Building the Resilience and Toughness Our Kids Need in Challenging Times

It’s been a tough year. Reflecting back on 2020, there’s been the backdrop of local, national and world events – the pandemic, economic turmoil, stay-at-home orders, a divisive election that feels like is has gone on forever, outrage and protest over the death of George Floyd and others, wildfires (smoke, evacuations, resulting loss of lives and homes) – on top of the more personal family stresses. Many families have had it much worse than ours, with stress from losing jobs and business income, losing housing–food–health care security, even losing family members. World events are pushing my kid into adult worries and responsibilities earlier than I would like. She’s a young adult, and would be taking on adult responsibilities anyway, but the pace is definitely faster and I’m thinking about how to support her in these difficult times.

This has inspired me to write this article about children and stress. You can’t control everything for your kids, but you have dominion over home life, which plays an essential role in building the resilience and skills that help your child bounce back from setbacks, conflicts, and stressors that are inevitably part of their lives.

Here are some questions and ideas to consider for building the resilience and mental toughness our kids need in challenging times…

As adults we do better when we are calm, balanced, well nourished and well rested. This is even more important for children. Are we role-modeling the tools and practices to achieve this?

Do we love the world we live in? Our children chose to come to us in this time, so it is up to us to express joy and delight with life. Do our messages about our world paint a positive picture? Do we demonstrate a reverence for life and gratitude for the journey we share with our children?

What is the appropriateness of what we say in front of our children? Is their involvement in adult conversation and access to news age appropriate? Discuss events in a way that best fits their age and personality.

Is there a balance of quiet and active play, and a balance between calming days vs. arousing days for your child? An active day is OK on occasion, but day after day loaded with activity and stimulation depletes reserves. A busy, hectic, schedule often produces a reactive child. Our bodies were designed to stay in states of “fight or flight” arousal for a very brief period. A prolonged period of elevated stress is well documented to result in negative physical and mental effects. The threshold for children is much lower than adults, even though they sometimes seem to have limitless energy. The pandemic has caused many activities to stop, and the pace of our lives has slowed, sometimes dramatically. This can be good to a point, but expecting children to stay inside, calm and quiet day after day is unrealistic. Plan ways to be active and break the routine. Do dance and exercise routines together. Cook meals together. Do creative projects together. Clean, declutter, and rearrange the house together.

Have you helped your child build a support system? Do they have at least one or two close friends? Do they get the help they need with class work? Do they get help when they need it to handle conflicts?

Does your child get enough exercise, immune-enhancing nutritional food, time outside in nature, enough down-time and an appropriate number of hours of sleep consistently every day? Are meal times relaxed rather than rushed? Is there time to talk and process the day as a family? Do they play and sleep in a space that is clean and uncluttered?

Has your child learned skills to calm and soothe him or herself? A young child may appreciate a “cozy corner” as a place to go when they are feeling tired, over stimulated or overwhelmed. A warm sheepskin, a handmade doll or stuffed animal “friend”, a lavender pillow and one or two picture books create a cozy space to go (not as a punishment, but rather to calm and collect oneself). Exercise, music, yoga are tools. All kids (and parents) benefit from creative expression; it’s a safe way to express feelings and emotions, and break stressful thinking patterns. Have some simple supplies available and consider doing crafting-artistic-DIY projects as a family.

Does your child get enough physical warmth and affection? Does your child know he or she has your emotional support and do you refrain from severe criticism? We are all on our last nerve, and that can result in taking our frustrations out on those we’re closest to and sharing a household with. This is a time to have honest conversations about our stress level, cultivate awareness of when we are venting on our partners/children because of our worries and frustrations, and apologize when it happens.

Is there a spiritual practice within your family? Many adults use prayer, meditation or visualization to stay in balance, and children can too. A simple visualization can be a helpful tool – for example, help your child visualize a column of light coming down from the heart of God, surrounding and protecting him. Or imagine a ray of light coming down from the sky and spreading peace, love and joy across the planet. Guide your child through a meditation on a nature scene. Help your child create a positive visual image to use at bedtime or when they are stressed – for example, a picture of them with their friends (maybe a friend they are having difficulty with) being surrounded by angels whispering messages of wisdom into their ears to help guide their actions.

Does your child have your undivided attention for conversation at some point in the day? Frequent, in-depth conversations and communication between parents and children help build resilience. So does a support network of adults outside the home that can offer access to a variety of adult viewpoints and experiences. This network of other adults is harder to provide right now, but technology tools can help.

Does your home have clear rules and expectations? Clear boundaries for behavior that enforce structure and rules within the household are helpful, along with reasonable and consistent discipline/consequences when rules are violated.

Research shows these traits and characteristics increase resilience and act as “protective factors”

  • A sense of purpose and belief in a positive future.
  • A commitment to education and learning.
  • The ability to act independently and feel a sense of control over one’s environment.
  • The ability to be adaptable and flexible.
  • The ability to have empathy and caring for others.
  • The ability to solve problems.
  • The ability to plan for the future.
  • The ability to be resourceful in seeking out sources of support.
  • Conflict resolution and critical thinking skills.

Your home life and conversations can support the development of these traits. Keep the age and developmental stage of your child (or children) in mind.

It is an important job to prepare our kids for the world we live in, with a lot of moving parts right now. One thing has made me feel hopeful – I was raised by two depression-era parents. They both lived through great stress and deprivation during the depression and World War II, and came out of their experiences as resourceful and resilient adults who lived rich, full lives they enjoyed. Perhaps their tough experiences prepared them for adult life in a way an easy childhood would not have. Likewise, while my childhood was idyllic in some ways, it was very tough for me in other ways and despite the challenges I’ve gone on to fulfill my dreams. I know with love and support our kids can too. I like remembering this song lyric from another very divisive time in America. “Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice but to carry on” (1970, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Young, Carry On). It helps me remember we have gone through turmoil before and we’ve come out the other side.

The sky is clearing and the night has cried enough
The sun, he comes, the world to soften up
Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice but to carry on

The fortunes of fables are able to sing the song
Now witness the quickness with which we get along
To sing the blues you’ve got to live the dues and carry on

Carry on, love is coming, love is coming to us all


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