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Growing up behind her slightly older brother, Merrie Maldonado’s five-year-old daughter knew that the end of her preschool days were to be marked with fun celebrations: a junior graduation ceremony with a party that involved watermelons.
So when her school shut down, as they did for many young people in March and April of this year, she struggled with the disappointment. Her responses have ranged from tears of sadness at missing out, to making up songs about her absent friends, to waking in the middle of the night fearful that her mother, a mental health first responder who still reports to work, would herself fall victim to the novel human coronavirus that scuttled much of her immediate future.
“She had all these expectations,” Maldonado says. “And these kinds of losses, of not being able to finish school, are not a huge deal in the scheme of things. But to her, it’s everything.”
But Maldonado says the challenging social and emotional landscape created by the coronavirus closures presents a grim kind of opportunity for many families: how to help children learn to overcome adversity.
“I want to empower my daughter to have the tools to deal with the really tough things, but also learn to be comfortable with negative emotions and give voice to those feelings,” she says.
What Maldonado refers to is resilience: how to positively adapt to a challenging circumstance. And with the pandemic causing so many cancellations of life events and vacations, parents are struggling with guiding their children through that disappointment—while navigating their own negative emotions as well. (Get tips for keeping kids positive through the pandemic.)
“This is an unusual kind of disaster, where it’s rapidly unfolding but we’ve been slow to realize how bad it is,” says Ann Masten, an expert in resilience in children and families at the University of Minnesota. “But life is full of surprises, and kids have to be prepared to handle the unexpected.”
Since the 1970s, when the field of resilience studies first began to develop, study after study has revealed the cost of the inability to cope with toxic stress. “We know that trauma and toxic stress—that unrelenting stress that’s too overwhelming—can cause long-term harm to your health, both physical and mental,” Masten says.
Persistent stress and traumatic events can lead to high cortisol levels, which can result in weight gain, impaired memory, anxiety, and sleep problems. Ongoing anxiety can also affect the immune system and reduce a person’s executive function, which affects attention, memory, and self-control. Xiaoyan Zhang, who studies how adverse childhood experiences impact health and well-being at Syracuse University, also notes that children who have difficulty dealing with negative emotions are at greater risk for depression and hostile behavior in their adult years—factors associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular and other disease.
And yet, she notes, a child who can successfully navigate social and emotional challenges is more likely to graduate from college, have better physical and mental health, and occupy higher-paying jobs.
It’s still largely a mystery why some people are able to handle tough circumstances while others crumble. Untangling the long-term effects of stress from other influences in a child’s life is near impossible, though Masten says several factors stand out as helping kids develop resiliency: a supportive family, healthy relationships with other people, and the ability to recognize and problem-solve around negative emotions.
But regardless of a child’s personal situation, Masten says that experiencing difficulties is necessary for children to learn how to navigate them.
“You can be a role model for how to handle stress, but kids need to have some experience with failing and falling down and learning how to get back up,” she says. “They need to learn they can do things on their own. They don’t need to be overwhelming challenges, but they do need experience for managing adversity.”
Addressing the loss
Dealing with continual disappointments—such as canceled end-of-school-year parties—can cause children huge amounts of stress. Adding the strain of an unemployed parent, fear of a family member falling ill, and being separated from friends can be crushing.
“The most important antidote for overwhelming stress for kids is the support of family,” Masten says. “For parents, it’s important to remember that kids can do surprisingly well if you keep talking to them and keep positive experiences going. Emotional security is crucial.”
And though it may not seem so, Zhang notes that even very young children who still can’t fully verbalize their thoughts are able to communicate what they’re feeling—so patient adult guidance is especially important.
“Parents often don’t think that such small kids can understand” what adults say to them, she says. Part of her research involved working with young children in a lab preschool whose first language wasn’t English. “Even if I tried to name their feelings in English, and I was wrong, they would still shake their heads, or nod if I was right.”
Maldonado says this is one strategy she uses with her daughter when she is inconsolable and justifiably anxious—allowing her daughter to acknowledge her fears, concerns, and worries without false assurances that everything will be OK.
“In our culture, we have a really hard time addressing loss, whether it’s death or disappointment—we have this desire to protect our children and fix it, or avoid talking about it,” Maldonado says. “The biggest thing for me has been: Be honest at an age-appropriate level. Acknowledge how bad something is, that it’s OK to have those tough feelings and give them voice.”
Zhang suggests that in times of additional stress or difficulty, parents and caregivers be especially mindful of their own responses to that stress, as young children can readily imitate the response. Though it might be tempting to snap at your child or disregard their persistent tears or clinginess, take a step back and give them your attention and comfort. “If you ignore them, they may model you,” Zhang says. That could make it even harder for the child to express what they’re feeling.
A sense of control
When is a good time to help your child cope with the tough situations they might be facing because of COVID-19? Anytime, and as often as possible, Zhang advises. “Take every possible chance to encourage your child to talk about feelings,” she recently wrote in a primer on developing emotional resilience.
Parents can also equip kids with tools to empower them to cope with a suddenly tough moment: Use books, pictures, and TV to find words to express a feeling or emotion; take a deep breath; ask for a hug; find a quiet place to sit. (Read about how journaling can help your kids make sense of this difficult time.)
For older kids and teens, who are accustomed to more emotional autonomy, parents can encourage them to take a “zoomed-out” view of the situation and talk to them about their desires, goals, and what’s possible now. This helps reframe how they’re thinking about the current stressful situation, Zhang says.
Helping children see that good things are still happening—even simple things—can bring hope to kids struggling with disappointment. For instance, Maldonado puts everything on the calendar: walking around the neighborhood, petting the dog, cooking with parents. Planting has become a favorite activity, and watching their seedlings grow helps her daughter feel like things are incrementally getting better instead of worse.
Supporting others has also helped Maldonado’s children shift their focus away from internal turmoil and recognize they can do small things for others who are also struggling: Recently, they wrote letters to a new Air Force recruit and pooled their money to support a favorite local restaurant affected by coronavirus closures.
As for the preschool party disappointment? The emotion is still there, but her daughter seems to be living the lessons Maldonado has been trying to instill. After calming down from a crying spell over missing friends, the five-year-old was asked if she wanted to help make dinner. She agreed, paused, then made sure her mother knew what was in her head: “I still miss my friends, though.”
“That was a pretty incredible moment,” Maldonado says. “It’s so uncomfortable to live these negative emotions—but this is how we continue to live, because we have to keep living.”