To put it bluntly, the last year has provided no shortage of misery. Everyone has endured hard things and so many have suffered tremendous losses. While we are still very much in the throes of the pandemic, it can be a struggle to, metaphorically speaking, convert any lemons to lemonade. However, there have in fact been good things born from this moment; for example, we are developing the essential life skill of resilience.
What is Resilience?
Resilience is our innate ability to adapt to challenging situations. “Human beings are prepared to develop resilience in the sense that we have a long history in our species of biological and cultural evolution that has equipped us with tremendous potential for resilience, but we all have to develop and have that potential nurtured,” says Ann Masten, PhD, a Regents Professor in the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota. “It’s a combination of the capacity that human beings have as part of their heritage, but also what they learn through experience and education and good nurturing.”
How to Build Resilience
To understand how we can best educate and nurture kids during this time, we need to understand what is happening in their brains. School closures, physical distancing or isolation from friends and family, and concerns about health are just some of the factors causing increased stress in children—stress that can lead to depression and anxiety. During scary or uncertain times, our amygdala (the emotional center of our brain) is hyperactivated and floods our brain with the stress hormone cortisol. This essentially shuts down our prefrontal cortex and sends us into a fight, flight, or freeze response. In this state, we cannot access the self-regulation, decision-making, or problem-solving skills that our prefrontal cortex provides. For many kids, this translates to emotional outbursts, increased family conflicts, avoidance of school work, or paralysis when attempting to complete even simple tasks. Kids may be “spacing out” more, burying themselves in their phone worlds, having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, and needing too much coaxing out of bed in the morning.
In a recent study, Stanford University researchers found that building executive functions skills and strengthening the brain’s “executive control network” (ECN) can protect against psychological problems during stressful experiences. Here is how it works: The ECN is a system of neurons found in the brain’s frontal lobe. The ECN supports the cognitive processes that allow a person to successfully navigate and adapt to changes and challenges. Building up executive functioning (EF) skills like emotional regulation, goal-directed attention, and cognitive flexibility creates greater interconnectedness within the ECN. Researchers found that adolescents with a strong ECN were less likely to experience pandemic-related depression and anxiety, conditions that can adversely impact academic performance, social connections, and overall well-being.
For many kids, changes to their “normal” brought on by COVID-19 have put their executive functioning skills to the test. Students who had been struggling in this area may be falling back into habits that they had been working hard to change. Continuing to persevere and build up those foundational EF skills is critically important at this time. There are also more informal things you can do to support your children and educate them on how to build resilience and as well as your own.
Here are three tips for how to support your child in building resilience:
- Make a playdate with your kid. Sometimes we just don’t have the energy to encourage our kids (and ourselves) to take breaks from screens, limit the amount of time spent on social media and news, and increase time for play. Prioritize regular 15-minute playdates with your child where just the two of you do whatever activity your child chooses—even if that activity is playing an iPad game together. Schedule your playdate on the calendar as a recurring event. Creating routinized, stress-free, shared moments is a form of self-care, and will help your child’s brain regulate itself and build those necessary neural connections.
- Encourage independence. In order to develop resilience, “children need to build up a sense that they can do things on their own,” says Dr. Masten. Appropriate independent activities will depend on your child’s age and developmental stage. There are lots of small things kids can do by themselves to foster independence. Consider tasks like setting the table, preparing their own breakfast, selecting their outfit the night before, helping plan a dinner menu, or specific pet care tasks like feeding and brushing.
- Create events to look forward to. Many of us have experienced a shift in how we experience time, and it may seem like days run together. When our situation feels interminable, it can be hard to stay positive. “We can get depleted,” says Dr. Masten. “Day after day after day, if you are working hard to deal with challenging things, you can simply get exhausted and overwhelmed, and then we need to step back and try to replenish and restore our capacity.” Break up the everyday by scheduling events on the family calendar that each member can look forward to enjoying together. Activities like seeing a drive-in movie, ice skating, meeting friends at a special park or playground, or even cooking a favorite meal can boost our mood, provide an opportunity for needed R&R, and give us something to anticipate with pleasure.
To learn more about how executive function coaching can help your children build resilience and cope with change contact Organizational Tutors today.