On the morning after 9/11, Denver-based therapist Craig Knippenberg stood in front of 450 students and many of their parents at a K-8 school assembly. He held a china teacup in one hand and a rubber ball in the other.
First, he asked what would happen if he dropped the teacup. They said it would break. Then, he held up the ball and asked the same question.
“‘It would bounce back,’ they replied. This, I explained, is being resilient and that we as a nation and as a school community, with the help of each other, would bounce back,” he recalled in an interview with HuffPost.
Today in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Knippenberg believes that the value of resilience cannot be overstated.
“While many modern parents are obsessed with providing the perfect stress- and worry-free life for their children, they miss one of the most important lessons they can teach their children,” he said. “Without [resilience], children are artificially propped up in a world of rainbows and unicorns. When failures or crises occur, they are like a teacup that shatters.”
Children need to develop resilience to cope with the setbacks and roadblocks that the world inevitably throws at all of us. They’ll be better prepared for life if they learn how to work through difficult circumstances, explore painful emotions, manage stress, accept what is out of our control, fail, and try again.
“While we certainly don’t want our children to experience a pandemic crisis, it is important to view this time as an opportunity for growth. This is the strange but positive side to adapting to the current times,” said Neha Navsaria, a psychiatry professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and a consultant at the parenting skills site Parent Lab. “Sitting with uncertainty is one of the most difficult tasks for any human being to do. Learning how to manage it is one of the best skills one can develop to contribute to mental wellness.”
HuffPost spoke to Knippenberg, Navsaria and other experts about the ways parents can help foster resilience in their kids during these uncertain times. Read on for their advice.
Resist The Urge To ‘Save’ Them
“Parents can help their children tremendously by not ‘saving’ them,” said clinical psychologist John Mayer. Although it’s hard to watch your children struggle or fail, they gain self-confidence by learning to pick themselves up after making mistakes. Don’t shield them from difficult feelings or challenges.
During the pandemic, parents should offer a sense of safety and security, of course. But they should also encourage their children to practice problem-solving by letting them find their own ways to cope with their new reality.
“Let your child discover their own ways to cope. This is phenomenal emotional growth and skill-building for the future.”
Kids are experiencing loss without their traditional school, extracurricular activities and social lives. Mayer sees this as an opportunity for children to learn to thrive by themselves, as there will inevitably be times in the future when they experience loss again.
“Well-meaning parents are going out of their way to provide a banquet table of activities to keep their children entertained or diverted,” he said. “Stop! Let your child discover their own ways to cope. This is phenomenal emotional growth and skill-building for the future.”
While parents can certainly help organize projects and offer guidance, he advised empowering kids to take more of a lead in setting their day-to-day schedules and in directing family activities as well.
Focus On Support Instead
Rather than jumping in to fix the problem when kids are bored with their toys or unmotivated to do school work, parents should let them feel their feelings as they face these challenges. The key is to listen to and encourage them so that they feel comfortable taking control.
“There is a core of resilience in every young person, and they are more adaptable than we think,” said Genevieve von Lob, a psychologist and author of “Happy Parent, Happy Child.” “However, they can only unearth it if they are sometimes allowed to face their vulnerable feelings and we can keep trusting that they will get through. The more that we can support our children to move through their feelings and not run away from them, the more emotionally resilient, confident and adaptable they will grow up to be.”
Parents can remind their kids of challenges they’ve overcome in the past, even just earlier during the lockdown. They can repeatedly tell them that they are safe and have a loving family to care for them. They can arrange virtual playdates or phone calls to help them get support from others.
They can also encourage a positive mindset by focusing on the progress that people have made during this time, applauding community leaders, creating a calm environment at home, and using nonverbal cues like loving smiles and hugs.
Talk About Emotions
“Allow space for all the feelings you and your littles are experiencing,” said Kelly Oriard, a family therapist and co-founder of Slumberkins, an education brand focused on emotional learning. “Resilience does not mean ‘everything is great right now!’ (cue fake smile). It means noticing the feelings bubbling up and being honest about it. Those feelings we push down and hide will come out in one way or another so we might as well face them head-on.”
Parents can promote emotional growth by encouraging their children to talk about their feelings, helping them identify those feelings and validating them. This kind of communication may also foster a stronger family connection.
“Parents can use the term ‘bounce back’ to make the process more accessible to children, but it is equally important for parents to walk children through the details of the process.”
“Being able to recognize, understand and manage one’s emotions is key to resilience,” said Denise Daniels, a child development expert and creator of The Moodsters, a brand focused on fostering emotional intelligence in kids. “Nearly every moment of a child’s life provides opportunities to teach important emotional skills such as caring, listening, empathy, problem-solving, self-regulation and resilience. That holds particularly true in challenging times such as these.”
The ability to talk about difficult feelings is a powerful coping mechanism, but it can take practice to get comfortable with these conversations. Knippenberg suggested that parents sit with their kids and write down all the things they feel they have lost or are upset about during the pandemic, and then put those pieces of paper in a jar and share.
Highlight What’s In Their Control
“To offset a sense of helplessness, parents should talk to children about what they are all doing to play a part in helping, such as social distancing and wearing masks,” Navsaria advised. “This teaches children problem-solving skills. When children develop a roadmap to solve problems, they feel a better sense of agency and control — all contributors to resilience.”
In addition to practical steps to prevent illness (like washing hands and keeping a safe distance from others in the grocery store), there are many other areas of pandemic life that kids can control: how they spend their time at home, what they do to manage tough emotions, which self-care tools they utilize to reduce stress, etc. Parents and kids can discuss these coping methods and even make a list of them together.
“Parents can use the term ‘bounce back’ to make the process more accessible to children, but it is equally important for parents to walk children through the details of the process,” said Navsaria. “It is easy to forget that children need these complex processes to be broken down into small, digestible and meaningful parts. Having discussions with children on how they have displayed resilience by identifying coping skills in response to less complex situations in the past is a good place to start.”
Helping their community by donating groceries or raising money for front-line workers is another way that kids can feel empowered rather than helpless.
“Talk with your child about how having empathy ― true caring and love for others ― means that we will also suffer when we feel a loss,” Knippenberg said. “Remind them how their worries about others and their feelings of loss come from a place of caring about life. Then remind them that living in a world of love and connectedness is worth the price of suffering.”
Model Resilience Yourself
“Mostly you teach your kids this stuff by doing it in front of them,” said psychotherapist Noel McDermott. “So if a parent learns resilience techniques and does them, their kids will do it as well.”
Parents can demonstrate how they face challenges and frustration head-on and use different coping tactics like meditation, talking to loved ones, making art or playing music.
“Talking about resilience and the positive things that can come out of a crisis is not an attempt to paint a happy picture of these times, but to create real, measurable factors that can be gained by coming through a difficult time.”
“We also should model self-care through healthy behaviors,” said Victor Carrion, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and director of Stanford University’s Early Life Stress and Resilience Program. “For example, by having a healthy diet, good sleep hygiene, not abusing alcohol, tobacco or other drugs, and exercising physically and mentally.”
In addition, parents can share family stories about adversity and strength or read books with messages of resilience with their children.
Know It’s A Long Road
The past months have been about transition, survival and worry, but much of the mourning over the losses of the pandemic may come later, as we gradually get back to some sense of normalcy.
Knippenberg advised parents to keep these resilience lessons ongoing, pay attention to behavioral changes over time, and consider reaching out to a child mental health professional if needed. Children facing food insecurity, the deaths of loved ones or the loss of a home are extra vulnerable and may require a longer recovery process.
Oriard noted, however, that the long-term effects may not be all negative.
“Talking about resilience and the positive things that can come out of a crisis is not an attempt to paint a happy picture of these times, but to create real, measurable factors that can be gained by coming through a difficult time,” she explained. “There is a term emerging in psychology research called ‘post-traumatic growth.’ It refers to the positive growth that comes after a period of psychological struggle and adversity.”
Parents can help their children grow as they move through difficult, unpredictable situations like the current crisis. They may notice their kids become better at coping with boredom, playing independently and adapting to change.
These new skills will help them when lockdown measures get lifted and new challenges present themselves in the transition to our new normal. Children can ultimately thrive while navigating this change if they know they have the love and support of their families and communities.
“Every family is different, and so is every child,” Carrion said. “One needs to identify those strengths within ourselves that will help us battle negative thoughts and attitudes. Each family structure is unique, and depending on your family composition and the age of your children, your approach may vary. You do not need to be perfect, and you do not need to do it alone. Remember, it takes a village.”
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