A lot has changed for adults and children since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. People’s social and work lives have been turned upside down. Children had to unlearn the behavior to touch and explore the world around them, and with an overall uptick in anxiety, they have also had to learn to cope with increased stress levels in their environments. The toll that this has taken on youth remains to be explored.
Psychological resilience represents the ability to mentally or emotionally cope with a crisis or to return to the original precrisis status. According to the research of Michael Ungar, founder and director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University, and Kristin Hadfield, an assistant professor of psychology at the Trinity College Dublin, factors that improve a young person’s life change depending on whether they live in a community that is stable and safe or one that presents them with a challenging environment. This means that we have to pay attention to a child’s environment to understand what factors help them build resilience. COVID has certainly had a negative effect on peoples’ environments, and it may have even caused surroundings that were stable and safe to turn into ones that are not.
With the implementation of four simple steps, the connection and trust between children and caregivers can be strengthened, which, in turn, can lead to the mitigation of some of that angst still lingering from the pandemic.
Step 1: Have a conversation during a meal. Dinners are a great proxy for connecting. At a minimum, sharing a meal serves as a way to catch up and reconnect. Admittedly, dinners with young children don’t tend to last long, but often a quick check-in will suffice if done regularly as a part of a daily routine. For example, a family could set an egg timer for ten minutes of “family time” and then take turns talking about their “rose and thorn” of the day; the rose is something positive that happened that day, and the thorn represents something less desirable that may have occurred. This exercise works to strengthen the interpersonal connections between family members and helps them stay on top of things that require attention that may otherwise slip through the cracks.
Step 2: Teach choice-based behavior. Caregivers can boost confidence levels in children by inviting them to practice autonomy. A simply way to do this is for a caregiver to offer the child options when they want them to do their chores or help around the house. For example, if the caregiver wants the child to help with dinner, they could say, “It is your turn to set the table for dinner. You can do this now, or you can choose to clear the table after dinner instead but you’ll have to load the dishwasher too.” Caregivers can also discuss and acknowledge how important their contribution is. Praising the child for accomplishing the task and letting them know that their help is valued delivers a confidence boost and strengthens the connection to their caregiver. After all, everyone appreciates being valued for their efforts!
Step 3: Teach initiative taking. Initiative taking — completing a task or chore without being prompted to do so — is a skill that can be taught. The most effective way to encourage this independent behavior is to model it, encourage it through positive reinforcement and let it happen organically. Sometimes this means biting one’s tongue instead of telling the child to stop doing what they are doing (if what they are doing is safe). Initiative taking is a skill that can be developed in early childhood and will serve children well into their adult years. It promotes a sense of self-worth by making children feel capable to make decisions and execute tasks. Letting children explore what they are capable of in a safe environment can boost confidence and encourage independent behavior down the road.
Step 4: Be present. Children have a universal talent for demanding attention. Sometimes, it is possible to give them the attention they crave and other times it’s not. Here’s a common scenario: A child demands attention when their caregiver is in the middle of something that requires their neurons to fire at full capacity. Although it may seem daunting, taking one minute out of their busy work schedule to make eye contact with the child and hear them speak will not negatively affect productivity levels or work outcomes. But what it will do is show the child that they are valued and heard, which boosts their confidence. In addition, modeling good listening skills will strengthen the caregiver-child bond and will help to ensure continuous respectful exchanges in future interactions.
In summary, a resilient child will have at least one continuous, resilient interpersonal relationship with a parent, caregiver, close relative or even friend. Nurturing these relationships plays a pivotal role in the maturation of a child’s psychosocial development. The four steps mentioned previously are suggestions on how to nurture these connections. Research from the realm of positive psychology continues to underscore the mental health benefits of having fulfilling interpersonal relationships. According to Mark Holder, a psychological researcher and former associate professor at the University of British Columbia, nurturing interpersonal relationships also contributes to people’s happiness, and it is the quality, not the quantity, of the relationships that brings people the most joy.
The concept of increasing happiness levels by nurturing interpersonal relationships also applies when children interact with other children. It is important to let children engage with each other on their own terms (interfering only if necessary), enjoy outdoor playtime, act out different scenarios with peers (e.g., playing cops and robbers, which is a variation of tag) or simply enjoy the company of like-minded youth. Children’s social and emotional repertoires are developed during these early years. Although extracurricular activities are also valuable, they cannot replace the social/interpersonal exchange in early childhood development. It is important to keep in mind the need for both when raising resilient kids.
In their research, Ungar and Hadfield emphasize people’s social ecologies (or preservation thereof) when it comes to their development and level of resilience during times of crisis. Because creating a stable and safe environment plays a pivotal role in laying the groundwork for this development, staying open minded about ways to parent during times of crisis is also important. A simple exchange about what the caregiver’s day was like or how they are feeling (happy, sad, etc.) will often go a long way. It is always a pleasant surprise to learn how much children can give in return if they are shown that adults are vulnerable too.
Celine Cluff is a registered clinical counselor practicing in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. She holds a master’s degree in psychoanalytic studies from Middlesex University in London and recently completed her doctorate in psychology at Adler University in Chicago. Her private practice focuses on family therapy, couples therapy and parenting challenges. Contact her at email@example.com.
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