Children are navigating a massive trauma.
The pandemic shut down their schools, separated them from their friends and social groups. Some lost family members to the virus, and others kept working as essential employees to help their families navigate financial challenges.
Undeniably, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant effect on children’s mental health. Clinicians are seeing spikes in anxiety, depression, and in some cases, suicidal thoughts and attempts. WBUR is exploring this topic through a series of stories called "Pandemic Generation."
The bright side, experts say, is that children are, in many cases, resilient. They have the ability to bounce back from difficult or painful situations. But, resiliency isn't built automatically.
To get some tips on how to bolster resilience in children, WBUR's All Things Considered spoke with Dr. Nicole Christian-Brathwaite, a Boston-area clinical psychiatrist and founder of Well Minds Psychiatric and Consulting — where she helps institutions build systems to encourage resilience — and Nicole DeTore, a clinical psychologist and director of research at The Resilience and Prevention Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.
DeTore provided these tips — in bold — and Dr. Christian-Brathwaite recommended additional resources for parents below:
1. Recognize that this year has been difficult, and it’s OK to not feel OK — both for our children and ourselves.
"A lot of the coping strategies that we are taught as kids is really kind of to socialize with other people, to reach out for help, to go toward others," DeTore said. "And if you think about what's been happening during COVID, that's the last thing all of us have been able to do."
So it makes sense that many of us have found this experience difficult, and just recognizing that can help.
You can also encourage children to keep up connections with friends and family by setting up phone or video chat opportunities and text message groups, according to recommendations from Mass. General Hospital.
2. Parents should make sure to check-in on their kids and offer to talk, even if their child does not overtly seem to be in distress.
"Parents and teachers are maybe not quite as able to recognize some of these mental health challenges that kids are experiencing in the way we thought they would," DeTore said. "And some of it is that kids don't feel comfortable speaking up. Some of it is that schools don't have the resources to ask every kid, 'Are you OK?' "
Parents and other adults may need to step in and begin asking that question more often.
Younger children may not have the language to talk about what's troubling them, so some experts recommend staying alert for changes in a child's mood or routines.
To build children's confidence, Christian-Brathwaite recommends giving challenges that are achievable, something she tries to do with her own children, aged 6 and 4.
"One of the assignments that they may have is making up their bed," she says. "And once they do that, then we make a huge deal out of it, and now that you've done that — you've made up your bed -- you can now move on to this next more challenging task."
"Confidence or success begets more confidence or success," Christian-Brathwaite explains.
3. Have multiple adults available and approachable for a child to speak to — such as a teacher, guidance counselor, parent, aunt/uncle.
"One thing that certainly has been shown to be very effective is just having safe, loving, trusted adults in a child's life and having that love, having that encouragement can really help a child to build resilience — and also having someone who can help guide them and support them when they're having challenges," Christian-Brathwaite said.
4. Try to do things as a family that would encourage mindful practice and unplugging a bit — for instance, going for walks or cooking together.
"It's very hard to build resilience when you're being perpetually traumatized or when you're in the midst of trauma," Christian-Brathwaite said.
That means it's important to take a break. Reading, exercising, playing games together or engaging in a creative activity are all great ways to connect and unplug.
Many experts also recommend making time to eat properly, maintaining some regular routines at home, and making sure to get enough sleep.
Christian-Brathwaite tells schools to give kids a role in creating some rules or routines.
"So that they feel like that they've contributed to their environment, that they do have some agency over their world," she says. "That helps build their confidence and their belief that they can recover from things."
5. Help children practice self-compassion. Teach them that we need to be kind and patient with ourselves, especially during this year, and not harp on our perceived failures. Sometimes the best way to do that is to model that behavior ourselves.
"Children are resilient. Their brains are very plastic," Christian-Brathwaite said. "So because of the plasticity and the ability to learn and grow, children with appropriate supports can absolutely recover."
- American Psychological Association: 'Resilience guide for parents and teachers'
- Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child
- healthychildren.org: Building Resilience in Children
- American Psychological Association: 'Resilience in African American Families and Children'
- Texas Children's Hospital: How to help your Black child develop resilience in the face of racism and discrimination
You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and the Samaritans Statewide Hotline (call or text) at 1-877-870-HOPE (4673). Call2Talk can be accessed by calling Massachusetts 211 or 508-532-2255 (or text c2t to 741741).
This project is funded in part by a grant from the NIHCM Foundation.
This segment aired on June 22, 2021.