Building Resilience in Kids

Prior to this pandemic, our children always ran errands with us. Then the world turned upside down and suddenly our children did not leave the house for months. Yes, we took them outside or walked around our neighborhood, but like many other families, they did not enter a store, business or recreation center for many, many weeks.

First, a little story for context:

For Lyla’s birthday in May, she asked to go shopping at the mall. Although we knew that wasn’t a place we could take her, the garden centers were open.  I told her we could make our first trip out of the house to buy some flowers. 

What shocked me though, was as soon as the words left my mouth, you could see the look of fear cross her face. She started balling her eyes out and said she was too scared to go. In our kitchen, Thom and I looked at each other with concern, as we knew we were entering uncharted waters…

Our child, who naturally loves to be out and around people, who asked to go shopping, was suddenly afraid of leaving our home and entering back into society… 

As she cried in a ball on the floor, I went down to her, picked her up and hugged her. This clearly was fear, overwhelm and sadness, all being experienced in a child who doesn’t have a lot of coping abilities. Her world had been turned upside down for months and she didn’t know how to deal with it.

We let her cry and we let her feel and tell us what was going on inside her. We talked about how we would not take her anywhere we did not feel safe. And talked about how although she isn’t used to going into stores right now, she will get used to it again. 

We made the decision to take her anyways, so she could step through her fear. I took her by myself so I could be fully focused on her, while explaining how things may look a little different but that it was safe. 

Lyla did well in the store.

She told us it was so much fun and that she wasn’t afraid anymore. 

Why I tell you this story is because as I talk to more and more of you, I realize that many of us are dealing with similar situations at home. Our kids are afraid of going out or being around others. And honestly, none of us have been through a pandemic before and we did not know the best way to explain to our kids what was going on. I personally do not remember receiving any of this information while reading copious amounts of books the past 5 years in regards to parenting….

Although Thom and I did not have the news on, we still would talk about the challenges we were facing as a business and as members of our community. This experience has showed us how much those little ears are listening and our actions can depict how they experience the world as well. 

For the families who have started to come back into our office, many have said that our office is the FIRST place they have brought their family. Some kids are nervous, some kids would rather stay home, some are so excited to see other people…it really depends on your child and your family. 

Please know, we understand. This has been a crazy time for all of us. 

As more of our region opens up again, this is the time to put in the groundwork when it comes to our children and their mindsets and this is why I think it is important to discuss mental health and resiliency in ourselves and our families. 

Personally, I believe that not all fear is bad but we also don’t want fear to be the MAIN emotion our children are feeling. What can we do to help our children step back into their environment and decrease anxiety and overwhelm while enhancing self-esteem and the feelings of safety? 

Let me start with what is resilience?

Resilience is being able to bounce back from stress, challenge, tragedy, trauma or adversity. When children are resilient, they are braver, more curious, more adaptable and more able to extend their reach into the world. The great thing is that resilience is something that can be nurtured in all children. 

What action steps can we take to create stability and resilience in our households?

1. Focus on creating structure / routine to build mental health

Our mental health relies on our physical routines. Personally, when it came to us being off work for this ordeal, it took about a month for us to figure out what our routine was and the following are the things we started to implement, which helped immensely.

  • Exercise – In our house, from 11-12:30pm we get outside as a family. If it is nice, we also would go outside after nap time for a minimum of an hour. Thom and I exercise 3 times a week as well. At times it was more, especially when we were emotionally struggling.
  • Sleep – Set bedtimes and nap times helped keep us all moving forward. For Thom and I, we found ourselves staying up later than usual, which ended up making us feel more stressed. Getting to bed earlier made a huge difference in our coping ability throughout the day. 
  • Nutrition – Eat healthy and try not to use food to keep kids happy. I was on a frequent diet of salt & vinegar chips for a while (it wasn’t the healthiest). Our kids and ourselves included, do better when we have lots of veggies, protein and healthy fats.
  • Screen time – Being fully transparent, during week one, we installed a TV for the first time in our house because we needed it to cope. I hold no shame in that and you shouldn’t either – we are all doing the best we can. If you can use screens in the morning instead of the evening, it will help with keeping cortisol levels in a rhythm that are best for your kids. Screens increase cortisol and we want cortisol high in the morning and lower in the evening. Set a  specific amount of screen time allowed and stick to it. 
  • As much as possible, setting up a routine provides consistency for everyone in your family. Schedule exercise, sleep, schoolwork time, hobbies, family time, getting outside and times to do chores. 

2. Stay realistic but reassuring with your kids

Encourage discussion but be mindful to not overshare or flood your kids with facts. I am all for being honest with our children, but they don’t need to know everything that we are seeing or dealing with. Ask questions and wait for their answers. Also, let them know it is okay to ask for help.

It is factual to say that most children do not get ill from COIVD-19. Most of the precautions set out right now are meant to stop the spread, not to protect children at this time. 

3. Model Resiliency 

The small humans in our lives want to be just like us. Let your children see you deal with disappointment. In one way or another, we have all struggled with this. Let them see that sadness, frustration and disappointment are very normal human experiences so they can also safely feel for themselves. Also, resilience is not about never falling down, rather it is about getting back up again. We can help our children move through fear together while providing support so we can gradually tease out the things that are challenging them. When your kids watch you do this, they will learn to model it and want to do it as well. 

Teach them to reframe challenges in ways that feel less threatening. Reframing helps children to focus on what they do have, rather than on what they have lost. To build this skill, acknowledge their disappointment, but then steer them away from looking at what the problem has cost them and bring focus towards the opportunities it might have brought them. 

For example, we have acknowledged how sad Lyla is about missing her friends and not going to school. We let her feel those emotions – then reframing it by asking what can we do with all of our new found free time? This led us to camping as a family in our backyard. 

We know it has been a very scary time for many.

But we all have the ability to growth through this and it will be a huge blessing for your children to watch you build your own resiliency and growth mindset so that they can do the same. 

Overall, let your children know they are loved unconditionally (even though we know you already do that). Our love gives them a solid foundation to come back to when the world feels wobbly. Eventually, they will learn that they can be their own solid foundation and will believe in themselves. 

And please know, that we are here for you and your family, whenever you are ready. We truly just want the best for you, now and always!

Dr Sarah 

PS. Check out Mindset by Carol Dweck if you would love to learn more about this topic.