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Stop Telling Your Kids to Be Resilient, Do This Instead

Resilience is accrued over a lifetime, not during a global pandemic.

Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels
Source: Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

A formerly high achieving high school student stares back at me through her screen. She appears exhausted. Though she’s typically talkative in this context, she seems to have run out of words. No complaints, no tears, no worries. It’s almost as if she’s run the course of all possible negative emotions and doesn’t know where to go from here.

She tells me that her grades are terrible, her parents are upset with her for her clear lack of resilience and drive, and she hasn’t even texted a friend all week. She’s lonely, defeated, and fatigued.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), she’s not alone. A recent report released by the CDC suggests that disruptions to normal daily life, anxiety related to COVID-19, and social isolation are taking a toll on our youth. From the middle of March to October, emergency room visits for children’s mental health issues rose dramatically, 24 percent for children aged 5-11 and 31 percent among adolescents aged 12-17, compared to the same period the previous year.

The answer for many, and certainly to hear social media tell it, is to build resilience. Yes, resilience is the buzzword that just won’t quit, and for good reason. To be resilient is to adapt well to and bounce back from adversity, tragedy, or other significant sources of stress. While resilience doesn’t protect people from stress or difficult situations, it does help people withstand adversity. Here’s the catch: building resilience requires time and intentional actions. It’s like a muscle; you work on it little by little as you learn and grow and practice new coping strategies. It’s a very long-term goal.

There is no easy button on building resilience, and, in fact, many of the core components of building resilience as identified by the American Psychological Association are actually difficult to come by for kids and teens right now. Building social connections is certainly a great way to identify a support system, but in many areas worldwide, socializing remains difficult. Practicing self-care is easier said than done when you feel isolated and overwhelmed. And accessing help can be a challenge, particularly for youth.

What parents can do to help their teens work through this difficult time is focus on building distress tolerance and increasing coping skills. To do this, we need to do two important things: meet them where they are and empathize with them.

It’s okay if you’re not okay.

It’s important to help kids and teens learn to process all kinds of emotions, even the negative ones. While the natural response of the parent is to want to fix a problem that causes discomfort, a better tactic is to empower kids and teens to work through feelings of distress by labeling their feelings and using mantras. If your child is overwhelmed with stress about online learning, for example, sit with your child and work through it together. Your child can say, “I’m feeling stressed because this is hard. Stress feels awful but it will pass. I can get help with this.”

Use positive thinking, but with assistance.

Results of one study on the brains of anxious kids indicate that the brain is not self-correcting in anxious children. In fact, negative thinking is automatic, where positive thinking requires practice. In short, kids and teens need some prompting and scaffolding to use positive thinking.
Replace automatic phrases like, “think positive,” with empathic responses that build on positive thinking: “That sounds really hard. I get it. What do you think you can do to work through this?” This cues your child to tap into strengths and solve problems.

It also helps to practice reframing thoughts. “I’m terrible at math because I didn’t do well on the test,” can be reframed as, “I didn’t do well on this one test, but I will get extra help and work on my study habits before the next one.”

Practice coping skills that your kids will actually use.

All kids are different and all kids need to find skills that work for them. Deep breathing and mindfulness practice are essential skills for calming the central nervous system and working through hard things, but how they practice those two things will vary. Many teens love the Calm App, but some prefer sitting outside and practicing their own version of mindfulness. Some kids use square breathing while others get in better practice time by blowing bubbles.

Empower your kids to get back to basics.

It’s hard to focus on self-care when you’re asked to sit in a chair and Zoom into classes all day. The emotional energy required to focus on classes through virtual learning coupled with social isolation and fears about the virus is exhausting at best.

Empower your kids to take small steps to get back to basics. Have your kids create a calming sleep routine that works for them. Get them involved in healthy cooking. Find ways to make exercise fun instead of a daily chore. And encourage safe and healthy connections outside of the family.
Kids and teens are struggling right now, and there is no simple plan to get through this. When we empathize with our kids and teens to weather this storm together, we all build better coping skills and feel heard and understood in the process.


Leeb RT, Bitsko RH, Radhakrishnan L, Martinez P, Njai R, Holland KM. Mental Health–Related Emergency Department Visits Among Children Aged <18 Years During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, January 1–October 17, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1675–1680. DOI:

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