As any parent can attest, one thing that’s helped push them through the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a promise, and sometimes a prayer: “Kids are resilient. They will be OK.”
The line has been fed to guardians and caregivers worldwide, by doctors, politicians and well-meaning sympathetic onlookers.
But as the pandemic drags on, having just passed its two-year anniversary, is it really that simple? Is there a limit to a child’s resilience?
Before considering resilience, Sheri Madigan, a clinical psychologist and Director of the Determinants of Child Development Lab at the University of Calgary, says we need to first look at how the pandemic has affected the mental health of children and adolescents over the past two years.
“When we look at how kids were doing pre-pandemic and how they’re doing during the pandemic, we (are) seeing higher rates of depression, anxiety and eating disorders,” Madigan told Global News, pointing to her recent work that examined how more than 80,000 youth worldwide were coping approximately a year-and-a-half into the pandemic.
The study, titled Global Prevalence of Depressive and Anxiety Symptoms in Children and Adolescents During COVID-19: A Meta-analysis, found that the prevalence of depression and anxiety symptoms in children and adolescents has doubled when compared to pre-pandemic estimates.
The difference between resilience and ‘bouncing back’
“In disasters like the pandemic, although some people use the notion of ‘bouncing back’ as being equivalent to ‘resilience,’ we have moved away from that simplistic idea of resilience,” says Robin Cox, a professor in the Disaster and Emergency Management graduate programs at Royal Roads University.
“In a disaster we talk about resilience as more the ability to anticipate what is going to happen and the ability to weather it and continue to function as more changes are happening.”
“People often talk about resilience like it’s this trait — either you’re resilient or you’re not resilient,” she shared. “But, actually, resilience is two pieces — you have an adversity or difficult circumstances, and then you have whether you can draw on supports and strategies to help.”
A matter of context
Digging into what truly makes someone resilient requires a look at individual circumstances, says Cox.
Not everyone has had to endure or survive the same circumstances in this pandemic, and various conditions can affect one’s resilience.
Access to health care, good food, sufficient income, adequate housing, and job stability will all help with one’s resilience, she says.
Also important are breaks from stressful life situations, a proper amount of rest and relaxation, as well as access informal supports, like time with family and friends or access to fulfilling hobbies or activities.
“People with greater resources generally tend to be better off,” she says.
Cox also says the longer the pandemic drags on and the more curve balls it throws in terms of new waves, variants and changing restrictions, “one’s capacity to recover and carry on can be diminished.”
Looking at the recent figures, Madigan says there’s a lack in those supports and strategies, especially on a societal level.
Part of the problem, she says, is that there might be an expectation that kids will “bounce back” and our society is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“I think that people are counting on — as we move into a post-pandemic future — that we will see some of this distress amongst youth attenuate or that, maybe, it will go back to those pre-pandemic estimates.”
Before the pandemic, only about a quarter of children who really needed mental health services were getting them, she says — so, now, an already stressed support is becoming even harder to access.
“Many clinicians around Canada have tried to sound the alarm to a youth mental health crisis in the hope that that will get policy makers recognizing that we need to allocate more resources and make mental health supports more available to kids.”
While the research points to a growing adolescent mental health crisis, Cox says it’s still possible to unlock additional resilience with intentional actions.
“Part of resilience is being mindful of resilience — thinking, ‘Where am I at? Where are my kids at? What do I need to do, to support my resilience?’”
Madigan agrees that parents should also be mindful of their own well-being, too, instead of keeping all focus on their kids.
“When parents aren’t doing well, that can have a spillover onto their kids,” she warns.
Connection and communication are key
Right now, says Madigan, connection and communication as a family unit shouldn’t be underestimated or underappreciated, as it’s one of the ways kids feel safest and most supported.
She also points to a silver lining of the pandemic: it opened up lines of communication in a lot of households, and kids who’ve been strongly connected to their families “are doing better in the pandemic, overall.”
Parents can continue to support their kids’ resilience by continuing to talk to their children and mirror healthy coping mechanisms, say both scholars.
“Acknowledging that the pandemic is stressful and that it has been really hard can go a long way,” says Cox, who also encourages parents to listen to their children without judgment.
“I encourage parents to keep having those conversations — what’s next, what’s going on in school. Keep talking to kids,” advises Madigan.
“I think those patterns of relationships have been established and we need to keep them up.”
The power of routine
Also important, say Madigan and Cox, is keeping basic, simple routines for kids and allowing some leeway for activities and relationships that help their development, like friendships and extra-curricular activities.
It’s also OK to not want to go back to “pre-pandemic normal,” they both said, and we shouldn’t put that pressure on ourselves or others, especially in times like these when we appear to be getting a break from the pandemic but it’s not truly over.
A bright spot for kids right now is the ability to be in school full-time, say both, with a relaxation of cohorting and activity restrictions.
Schools, they both explain, provide kids with the benefit of routine, friendship, support systems outside the family, and a chance to be creative and learn new things — all important in building resilience.
Too soon to tell
In many ways, it’s too soon to tell how kids — both on a widespread and individual level — will leave the pandemic in terms of overall well-being, says Madigan. But she assures parents that most children likely won’t hold onto intense anxieties surrounding masking or public health measures as time passes.
She also suggests that kids might actually walk away from the pandemic having benefitted from such turmoil in their young lives.
“As a silver lining, it’s my hope that kids have become more adaptable for no other reason than they’ve been asked to adapt.”
Cox says that over time, when we’re able to put some distance between ourselves and the pandemic, “those stressors on kids will reduce.”
In the meantime, she reminds parents to keep in mind how these current hard times might benefit kids later in life: “Prior exposure to trauma can increase resilience because there’s that experience of having survived something and knowing that one can survive something else.”
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