The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the way we live, work and learn. For several months, each day has been veiled with a sense of uncertainty, fear and isolation. Maintaining positivity amid all these is a big challenge. More than ever, how fast we recover and positively adapt to this new normal of our life – the essence of resilience – is critically important. We need to support our children in developing capacities, such as resilience, for them to emerge stronger and better after this crisis.
I would like to share five simple yet powerful tips for parents in nurturing and supporting their children’s resilience. I have distilled these tips from the results of more than two decades of research on children’s resilience, including those that our research team has conducted in Singapore schools. I also drew some insights from the growing research literature on positive psychology, which focuses on conditions, attitudes, dispositions and experiences that promote well-being and human flourishing. The first two tips are meant to build and strengthen the children’s positive social relationships – a key determinant of resilience, as well as mental and physical health, yet one of the key aspects of our lives that are adversely affected by social distancing measures to contain COVID-19. The other three tips are intended to build children’s internal resources in facing adverse situations.
Sufferings or challenges, such as those that we experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, serve as good opportunities to remind our children not to take things for granted thereby deepening their sense of gratitude. To be grateful is to look around us and appreciate that we are recipients of some good things from others. Studies show that people who are grateful tend to be more resilient, healthier, more connected and have higher level of well-being.
To cultivate gratitude, you may start by asking the children to count their blessings. A good primer for this simple activity is to ask them what makes them feel comfortable and satisfied. Is it the food that their grandmother cooked? Is it the smile from their little sister or brother? Is it the message of support from their friends? Using a sticky note, you may ask them to write three things, events, or persons that they are grateful for and the reason why they feel that way. You may ask them to complete this line: “I am grateful for < > because <>”. Place the sticky note on a place where it is visible to them (e.g., cork board or fridge). They can also write gratitude letters to people who have helped them in any way but they never properly thanked. In doing so, they can complete the following lines: “Thank you for <>. Without this, my life would be <>”. They may opt to thank the person who delivered food to your place or their friends who helped them in doing their school tasks. They can do counting blessings and gratitude letters alternately once a week for at least six weeks.
Following this schedule of doing simple gratitude activities, particularly writing gratitude letters, was found to have lasting effects on the brain (i.e., greater neural modulation by gratitude). But it is better if these activities are done regularly for the children to imbibe a grateful disposition, which may also motivate them to do good for others.
Doing acts of kindness not only can make us feel good, they also make us healthier and less emotionally vulnerable to stress brought about by adversities, such as those related to COVID-19. One study shows that doing good for others can make us feel happier and reduce our stress level more than giving ourselves a treat. One neuro-imaging study suggests that providing support may even be better than receiving support from others, in terms of stress reduction and promoting better health.
The benefits of doing good for others are stronger when targeted – that is giving to specific people who are in need. To encourage children to practice kindness, a good start would be helping in household chores or attending to the need of family members. Your children can also identify specific persons who are in need of support (e.g., migrant workers or elderly neighbours) and solicit their ideas (e.g., bringing snacks and fruits) on what they can do to ease these persons’ difficulties. These acts can be followed by moments of reflection during which you can ask them to list down three good things that they have done for others. Another approach is to share with them meaningful acts of kindness done by other people, including children like them.
Optimism is a key attribute of resilient people. It pertains to having positive expectations about the future and seeing things in a positive light. Seeing the proverbial glass as half-full rather than half-empty is a usual representation of how optimists see adverse situations, such as the current pandemic. Although optimism may have its downside, especially when it becomes unrealistic and dissociated from facts, it is much needed in times when our tendency is to lose hope and dwell in negativity. Optimism is associated with better psychological and immune response to stress. Research shows that, compared to people with a pessimistic mindset, those with more optimistic mindset are healthier (i.e., better cardiovascular health), have more successful relationships, and live longer.
To foster children’s optimism, we need to highlight some productive ways of thinking in dealing with adverse events that are grounded on facts: emphasizing sufferings as temporary, rather than permanent, and specific to certain aspects of life, rather than life as a whole, are helpful. During the circuit breaker period, for example, children might express frustration about the many things that they are unable to do. It may be helpful to guide them to think that what is happening is just temporary and things are likely to get better as many scientists in the world are working really hard to discover a vaccine for COVID-19. After acknowledging (instead of denying) the ills that the pandemic brought into our lives, lead the children towards seeing the silver lining that lies behind those ills. Ask them about the things that they are now able to do but had limited time to do before. Good examples would be having more time to spend with family members or learning more about our connectedness with others and the value of social responsibility. This approach can also be linked to the counting blessings activity.
When children experience failure in doing tasks, such as those linked to home-based learning, guide them in reflecting about the reasons why they failed. One way is to help them think that it is not their inherent abilities but how they used their resources or some other factors around them that might have caused their failure. Help them realize that even if they failed now, there were times in the past when they succeeded and that the future offers many opportunities for success. Remind them that even if they failed in some tasks, there are other tasks which they were able to successfully complete. After teaching them these ways of thinking, teach them how to set goals efficiently. Optimists set productive goals, plan to achieve such goals, seek support, change their behaviour, and/or do research in the hope of improving the difficult situation they are in.
The uncertainties associated with the Covid-19 pandemic can make children feel lost and confused. Having a clear target would enable children to have some focus, develop a sense of control and purpose in their lives, and boost their hope. In our study, we found that children who tend to develop resilience are those who are clear about their goals, have concrete plans to achieve such goals, and have a positive view of failure or setbacks on their way towards their goals.
To formulate productive goals, you may start by asking your children their top values—these can include family, friends, school performance, and health. Let them to focus on one specific value and ask them to list down some effective goals. Effective goals are specific, challenging (but not too challenging), measurable (i.e., with clear indicators of success) and time-specific (i.e., with specific timelines for completion). These goals may range from learning some skills (e.g., playing guitar, creating websites, writing poems) or getting rid of some unproductive habits (e.g, procrastinating, being disorganized, being inconsistent in keeping a healthy diet). Then, guide them to identify the steps towards their goals, the possible obstacles to get to their target, and the resources they have to deal with obstacles and achieve their target.
At the end of each week, sit down with them and reflect on what they have accomplished and targets that they were unable to achieve. It is good to celebrate with them for their small achievements and help them in learning from their failures. You can also guide them in building personal resources to achieve their goals and overcome their failure through stories.
Stories of struggles that are followed by triumphs can help people cope more resiliently with the effects of stressors, such as depression, trauma and grief. Reading such stories, even fictional ones, was found to promote resilience among children who experienced painful experiences of losing loved ones.
For example, one research reported positive effects in children’s resilience after reading one story per week for about 20 weeks. In selecting stories for children, you may choose those with lead characters who managed to beat the odds. As you read stories with your children, highlight sections where the lead characters had their enabling experiences, such as when their personal qualities served as strengths and/or when members of their social circle provided support to help them adapt to their difficult circumstances. After reading the stories, you may ask your children on the characteristics of the lead characters with which they identify. They can also create similar stories, with themselves as the main characters. If you need resilience stories specific to COVID-19, you may consider the children stories developed by the World Health Organization.
In summary, encouraging and teaching children to be grateful, do good, develop an optimistic mental frame, set effective goals, and experience resilience vicariously through stories are potentially powerful strategies to nurture children’s resilience amid the COVID-19 crisis. It is important for parents to serve as role models in carrying out these strategies. How parents react to and address the current challenging situation, along with their emotions, are strong contagions similar to coronavirus that can be passed to their children.
Published 18 May 2020