Helping Children and Youth Thrive in Times of Stress

Do you often find yourself thinking, “ I can’t stand to see my child unhappy”?

B.Ed, M..Ed
Registered Psychologist
I have worked in schools and private practice as a teacher and a School Psychologist for over 35 years.

“The important thing to realize is what happens to you is much less important than how you respond to what happens. That determines the way forward in your life.”

Eckhart Tolle

In his book, Change Your World-The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success (2018), Michael Ungar, Ph.D, points out that our emotions are as much a collective experience as they are individual. People tell us how we should feel and we listen to them. In the current climate marked by the pandemic the feeling that we have been exposed to most often, largely through our access to media, is FEAR.  Unfortunately, simple brain science tells us that when we operate from a place of constant fear then we are not able to access the part of our brain that helps us to reason and problem-solve effectively. We can, however, block out the noise and make choices that prevent fear from ruling our lives. When we experience a prolonged stressful event, our path to resilience is influenced by our personal strengths, the message we hear from others and the resources and opportunities provided to us (Ungar, 2018).Caregivers play a vital role in turning a difficult time into an opportunity for growth for children, youth and themselves. Consider the following: 

Do you often find yourself thinking, “ I can’t stand to see my child unhappy”? Resilience only occurs when there is adversity.  It is not about having our every need met. Children learn to “bounce back” by meeting an increasing complex set of challenges, some of which they will handle well, and some of which they will handle badly (Levin, 2020). Assume resiliency and model that all emotions are okay. Try saying, “You may feel bad-but you can handle it,” or “I think you can figure it out, let me know if you need help”. Building capacity for coping eases anxiety. 

Constant exposure to distressing images impacts our brains by further “sensationalizing” and “emotionalizing” bad events (Levine, 2020). We become more “threatened” and look for the bad news to confirm our fears. While it is important to limit a child’s exposure to media, depending on their age and development, it is equally important to help them think critically and assess information. For example, help your child understand that the main job of their brain is to keep them safe. In order to do this, the brain is always making predictions. That is why during the pandemic, medical scientists are always creating prediction models. We have seen, however, that this is difficult to do without enough data.  It is important to remember that predictions are hypotheses, not facts, and they need to be tested.  Remind them to ask themselves,” Right now, am I safe? Is my family well?”  Encourage your children to act like detectives and make sure their feelings and behaviors are based on good evidence. 

Nurture Hope and Optimism in your children. Madeline Levine, PhD, in her book, Ready or Not-Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World (2020), promotes the idea that the future is not a tide that is going to crush us-it’s a wave we are part of. Model for your children that even during difficult times we have some control over our environment and ourselves. Healthy thinking is less about our own needs and more about our relations with others. As a family, focus on ways you can be helpful. Now that it is spring time, consider doing some basic yard clean up for an elderly or ill neighbor. Take turns planning a fun activity for the family. Spend some time on concrete planning such as researching and voting on where you would like to go on a family vacation. It is important to remind ourselves and our children that “this too shall pass” and that working together we can learn from the experience and be better prepared for the future. 

Resources:

Levine, Madeline, PhD, (2020). Ready or Not –Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World. HarperCollins Publishers, New York. 

Ungar, Michael, PhD, (2018), Change Your World-The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success. Sutherland House, Toronto, Canada 

Deborah Hinds-Nunziata
B.Ed, M..Ed Registered Psychologist I have worked in schools and private practice as a teacher and a School Psychologist for over 35 years.