Resilience is the ability to achieve positive outcomes (mentally, emotionally, and socially) despite adversity.
We’ve all heard stories of resilience, of people who manage to be successful despite being born into adverse circumstances. Or people who find their way back to living full happy lives despite difficult things that happened. These stories inspire us, because we know that more often than not, it is hard to recover from tough life events, that adversity usually leads to negative outcomes.
That’s why resilience is remarkable... but also “ordinary magic”, as described by resilience researcher Ann Masten. Resilience is not made up of superpowers that only a few have, rather, most of us are already in possession of resources and skills that make us resilient, gathered and honed by having to navigate countless challenging moments we’ve experienced throughout our life. Learning to walk, falling off a bike, starting a new school, moving house, and losing jobs, loved ones, relationships and having to start over again. The context of heading back to school in an ongoing global pandemic may be new, but the stress of navigating change and loss is probably familiar to many of us. Stress is not always bad and can be helpful for pushing us towards becoming stronger, braver, and being more creative problem solvers. However, when challenges and stress overwhelm and affects our ability to function, it becomes a problem. That’s why it is helpful to work on growing our resilience, so we can cope with different or bigger challenges that happen to come our way.
A helpful way to think about resilience is as a balance between the challenges we face, what researchers call “risk factors”, and the resources we have to cope with them, that are called “protective factors”. If life is easy, we do not need a lot to be resilient, but when things get tough, the more protective factors we have, they are more likely to we will be able to cope and bounce back.
So, what are protective factors that make up resilience?
For decades resilience researchers have studied children in adverse circumstances who manage to do well and even thrive. What they found was that these highly resilient kids have a set of factors in common that allow them to have better outcomes than many others in the same situation.
The lists of factors are long, here are some main themes that keep showing up in the research.
As children are still in the early stages of the journey of growing resilience, adults can make a big difference with intentional efforts to promote their resilience.
As a parent and educator that works with teachers, I have found that focusing on resilience is very helpful for setting kids up for a successful transition back to school.
This is a good approach as it is strength-based; inviting us to focus on what we have and can work on rather than what is lacking, or that we can’t control.
When we understand resilience, we can be proactive about building up their resilience in preparation for tough times ahead. As a parent, it simplifies my parenting at this time, when I know they are having to adapt to so much change in their lives as they go back to school.
I prioritize by thinking- what will help them get through this tough patch, and what can I do to strengthen these factors that can help them succeed?
Below are three areas I would like to highlight and offer some strategies for.
1. Strengthen relationships with love and connection.
Decades of research on child development show that the most important ingredient for children’s well-being and resilience is feeling loved. Feeling loved brings a stable sense of security that enables them to cope with adversity, whether at school or at home.
Things to try:
Fill your children up with acts that assure them of your unconditional love and unbreakable connection. This can be love expressed in words, or notes in lunchboxes or extra hugs, joining in what they love to do, scheduling in moments when you can be fully present with them.
Acts like this are like food for their hearts, when they are full, they can cope better with challenges that come their way.
Connect before you direct is an idea from Gabor Mate and Gordon Neufeld. After an absence, (such as when they get home from school) resist the urge to direct them to do after school tasks right away, instead, do something that nourishes the connection with them, and help them feel seen and valued for who they are, first. Hugs, checking in with their day and feelings, enjoy a snack with them. Then, direct away!
Don’t forget the relationships at school are a part of their resilience too! Remind your children that they can turn to other adults for help, care and support. Encourage kids to reconnect with the adults in their school. You could empower them with some social strategies, e.g., show your teacher that awesome rock from our camping trip, or ask them what the best thing was they ate all summer.
For many of us, adults and kids, COVID has shaken our sense of safety in the world, and children cannot learn if they don’t feel safe. Assure them that school is a safe place, and adults are doing their best to look after their well-being. Follow through and let this be reflected in how you act, even if you have your worries. We know well that kids do not always believe what we say, they are more likely to do what we do.
Make see-ya-later plans. As kids adapt to being back at school, it can be helpful to provide them with something to look forward to at the end of the day (e.g., reading a book together, playing a game, or a special treat). This can help farewells not feel like a negative event. For some kids having an end goal like this can be very helpful if their day is not going well. This could become a routine, which are important for building a sense of security. When things are uncertain, having things in our days we can count on can feel really good.
Debrief the day in a fun and positive way, perhaps asking them for a star (a thing or person that made their day brighter) and a wish they have for tomorrow. This is one way to help them end the day and look forward to the next with optimism and hope.
2. Make Space for Emotions
Transitions can be an emotional time. Children and adults may feel all sorts of feelings, which might change from day to day too. There is simply no wrong way to feel.
Depending on where they are in their emotional development, kids may or may not know what they are feeling, and how to feel better. These feelings can become overwhelming and get in the way of being able to regulate their actions so they can have an enjoyable time with others.
It’s helpful to create a safe space for catching their emotions. For example, instead of saying, “you have nothing to worry about”, or “it’ll be ok”, let them get it out, and help them make sense of their feelings.
Here are a few things to try.
Notice any big feelings they may be having. Observe, and reflect to them emotions showing up in their facial expressions, tone of voice, posture and behavior.
Ask open questions and keep an open mind. Open questions create space for them to reflect and speak thoughts aloud. This can help them with emotional processing, and help you with understanding their inner world.
Practice active listening, which helps them feel heard and valued, and nourishes the connection with you.
Offer labels or ways to describe how they are feeling. This could be especially helpful for younger kids who may have a more limited emotion vocabulary. Some studies show that when we hear or say a word that feels like it fits for how we feel inside, the emotional center of our brains automatically calms down. Being able to recognize and name feelings is important for building their ability to manage their emotions.
Validate these emotional experiences. We cannot help what we feel, even if we know it is not logical or helpful sometimes. With many experiences being so new and big, children often have big feelings in situations that do not seem to affect others. To have an adult validate their feelings as right or normal helps them trust themselves and feel understood.
Some feelings can be very big and scary. Support them in feeling and understanding their emotions can help them ride it out, so they can experience how things will eventually get better. Being able to sit with uncomfortable emotions without shutting down or running away from it is part of resilience.
3. Promote a sense of mastery
Kids who are resilient believe in their competence and ability to cope, even with situations that are new to them, or more challenging than any they have encountered before. This sense of agency, or mastery is something adults can help to foster intentionally. Here are some ideas:
Help them identify situations they are worried about, explore and walk through possible outcomes. Role playing and practicing situations in advance can help reduce worries.
Help them figure out strategies they can use to reassure themselves when they feel anxious or overwhelmed during the day. These could be positive self-talk reminders, comforting physical objects (a photo of the family or pet, small stuffy, essential oils) that helps them calm down.
Normalize worries and mistakes, by sharing your own COVID worries and social mistakes. To have a sense of mastery we need to know that being worried and making mistakes does not mean we failed, but we are getting better at this.
Allow space for ‘warming up’ slowly with short playdates and going slow with activities and after school programs. Dipping their toes instead of diving right in provides them a chance to observe, figure things out, build confidence and be more equipped to cope if things do not go their way.
Empower them with actions they can take. Doing something about a problem, even if the smallest of actions, can reduce the feeling of powerlessness and help kids feel more agency in the world.
“I AM NOT AFRAID OF STORMS, FOR I AM LEARNING HOW TO SAIL MY SHIP.”
- Louisa May Alcott
Can you think of some of the ways your children have shown resilience in the last year, getting through the many changes that have happened in their lives?
It’s important to help kids see and celebrate their resilience. This can help nurture the positive self-view so essential for resilience and help them trust themselves to solve problems.
In the face of something they are struggling with, you can remind them of their resilience, and help them remember how they have overcome similar situations before. This can help the present problems look more manageable, boost their sense of mastery, and also help them understand that tough moment like this builds their ability to handle future challenges.
Don't forget to practice self-care!
As parents, our own self-care is a necessary part of promoting our children's resilience. It fills the bucket of goodwill that we have had to draw so heavily from during this time. When you focus on your well-being, you end up having more inner resources you can use towards the wellbeing of others.
Self-care doesn’t have to be a big or complicated thing: it can be as simple as:
We may not be able to take away the stress or challenges our kids experience, but we can help them create new experiences of feeling strong, hopeful, and connected again. The back-to-school transition can be an opportunity for them to uncover or grow their resilience, so that they can them meet the many moments of change and challenges that happen in the course of a life, with a sense of “I can do this, people have my back, and I know I have the ability to get through this, and be successful.”
Your emotional well-being is what makes theirs possible.
I know that I can have all the strategies for supporting my kids in my head, but when I neglect my own well-being, my capacity to be rational and kind goes down the drain. Supporting your child’s emotional well-being on a good day takes lots of emotional energy, and quickly becomes impossible if we are exhausted and stressed. How are you doing at this moment? Self-care is a necessary part of supporting our children’s well-being. It fills the bucket of goodwill that we have had to draw so heavily from during this time, and thus fuels our ability to care for others. Here are some ways to find greater peace and ease as we navigate our way through these uncertain times.
You do you, let them do them. Watching human behaviour during this pandemic has been illuminating of how diverse and dynamic we are as a species. People are well dispersed on a long line, stretching from strict full isolation on one end to joining lockdown protests on the other. Where we stand is influenced by our diverse immediate life circumstances, as well as the stuff we cannot see- values, beliefs, temperament, the patterns we have developed around how we think and feel about the world and people around us. We can all find more peace if we focus on our own decisions rather than other people’s actions. Trust that you know better than anyone else what to do given your personal circumstances and the unique needs of your children. Then, try not to hold it to heart if others do not agree with your decisions. It may also help to assume that others too have made intentional and informed decisions like you have.
Give yourself space and time to decompress and recover. If you have decided to send your child back to school, it may look like you finally have some time to catch up on work, start those projects, finish writing that chapter. Try to resist putting more on yourself right away. It is a big transition for you too. Chances are, you were holding up yourself, your kids, and perhaps your partner through the stress of living in a pandemic. It is objectively hard to be isolated at home with your child and juggling the full-time roles of parent, teacher and worker in the time allotted for one job. Even if you have managed to find ease with that, it can be scary to look to the future when you’ve been so focused on keeping the boat afloat in the present. If all you do on that first day back is cry in the car, daydream in the strange quiet of your house or take a walk by yourself, you have been productive. When time opens up for you, making space to reflect on how you are feeling and doing something for yourself that feels good and relaxing is important, legitimate work.
Cultivate self-compassion. What expectations are you placing on yourself, and are they realistic? When things are tough, it is not uncommon to be hard on ourselves and think we should be doing better. Try to offer yourself the kindness that you would show a good friend, and recognize that your struggles do not reflect a flaw within you but are part of a common human experience where everybody struggles and fails. This is the practice of self-compassion, which has been shown to boost resilience and physical and mental health.
This blog post is part of my article, How parents can support their child’s emotional well-being when schools re-open, on medium.com, click here for full article.
The re-opening of schools can be a stressful time for many children and parents as they navigate yet another turn on this journey of parenting in a pandemic. With return to school being voluntary here in Canada, parents are asked to make an impossible decision during a very confusing time. There are no ideal options out there today. Information provided is incomplete, and guidelines lack clarity. The only thing we all agree on is that school life will be very different.
As a researcher on the development of emotional resilience in families, I was recently asked to speak about what parents can do to nurture the emotional well-being of their children during this transition. In this article, I offer some insights, and actions parents can take to support their children’s emotional health and development during these difficult times.
Tune into your child’s emotional world, and help them make sense of it.
My tween daughter, usually the most laid back person in the family, has had many angry, melancholy and panicky episodes lately. She misses hanging out with her friends at school, having casual conversations about schoolwork, cool Tiktok videos and weird news nuggets. She cannot wait to go back to school. Yet she has so many worries that keep her up at night. What if it is awkward? What if others are now better than me at math? What if my friends will not be there, or in my group, or are closer to others now?
My younger child has sensory challenges that makes it hard for her to be in a classroom. She has loved being at home, but misses her teacher and friends. She wants and does not want to go back to school. Just knowing that going back to school is now possible makes butterflies happen all over her body, and she cannot say why. Thoughts of seeing her friends again lights her up but also sometimes makes her shrivel and bury her face in pillows. Lately, she has been falling to pieces more often. Life’s little frustrations (missing shoe, spilled drink, careless words) she had managed well before now leaves her screaming or bawling her eyes out.
Going back to school, or continuing to stay home when others are returning, can be an emotionally complex time for children. They may feel any combination of excited, scared, relieved, sad, angry, disappointed, jealous, nervous, happy or stressed. Depending on where they are in their emotional development, they may or may not know what they are feeling, and how to feel better. These feelings can become overwhelming and get in the way of being able to regulate their actions so they can have an enjoyable time with others.
As parents, we can help them make sense of their feelings, and help them come up with ways to cope. Here are a few things to try.
Keep an open mind and ask open questions. “You said you don’t know if you want to go back to school. Can you say more about that?”. Open questions create space for them to reflect and speak thoughts aloud. This can help them with emotional processing, you with understanding their inner world, and both of you with feeling more connected to each other.
Offer labels or ways to describe how they are feeling. “It sounds like you might be feeling nervous about being around your friends again”, or “I wonder if you are feeling a little scared…”. This could be especially helpful for younger kids who may have a more limited emotion vocabulary. Some studies show that when we hear or say a word that feels right for how we feel inside, the emotional center of our brains automatically calms down. Being able to recognize and name feelings is important for regulating emotions, and is a foundational skill for emotional intelligence. This “name it to tame it” theory is well supported in emotion research.
Validate these emotional experiences. “Gosh, what a tricky situation to be in. Of course, you would feel a little scared.” or “If it was me, I would feel nervous too.” Emotions are an automatic response to stimuli. In other words, we cannot help what we feel, even if we know it is not logical, desired, or helpful sometimes. With many experiences being so new to them, children often have big feelings in situations that may not seem to affect others as much. To have an adult validate their feelings as right or normal helps them trust themselves and feel understood. The power of feeling seen and understood cannot be underestimated, and goes a long way towards dialling down the intensity of big feelings.
Make a plan. When they are calm, help them work through tricky situations or thoughts. Gently suggest ways to think differently- reframing, challenging or redirecting worrisome thoughts. Empower them with actions they can take. For example, my tween emailed her teacher to ask to be in the same group as her friends. If it is situation-specific, discuss and walk through what they can do when it comes up. Role playing can be very helpful. My daughters and I practice what they can say or do if things become awkward or frustrating.
If you can only do one thing, this one’s it- fill them up with love and connection. Decades of research on child development show that the most important ingredient for children’s well-being and resilience is feeling loved. Feeling loved brings a stable sense of security and connection to you that enables them to cope with adversity, whether at school or at home. So fill them up with acts that assure them of your unconditional love and unbreakable connection. This can be big hugs, words, joining in their play, love notes, and extra moments of being fully present with them. This week I have prepped myself to be more forgiving and indulgent, foregoing schoolwork and pre-made plans for longer morning snuggles, ice cream dates and laying on the love to a whole new level of cringe.
Prepare for the new normal.
In many schools, there are new screening, handwashing, seating and eating guidelines. If your kids are going back to school, prepare them for the new procedures in place. Talking about these in detail and practicing them can help soothe anxiety. Connect with the principal and teachers, voice your questions and concerns so you can feel assured and heard. Don’t forget to show them some love for showing up for their students, they have become our new frontline workers.
If you have the mental space for this, prepare your children for practicing kindness and gratitude. It is helpful to have conversations about being kind to anyone wearing or not wearing a mask, and to be mindful of their reactions if someone sneezes or coughs. Remind them to appreciate the teachers for being there.
When I feel overwhelmed, I find comfort in remembering that parents have been doing this work of nurturing their children through challenging times for thousands of years on these very lands. Together, we too will get through this, and emerge stronger and wiser for it.
This blog post is part of my article, How parents can support their child’s emotional well-being when schools re-open, on medium.com, click here for full article.