While kids may be resilient, the pandemic is testing the limits of that resilience.
Children and teens are dealing with a toxic cocktail of stressors and it’s hurting them. According to a study from the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, 70 per cent of children and youth surveyed experienced a deterioration of mental health in the first wave of the pandemic.
Yet there are some simple, proven strategies that can help children cope, even if caregivers and parents feel they’re not coping so well themselves, said Nancy Heath, a professor of educational and counselling psychology and associate dean of research and innovation in the faculty of education at McGill University in Montreal.
“If you give the overarching message to your child that you love them, even if you’re a bit of a wreck yourself and you believe that they will get through this and you will be OK, then they will have that solid foundation to navigate. They’ll be OK,” she told Dr. Brian Goldman, host of The Dose and White Coat, Black Art.
Heath studies resilience in children, teens and young adults and recommends four key resilience-building strategies parents can use during difficult times:
- Take a pause or a break. This can mean any non-work-related activity that distracts you or your child. These could include in-the-moment breathing techniques or mindfulness strategies, as well as things like hobbies, outings and other activities.
- Enhance positive emotions. Heath said we focus too much on trying to decrease negative emotions, which is very hard to do. So focus on positive things, however brief. A first sip of coffee for parents, a cuddle with a pet for kids.
- Show kindness to others. Heath said there is robust evidence that doing something for someone else builds our own wellness and resilience. So find a way for you and/or your child to do something kind for someone else, even something small.
- Keep up social connections. Find ways for kids to connect with others even if it’s virtual. Heath said social connections are critical for resilience and well-being.
Listen, empathize, support
If your kid is melting down or facing a difficult situation, two things that are likely happening more often in the pandemic, Heath suggests a two-step process that will help kids cope in the short-term and build resilience in the long-term:
- Step 1: Let them be upset. If we say things to kids like “it’s not a big deal,” that gives kids the message it’s unacceptable to share their negative feelings. So let them be emotional and empathize with them. If they’re upset over an assignment, Heath suggests saying something like: “I can see you feel so stressed over this.”
- Step 2: Don’t solve their problem. Heath said when parents solve their kids’ problems, the message that sends to their kids is: “I don’t believe you can problem-solve. You need me. You’re not OK on your own.”
Instead, parents should let the child or teen lead the problem solving by asking questions like: “What are you thinking that you’re going to do about this? How do you want to go forward? What can I do to support you?”
All kids will have intermittent struggles, particularly now. But Heath warns if your child is struggling to function day-to-day, is unable to sleep, unable to study or unable to do other normal things, you should seek help from a mental health professional.
Parents can also help their kids by modelling healthy coping behaviours.
“Let your upset show and then model how you cope with it,” Heath told Goldman, even if you don’t get it right every time.
For example, if you have a really bad Zoom meeting, and you respond in an unhealthy way with an angry outburst or by eating “three bags of chips, the chocolate cake to boot,” Heath said that’s OK. You can model for your kids how you’re going to try to do better next time. For example, talk to them about how, in future, you plan to go on a walk or call a friend when you feel overwhelmed.
Watch: Kids find the bright side of COVID-19 from CBC Kids News:
However, there are limits on how much you should share with your kids. Heath said it’s important to keep in mind that parents and primary caregivers need to be the safe haven in the storm, so “you should save the real catastrophizing for your friend or your partner or a family member.”
Resilience in BIPOC kids
A recent report by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), From Risk to Resilience: An Equity Approach to COVID-19, highlighted how the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on some communities, including Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) because of inequities in areas ranging from income and housing to employment and access to health care.
The unequal nature of the pandemic’s impact means some kids in and lower income families are facing more demands on their resilience.
Noreen Sibanda, a registered psychologist in Edmonton and the executive director of the Black Therapists of Alberta, has seen a deterioration of mental health in the students she interacts with across all demographics
But Sibanda, who also works as a therapist at different schools, including at the high school on Saddle Lake Cree Nation reserve, north of Edmonton, said BIPOC kids often have extra burdens that impact their well-being — food insecurity, precariously employed parents and crowded living conditions, for example. There are also specific cultural contexts that need to be recognized.
I think part of the Black community is resilient to a fault.– Noreen Sibanda
Sibanda said fostering resilience in Black kids, for instance, needs to start with an understanding of the complicated interaction of resilience and stigma around mental health in parts of the Black community.
“I think part of the Black community is resilient to a fault.
“If people can survive years of of slavery, trauma and having to migrate to new places,” your struggle to get out of bed may seem small, said Sibanda, and that can make people feel like they don’t have a right to be struggling, and reluctant to speak up about their mental health issues.
According to Sibanda, a crucial part of fostering resilience in Black families is about normalizing the conversation around mental health.
“We think by not talking about it, it makes it disappear, but it becomes the elephant in the room,” said Sibanda. “We don’t talk about it. We don’t discuss that. We just move on from it.”
Sibanda counsels Black parents to talk openly about their own mental health issues and other struggles.
“Your kids don’t need a parent that knows it all,” she said. “They need to know that they have a parent that’s trying.”
“You are not going to build resilience in your child if you’re beating yourself up for not being a good parent … if your parenting is OK, passable, then you are doing an amazing job.”
Check out Prescription for Resilience: Coping with COVID, a pecial series of stories presented by CBC Radio One’s White Coat, Black Art.