Building Resilience in Children


Parenting in A Pandemic: Part Three

There are enough articles detailing every possible horrible outcome of this global pandemic, so I’m countering that by modeling resilience with this piece about . . . resilience. Specifically, how we can build resilience in our children to help them get through this unprecedented upheaval of our lives, for the better instead of worse.

The official announcement finally came that our school is closed the rest of this school year. As predictable and understandable as this decision was, I felt devastated for my children. They each handled it differently: the 2nd grader sobbing “but it’s sooooo boring at home!” while my 4th grader did cartwheels and encouraged her sister, “let’s think of the good parts.” (I knew undoubtedly that her emotional tsunami would come later, but I appreciated her intention to help her sister.) I told the Kindergartener in a separate moment. I watched the realization of not returning to his Kindergarten class sweep through different expressions, and then he looked up and said “OMG. Let’s play hide-and-seek.”

The Best Thing to Happen to Parenting?

Modern parenting approaches have been roundly criticized by experts and many think pieces as way too protective of our children. We rescue them from every disappointment and failure that we can, shielding them from pain and suffering at each turn. I’m the first to tell parents to back down and let their kids figure out their problems, or experience natural consequences. Yet, I also see ways I have fallen into the trap of bubble-wrapping much of my kids’ existence. Maybe it’s simply because we can – at least for those of us with stable employment and housing, decent school systems, and all-in-all comfortable lives so full of privilege, we don’t see it anymore.

But COVID-19 has changed everything. We can’t fix this. We can’t stop our children’s worlds from being flipped upside down. We have to just sit next to them while they cry and rage, without a way to make it better.

This may be the best thing to happen to parenting in a long time.

“In our current COVID-19 context of course, we can’t give our children what they want, no matter how sad and devastated they are. They have to feel it, and we need to let them.”

We are being forced into a situation to host our children through the process of building resilience. Again, this applies to a highly privileged part of the population who doesn’t face the kind of adversity that millions of families do. Many of us have been safe and cozy in our own bubble wrap, and now those bubbles are popping.

What IS Resilience?

You may have started to hear the word “resilience” thrown around recently in the onslaught of analyses of all things Coronavirus. Thankfully, this falls in the category of some good news. When it comes to children, they are truly the champions of resilience since their brains are so plastic, their neuron connections open and ready to reroute compared to us grown-ups, with connections worn deep over decades.

As a super quick primer in case the concept of resilience rings a vague bell but you’re not totally sure what it means – resilience often refers to a child (or anyone) responding to failure or disappointment by recovering and continuing to persist. In child psychology, resilience is also studied as a set of skills or attributes in children who have faced serious adversity in early childhood (eg, abuse, trauma) and go on to develop into healthy, successful adults. 

The Science of Childhood Resilience

I have heard from parents their concerns about how their children will fare from this abrupt isolation, socially and academically. How will it affect their learning? Their social skills and friendships? Their emotional well-being and mental health? As you may have guessed, resilience hasn’t been studied or understood within the context of a global pandemic. However, we can borrow from what we do know from the science of childhood resilience, and get started on our role as parents to help them build it.

Keys to Childhood Resilience

Tolerating Distress – FEEL THE FEELINGS

I’m going to start with what may very well be the most challenging: don’t try to stop the difficult feelings. The fancy phrase in psychology is “distress tolerance,” and it is key to self-regulation, which is critical for managing life, and reducing risk for mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.

To be honest, I think our generation of parents is especially bad at this, myself included. The parenting pendulum has swung from the antiquated “children should be seen and not heard” to child-centered at the extreme. This includes a huge emphasis on using empathy, which in itself is of course a good thing. But there is such thing as too much empathy, when we are feeling our children’s feelings rather than supporting them through it, and because it feels so bad, we want to stop it.

Years of training and experience in child clinical psychology have drilled into me how important it is for kids to manage their distress, yet I have to bite my tongue and sit on my hands when I watch my own children emotionally suffer. When we have said no to an activity they desperately want to do, it has taken every ounce of my willpower to stick with our well-reasoned decision to ride the wave of their anger and disappointment.

In our current COVID-19 context of course, we can’t give our children what they want, no matter how sad and devastated they are. They have to feel it, and we need to let them. How, you ask? Some tips:

*When they complain about how terrible their lives are, don’t talk them out of it. Just listen and validate how difficult it all feels right now.

*For kids who haven’t mastered labeling feelings yet, do it for them to model how to tie in their feelings with what’s happening: “You are so disappointed you won’t see your teacher again this year, she is so important to you.”

*When they break down in tears during a random moment, sit with them while they cry, offering physical comfort, but restrain from trying to rush them through it. They need to ride the arc of emotion in their own time.

In supporting these ways to feel the feelings, we give them the gift of realizing they can get through the distress and still have moments of joy and happiness in a difficult time. In fact, “feel the feelings” refers to positive emotions too. Our brains latch on to negative experiences with much more force than positive, so we need to deliberately pay attention to when we feel happy and joyful. When we do this, it helps counteract the psychological toll of the negative.


Feeling all the feelings is the first step in practicing self-compassion: do not ignore the pain. The second step is to be gentle with ourselves while facing the pain, including difficult life circumstances. Like quarantining for months during a global pandemic.


We and our children are experiencing many forms of tremendous loss during this time – from the loss of all that is “normal life,” to prom, to a job, to potentially a loved one. We carry the heaviness of grief while also facing the impossible task each and every day of simultaneously parenting, teaching, and working. It’s enough to make us want to curl up in bed each morning, and never leave.

So, in lieu of the fantasy day-long fetal position, we can find realistic ways to be gentle with ourselves, and help our children do the same. In fact, I have started to explicitly tell my children: “I need to take a quiet break alone for a few minutes because I’m exhausted, and then I will be back with you.” I have learned the value of seizing even 10 minutes when I can, because at this point, every minute counts. And I’m crossing my fingers my children might do the same someday to replace at least some of their epic meltdowns.

This strange time is also an opportunity for our children to figure out strategies that will help them manage stress for the rest of their lives – what calms them, absorbs them, and feels good, even in the middle of overwhelming stress and sadness? Journaling, meditating, fresh air, art project, solving puzzles, a hot bath . . . and of course we can give them ideas, but the most effective strategies are ones they figure out on their own. We can be the role models and guides for them to develop their own acts of self-compassion that can last a lifetime.    


It may be especially challenging to feel optimistic right now when it seems every headline or revelation adds to the sense of doom and gloom. As a natural optimist, I have carefully curated my news exposure even more than usual, and had to work hard to find the hope that I know is essential to my mental health.

But we know that optimism relates to all sorts of positive outcomes, like longer life expectancy, improved mental health and physical health, and better response to adversity. The best news is that although optimism may often be thought of as an innate trait, research suggests it can be learned.

Regardless of whether our children tend more towards optimism or pessimism, we can help them be actively optimistic by modeling it. These weeks of lockdown from their normal lives are a much bigger proportion of their total lifetime than of ours, so to them, it actually does feel like forever. Even though we do not know an end date nor what the new normal will be like, we can make the promise that NOTHING LASTS FOREVER. As a pillar of positive psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman has defined a key component of optimism as believing that negative events are temporary and manageable.

One strategy is to plan what you will do once restrictions are eased, even if a date remains elusive. Whom will you visit first? Where will you go out to eat? Obviously, you want to plan within reason – probably not an international vacation . . . yet! But this gives everyone something to look forward to and communicates that this current difficult reality WILL end.


Gratitude feeds optimism to also play a key role in resilience. If you look, you will realize it is everywhere (eg, gratitude bullet journals). The science of gratitude has made it all the way to wellness curriculums for super-stressed medical residents to prevent depression! I’m usually anti-trend, but there’s a good reason for this one.

Research has consistently shown the practice of gratitude to be an important ingredient in managing stress effectively. The idea is that when we take time to be deliberately thankful for positive parts of our lives, especially during overwhelming stress, this practice helps us to connect with positive emotions and take perspective.

Pandemic or no pandemic, this is a beneficial practice for our children. But it works much better if you don’t only tell them to do it, but model it yourself. At the start of our Coronavirus lockdown, I insisted on a dinner ritual of sharing some part of the day for which we were grateful. I expected resistance and mockery, but to my surprise, my kids are not only willing participants, they even remind us to do it mid-dinner when we inevitably get sidetracked.

Just the other day, my kids were talking about how they did not appreciate our first dog because she was there from the beginning and they did not know life without a dog. We now have a puppy, two years after our beloved family dog died, and they express gratitude for her daily. We talked about how this would now be the same for going to school – something they took for granted, and now realize how much it enriches their lives.

Sense of Purpose

I realize one of the most daunting parts of the daily reality of a pandemic quarantine is keeping structure when we don’t have to go anywhere. But I counsel every parent, child, and teen to do one simple thing: get dressed. Every day. It may seem silly, but it affects our state of mind. Even though we are stuck at home, we have things to do besides sleep or stay under blankets.

This leads me to a controversial statement: remote learning can be a good thing. I know there are many variables that will affect how true this feels to you right now, and I also spend about 80% of it wanting an escape hatch to open from my floor, but the spirit of remote learning IS good for children. It maintains their sense of purpose, which as a child of school age, is to go to school and learn. Right now, even if they aren’t physically walking out the door to go to school, or teens are taking this opportunity to indulge their natural sleep brains with a wake-up around noon, they are still students. My 4th grader, who is proving to have very uneven motivation, required prodding to complete a biography project, but suddenly became so absorbed in her Monet diorama, she did it while eating lunch. She felt engaged and accomplished, visibly lifting her spirits.

Of course, a sense of purpose does not need to be academic! Maybe an organic sense of purpose will evolve, like learning how to make masks, or another project that also instills some degree of control in a situation characterized by powerlessness. If a child expresses interest in any sort of project that does not risk an emergency room visit, follow their lead the best you are able to make it happen.

Community and Connection

I have noticed, and heard from others, that sneaking up in the midst of what feels like Lord of the Flies family chaos, are also feelings of closeness and connection. We have more time than usual – maybe not to learn a new language or find a new hobby – but time all together as a family. In my house, our dinners have been calmer with less rush before and after. The slower weekend pace, now missing driving three kids around to activities, has meant more time for aimless fun – like make-up parties and afternoon movies.

For children who have experienced significant abuse and trauma, research has repeatedly shown that a child having even one stable, caring adult relates to more positive outcomes later in life. Forming and maintaining social connections is central to resilience. In our current COVID-19 context, the movement to rephrase “social distancing” with “physical distancing” is consistent with this emphasis on staying socially connected while physically apart. Although virtual play dates are by no means equivalent to live and in-person, they do the job of keeping those social ties knotted, even loosely.

Finding this heightened sense of connection, and gratitude for the relationships, both within our own nuclear families and in our communities may very well be the change we all needed, staying with us beyond the pandemic.

Acceptance and Meaning

Acceptance and making meaning are two well-known phases of grief process that contribute to healing, and can be applied across types of pain and suffering. These “phases” are not part of a linear path, with “everything feels good now” at the end; they are more like states of mind that we will likely dip in and out of, alternating with sadness, anger, despair, etc.

Making meaning can be especially profound, and it does not imply “I’m so glad this pandemic happened, because . . . “ We can wish it never happened, yet still find meaning. If you feel at a loss for how to make meaning or help your children make meaning, don’t stress about it. It’s usually easier to do the farther we are from the point of crisis. What I do suggest is leaving yourself open to the possibility that positives can come from this incredibly difficult chapter – for us, our families, our communities, and even our world. That openness can invite more awareness so you SEE these positives when you may not have before.

Resilience For All!

Remember resilience is about the big picture — it’s okay to have many of your days feeling like you are just surviving, and not superstar parenting. Armed with this framework of resilience, though, maybe you can see natural opportunities when they arise, and feel ready to act. If anything, feeling like we are doing something to help our children increases our own sense of control, and can battle the pervasive feelings of helplessness. And guess what? This sense of mastery is an ingredient of resilience! Resilience for all!


For Children

Coping Skills for Kids Workbook

Something Bad Happened: A Kid’s Guide to Learning About Events in the News, Dawn Huebner, PhD

For Adults

Five Science-Backed Strategies to Build Resilience, Greater Good Magazine

Self-Compassion Guided Meditations and Exercises, Dr. Kristin Neff

10 Self-Compassion Practices for COVID-19, Center for Mindfulness Self-Compassion

Why it’s important to find moments of joy in a crisis – and teach kids to do the same, Washington Post

Parenting In A Pandemic: A Guide

The Emotional Life of A Pandemic: Grief, Anxiety, Rinse, Repeat


Why We’re All Grieving – and How To Deal With It, David Kessler (grief guru), Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris podcast

Work, Parenting, and Partnerships Collide During Quarantine, Psychologists Off the Clock podcast

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