Between the global COVID-19 pandemic, the associated economic downturn and widespread protests over racism, it’s difficult for everyone. Many people are struggling, consumed with anxiety and stress, finding ourselves unable to sleep or focus.
As a developmental psychologist and researcher on anxiety and fear in infants and young children, I have been particularly concerned about the impact of the pandemic on young people’s mental health. Many have not physically been in school since March. They’re isolated from friends and relatives. Some fear that they or loved ones will contract the virus; they may be hurt in racial violence or violence at home—or they might lose their home in a wildfire or flood. These are very real life stressors.
Decades of research have documented serious consequences from chronic stress in childhood. But psychologists have identified ways in which parents teach children how to cope with adversity—an idea commonly known as resilience.
The effects of childhood stress
Children cannot be protected from everything. Parents get divorced. Children grow up in poverty. Friends or loved ones are injured, fall ill or die. Kids can experience neglect, physical or emotional abuse or bullying. Families immigrate, end up homeless or live through natural disasters.
There can be long-term consequences. Hardship in childhood can physically alter the brain architecture of a developing child. It can impair cognitive and social-emotional development, impacting learning, memory, decision-making and more.
Some children develop emotional problems, act out with aggressive or disruptive behavior, form unhealthy relationships or end up in trouble with the law. School performance often suffers, ultimately limiting job and income opportunities. The risk of suicide or drug and alcohol abuse can increase. Kids who are exposed to chronic stress may also develop lifelong health issues, including heart attack, stroke, obesity, diabetes and cancer.
So how do some kids thrive amidst serious challenges, while others are overwhelmed by them? Researchers in my field are working to identify what helps children overcome obstacles and flourish when the odds are stacked against them.
It seems to come down to both support and resilience. Resilience is defined as the ability to spring back, rebound or readily recover from adversity. It’s a quality that allows people to be competent and accomplished despite tough circumstances. Some children from difficult backgrounds do well from a young age. Others bloom later, finding their paths once they reach adulthood.
Ann Masten, a pioneer in developmental psychology research, referred to resilience as “ordinary magic.” Resilient kids don’t have some kind of superpower that helps them persevere while others flounder. It isn’t a trait we’re born with; it’s something that can be fostered.
The key factors that help kids build resilience
The same executive function skills that create academic success seem to bestow critical coping strategies. With the capacity to focus, solve problems and switch between tasks, children find ways to adapt and deal with obstacles in a healthy way.
Controlling behavior and emotions is also key. In a recent study, 8- to 17-year-olds who maintained emotional balance despite mistreatment were less likely to suffer from depression or other emotional problems.
However, relationships seem to be the foundation that keep children grounded. “Attachment relationships” provide a lifelong sense of security and belonging. A parent’s or caregiver’s consistent support and protection is crucial for healthy development and the most important of these relationships. Other caring adults can help: friends, teachers, neighbors, coaches, mentors or others. Having steadfast support lends stability and helps kids build self-esteem, self-reliance and strength.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an icon of resilience. She grew up in a Brooklyn working-class neighborhood and lost her mother—her main support figure—to cancer before graduating from high school. She persevered, graduated first in her class at Cornell University and ultimately became one of only four women to serve on the Supreme Court. Another example is John Lewis, who was the son of sharecroppers in segregated Alabama, yet become a pioneer in the civil rights movement and served 33 years in Congress.
How to encourage resilience at home
There are many ways parents can help their children build resilience. Allowing children to talk—and really listening—shows caring and acceptance, validates their feelings and helps them contextualize issues.
Sometimes the answer is allowing kids some degree of autonomy. Trusting them to try things on their own—and even fail—can help them learn to solve problems or deal with anger, disappointment or other uncomfortable emotions. “Calm breathing” techniques offer another tool that helps children control emotions.
It’s important to note that many children face not just one but many hardships. For example, kids who live in poverty may have less present or less competent parents; have high daily levels of stress; suffer hunger, poor nutrition or live in crowded conditions, with few parks; have no health care; study in substandard schools; and have greater likelihood of abuse.
Community-level interventions can help reduce risks while helping children build resilience. These initiatives can provide better living circumstances through affordable housing and improve health by reducing pollution. Strong programs can engage teachers, parents and community members build a stable support system for local children.
Classes in “social and emotional learning” have been gaining traction in schools. This curriculum teaches children to understand and manage their feelings, develop empathy for others, make responsible decisions and solve problems.
These programs yield tangible results: one analysis of 270,000 participants showed that students raised their grades by an average of 11%. Other studies revealed that fewer participants dropped out of school, used drugs or engaged in criminal activity—and school behavior improved.
Helping children build resilience is particularly critical now, as Americans face particular turbulence in daily life. Parents, too, need to guard their mental health in order to provide kids with crucial support: Building resilience isn’t just kid stuff.
More than 5 million kids in the U.S. experience some kind of trauma each year. Thousands more live with chronic stress. So amid a global pandemic, it’s more important than ever to provide children with as much support and “ordinary magic” as we can.
Vanessa Lobue (Rutgers University Newark)