense of meaning and purpose in life. Individuals and families who construct stories of perseverance, of overcoming adversity, and facing life’s challenges together, show fewer mental health problems and higher levels of flourishing.

As I discussed in my last post, there is emerging evidence that telling these kinds of stories actually leads to physiological changes in our bodies—lower levels of cortisol, a hormone related to stress, and higher levels of oxytocin, a hormone related to social bonding. Telling stories together helps us create a community. Even when awful things happen, when we share them, they become more manageable and we can begin to process what has happened and what it means. And we can begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel—we can make it through this.

Breen and Chalmers wrote a 2020 article in Child & Youth Services that discusses the different ways in which families have faced the pandemic. Obviously some have faced greater challenges than others, but all of us have had to reflect on our everyday lives and rewrite our stories. And we need to re-write these stories with our children. As Breen and Chalmers say, “If the kids in our care are learning each day about how to help themselves feel just a little braver, more hopeful, and peaceful, then they are learning one of the most important lessons they can—they are learning to develop their own resilience in the face of adversity.” Helping our youth create stories of ways in which they have successfully faced adversity, for themselves, with their families, and with their friends, builds resilience. If we have run out of resilience, maybe we can begin to refill. One way to do this is through telling stories.

References

Fivush, R. (2019). Family narratives and the development of an autobiographical self: Social and cultural perspectives on autobiographical memory. Routledge.

Breen, A. V., & Chalmers, H. (2020). Building Resilience in Covid-19. Child & Youth Services, 41(3), 235-236.

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