Building Resilience in Children and Families during the Pandemic

These practical tips from Jennifer Keluskar, PhD, can be used to improve a child’s coping skills and functioning at school, at home and in the community. Dr. Keluskar is a pediatrics developmental/behavioral clinical psychologist at Stony Brook Medicine. She specializes in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, anxiety disorders and behavior management for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children.

The countless changes that have unfolded since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic have brought unprecedented challenges to so many.  It’s a time when all at once, your family and families across the country and around the world are faced with illness, limited salaries and unemployment, and the task of managing work from home, while home-schooling children and maintaining structure and daily routines.  The silver lining in all this, however, is that all the increased anxiety, uncertainties and demands of these times present an opportunity for parents and children to build resilience — the ability to weather stressful situations.  

As a parent, you can build resilience in your children and teach them effective coping skills by setting an example of how you handle this situation. Here are some ways to help build resilience and set the stage for your children to follow in your steps:

  1. Increasing Your Child’s Feeling of Competence

Self-competency, or one’s belief in doing something successfully in a given area, is a trait that helps build resilience. It comes with increased knowledge, practice, and lots of patience. As a parent, you can help build your own feeling of self-competence by seeking help from a number of different resources including books, online and from people you know who have mastered the art of resilience. If you seek the help of others, it should only be the phone or through video chat, of course — not in person during this time of social distancing.  While you’re working on your own self competency skills, you can also choose a few activities that are meaningful to your children — the “do a few things well” approach —so that they don’t feel pressured and overwhelmed thinking they have to be good at everything. This will also help prevent the urge for perfectionism, which more often than not, can be more harmful than helpful when building resilience.  Offering praise for your child’s stick-to-it-ness goes a long way.

  1. Get Enough Rest to Prevent Fatigue

Knowing how much rest you need isn’t as easy to measure as how many Google® Classroom assignments have posted for your child to complete. You have to know your body and set boundaries.  Also, the notion that rest isn’t seen as a sign of strength (and doesn’t lead to direct encouragement or reward, be it praise or extra income) doesn’t help matters. The irony is that feeling well-rested emotionally and physically will give you a serious head start — a fighting chance — at building resilience.  If sleep isn’t coming easily, try to find time to meditate during the day or join your kids in Cosmic Kids® Yoga on YouTube® (if you don’t succumb to checking emails while they’re engaged in this activity).

  1. Balance Flexibility with Limit Setting

One extremely useful piece of parenting advice is to create structure and routine.  That said, parenting experts also emphasize that it’s OK to be more lax with junk food and screen time during these difficult times. You may be thinking, “Huh? Those are conflicting messages!”  And while they are, effectively navigating between these two schools of thought helps you come to a truth that works for you and your family and contributes to your family’s psychological wellbeing.

In other words, it’s helpful to have flexible limits when it comes to managing your children, particularly during such uncertain times.  This means sticking to clear household rules, such as using respectful language and following directions. It also means prioritizing tasks, emphasizing quality over quantity, and recognizing new opportunities for building skills such as collaboration with household tasks.

  1. Understand Your Child’s and Your Coping Style Tendencies

When your child expresses a negative emotion, do you jump in and try to solve their problem? Or do you acknowledge your child’s emotions without offering a solution or try to create distractions for them? You may be wondering, “Which style is best?” The answer is that it depends on the situation and on how effective a response is going to be in that particular situation.

Even if a particular strategy has worked in your favor at least some of the time, it’s important to recognize when you’re getting stuck on one style in cases when it would be more effective to shift to a different one.

Here are some quick strategies to improve your ability to lead by example with effective coping skills and teach them to your child:

  • Balance active problem solving with acceptance.  This means validating your child’s emotions (no matter how silly the reason for their upset might seem), as well as acknowledging and validating your own emotions.  It also means acknowledging the limited control we have over certain situations.
  • Recognize when you and/or your child get stuck on a problem and help shift the thinking to find a solution in a different way.  This helps give your child the tools they need to generate their own solutions. One example of this is to say, “What else could you do?” Children may need help with this as first but will become more independent with time and practice.  If your child is not open to solutions, good old distraction might be your best bet.
  • Make expectations of your child’s behavior simple and clear. This helps ensure that they follow through and it encourages self-soothing. Self soothing is what parents do when they pat their infant child's back or rock them to sleep when they’re fussy. Self soothing is a skill that helps when we’re experiencing pain. The key is to find healthy self-soothing skills that help you or your child cope vs. quick-fix soothing that can be destructive, such as tearing up work that’s challenging to complete or destroying a jigsaw puzzle that’s hard to solve.
  • Encourage collaboration and flexibility. In other words, choose your battles wisely and help your child feel like their viewpoint is being taken seriously.
  1. Build a Team of Supportive Individuals – While developing a sense of self competence is important for resilience, insisting on solving all problems by yourself will likely make it more difficult for you to manage stress. Instead, try reaching out to teachers, therapists, and others who were supporting your child before the pandemic. This will help in terms of communicating expectations, and make it clearer to all involved, about what is outside of your control (think working full-time jobs from home and/or caring for ill relatives).  It can also help you prioritize educational and other goals for your child.