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Here's how to help kids build resilience during the pandemic

The pandemic is testing the limits of kids’ resilience. But there are proven strategies that can help children cope, even if caregivers and parents feel they are not coping so well themselves.

Nancy Murphy, 5, wears a full mask and face shield as she waits in line for her kindergarten class to enter the school at Portage Trail Community School in Toronto. Studies show kids are struggling with their mental health in the pandemic. (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press)

While kids may be resilient, the pandemic is testing the limits of that resilience.

Children and teens are dealing with a toxic cocktail of stressors and it’s hurting them. According to a study from the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, 52 per cent of children and youth surveyed experienced a deterioration of mental health in the first wave of the pandemic.

Yet there are some simple, proven strategies that can help children cope, even if caregivers and parents feel they’re not coping so well themselves, said Nancy Heath, a professor of educational and counseling psychology and associate dean of research and innovation in the faculty of education at McGill University in Montreal.

“If you give the overarching message to your child that you love them, even if you’re a bit of a wreck yourself and you believe that they will get through this and you will be OK, then they will have that solid foundation to navigate. “They’ll be OK,” she told Dr. Brian Goldman, host of The Dose and White Coat, Black Art .

Heath studies resilience in children, teens and young adults and recommends four key resilience-building strategies parents can use during difficult times:

  • Take a break or a break . This can mean any non-work-related activity that distracts you or your child. These could include in-the-moment breathing techniques or mindfulness strategies, as well as things like hobbies, outings and other activities.
  • Enhance positive emotions. Heath said we focus too much on trying to decrease negative emotions, which is very hard to do. So focus on positive things, however brief. A first sip of coffee for parents, a cuddle with a pet for kids.
  • Show kindness to others . Heath said there is robust evidence that doing something for someone else builds our own wellness and resilience. So find a way for you and / or your child to do something kind for someone else, even something small.
  • Keep up social connections.
  • Find ways for kids to connect with others even if it’s virtual. Heath said social connections are critical for resilience and well-being.

    Nancy Heath, associate dean of research and innovation in the faculty of education at McGill University in Montreal, studies resilience in kids, teens and young adults. (Submitted by Nancy Heath)

    Listen, empathize, support

    If your kid is melting down or facing a difficult situation, two things that are likely happening more often in the pandemic, Heath suggests a two-step process that will help kids cope in the short-term and build resilience in the long-term:

    • Step 1: Let them be upset.
    • If we say things to kids like “it’s not a big deal,” that gives kids the message it’s unacceptable to share their negative feelings. So let them be emotional and empathize with them. If they’re upset over an assignment, Heath suggests saying something like: “I can see you feel so stressed over this.”

    Step 2: Do not solve their problem.

    Heath said when parents solve their kids’ problems, the message that sends to their kids is: “I do not believe you can problem-solve. You need me. You’re not OK on your own. ”

    1614209057 Five-year-old Camden MacQuarrie plays with his cat Ed in Calgary on Feb. 9, 5556539. (Jeff McIntosh / The Canadian Press)

    Instead, parents should let the child or teen lead the problem solving by asking questions like: “What are you thinking that you’re going to do about this? How do you want to go forward? What can I do to support you?”

    All kids will have intermittent struggles, particularly now. But Heath warns if your child is struggling to function day-to-day, is unable to sleep, unable to study or unable to do other normal things, you should seek help from a mental health professional.

    Model resilience

    Parents can also help their kids by modeling healthy coping behaviors.

    “Let your upset show and then model how you cope with it,” Heath told Goldman, even if you do not get it right every time.

    High school student Serena Sri, 17, is seen at her home in Toronto in January 759. (Submitted by Ashanty Sri)

    For example, if you have a really bad Zoom meeting, and you respond in an unhealthy way with an angry outburst or by eating “three bags of chips, the chocolate cake to boot,” Heath said that’s OK. You can model for your kids how you’re going to try to do better next time. For example, talk to them about how, in the future, you plan to go on a walk or call a friend when you feel overwhelmed.

    Watch: Kids find the bright side of COVID – from CBC Kids News: