You can also read an edited Q&A based on the transcript of the video to get the highlights. Answers were condensed from unscripted responses to the questions asked in the live session.

During this presentation hosted by Laura L. Fuller, PhD, ABPP, Jamie L. Elizalde, PhD, NCSP, talks about building and fostering resilience in children during times of adversity. During her presentation, she provides ideas about how children and families can stay resilient as this pandemic drags on.

What is resilience?

It's the ability to recover from adversity. So another way of thinking about this is being buoyant–these are dictionary definitions. Another dictionary definition, which refers more to material than people perhaps, is returning to original after being bent, stretched, or compressed, being elastic.

In terms of psychology, what resilience means is adapting to difficult situations like COVID-19 or to adversity and bouncing back from them. This does not necessarily mean ignoring them but recognizing that change is difficult, and learning to be flexible and tolerate these situations.

In terms of families, there is also resilience. That is a family's ability to respond to stress and challenge in a positive and adaptive manner. This is done by demonstrating competence and confidence among the family members. With children involved, this is promoting those same characteristics for them.

Resilience doesn't mean that we don't experience stress difficulties. Instead, it means that we learn to manage them in spite of facing adversities. It's difficult to imagine going through life without facing adversity. Learning how to manage it is a critical piece of becoming a fully developed human, which is what we work on with our children.

Part of being resilient is knowing our strengths and weaknesses. So, it is particularly important right now to not be hard on yourself. Being flexible remains key here. We're learning as we go and that means that some of our goals and expectations change and that's okay.

Can you learn to be resilient or more resilient?

Resilience is actually something that we can learn and improve. Everyone can learn the behaviors, the thoughts, and actions that go along with being resilient. It's not something that is a trait or personality characteristic that we're born with.

Resilience is also renewable. You are able to fill your bucket with resilience. We can also help our children to build their own bucket of resilience through different tools. This does not mean giving to them out of our bucket.

How can I be a leader for my children?

People look to the leaders in our communities, in our jobs, in our organizations to provide us guidance in times of uncertainty. And you are those leaders for your children and the children in your lives, and emotions are contagious.

Children will pick up on your emotions. So as a leader for them, it is important that you acknowledge difficulties you’re experiencing and be vulnerable with your kids. You should also practice and model confidence in approaching and tackling these difficulties. It's okay to admit that we don't know what to do and to face that discomfort. Move forward and approach things with the problem-solving mindset.

How can you be a good leader during times of stress?

Modeling calmness and providing hope are important parts of being a leader and a caretaker. A part of how you can do this is to practice your own self-awareness. So being aware of what your own emotional and physical reactions are to the situation and what's happening in the outside world, taking time to pause and reflect on those things before you react.

Plan ahead a little bit about how you're going to manage those situations. In terms of COVID-19, when we look through psychology at resilience and the study of resilience in other disasters, natural disasters, and situations that have happened, this one is different for a number of reasons.

One is the uncertainty with which COVID-19 has continued, but also it's not tangible. It's not something that we can see or touch. So it's not really clear exactly what it is that we're managing.

That's difficult for us as adults, and for children, that may be even more confusing.

So what can we control and provide for our children during this time?

The first is your attention. Children crave their parents' or caregivers’ attention in general. Attention can come in the form of looking, talking, or touching.

Think about where your energy is going in terms of your attention and use it strategically with the children in your lives. We can use our attention to correct children, to remind them that it's time to do homework, that it's time to go to bed. We can also use our attention to highlight and point out the great things that they're doing, the things that model and show us that they are resilient, that they're working toward building strengths. We really, especially right now, want to focus our attention on those things.

More than ever right now, children are going to be craving attention and so we want our energy to go to highlighting, as much as we can, the things that they're doing well with our attention.

Another piece is modeling and practicing resilience for yourself. The four components that we're going to talk about next in terms of building resilience are things that are actually given for adults to do, and I've modified them for children. So practicing these on your own or with your children is a great way to show them that this is how we can be healthy, this is how we can take care of ourselves and this is how we build resilient youth.

How can you foster resilience in children?

There are four core components to fostering resilience in children and families:

  • Connection
  • Wellness
  • Meaning
  • Healthy thinking

Build connections

To build resiliency, we want to build connections, prioritize relationships. We know that when we study the characteristics of resilient children, they feel special and appreciated. They feel comfortable with others and they've developed effective communication skills to ask others for what they need. This is certainly important right now.

We want to promote communication. We want to teach them how to communicate effectively with others. We want them to have connections with others.

We can strategically use our attention to provide them with ways to communicate. We want to listen, we want to show them that we're listening. We want to acknowledge their feelings in the situations that they're experiencing right now. We want to help them to label their feelings and we want to acknowledge for them the things that they're missing out on. At the same time, we want to communicate and help them to notice the things that they have to look forward to.

Another way of building connections and prioritizing relationships right now is helping them to stay connected to people outside of the family unit. So we're already getting the knack for this as far as connecting with important people through Zoom, other forms of communication by video, such as FaceTime.

We also have had a lot of teens recently and children who have made care packages for friends and drop them off at their houses, leaving them on the front steps so there's social distancing in place. You can also plan regular check ins or calls with classmates or extended family members, plan to write letters or emails if there are people that aren't readily available by video or telephone.

A part of this also is helping kids to overcome the discomfort they might feel in these new forms of communication. So again, building resiliency is helping to develop effective communication skills and teaching them how to use these other forms of communication to keep and maintain relationships and also how to ask for what they need.

Practice wellness and self-care

Self-care is something you've probably heard a lot about lately. You've likely heard about the importance of limiting media exposure, sticking to just a few sources, and trying to set planned times to actually tune in and learn what's happening. It can be really overwhelming and there are lots of different information sources out there and some of it is maybe less helpful than other sources.

As you're doing that you also want to think about what your children might be exposed to through your listening and watching habits. Smaller children may be in the background, hearing things and not correctly understanding it. Make sure that they don’t hear things that they don't understand. Limit watching or listening to that content when they're around.

For older children or teenagers, of course they're going to have the opportunity to tune in on their own. So maybe talk to them and problem solve about what some healthy sources are. We know that resilient children are able to recognize, label, and manage their own emotions. Take time to help your children to notice what is happening inside and outside of their body right now. Help them connect their thoughts, feelings, and actions. This is a big part of having a healthy mind.

Recognizing what their thoughts are and how those might be influencing their actions, then noticing what feelings those are connected to is powerful. A lot of times, this is something that we experience and learn by other people's modeling.

Mindfulness in general is a great way to foster wellness of the mind, including deep breathing, muscle relaxation, downtime, and keeping a gratitude journal. Right now, try to focus on things that have been going well or that you're grateful for. This is a critical piece to wellness.

In terms of wellness of the body, think about building routine. Having consistent expectations provides stability and comfort for children. This is something that they need. We know that resilient children turn into resilient adults.

One of the features that resilient children have when they're growing up is a democratic parenting style. That's a parenting style where there are firm boundaries. Children know what the limits are, kind of where that final line is drawn in the sand. But there's also flexibility from the parents. This flexibility allows the children's voices to be heard. The children are a part of the decision making and setting boundaries.

Democratic parenting is critical during this time because we know that some of those boundaries have to change. We have social distancing guidelines, school closures, and activity cancellations happening alongside more changes. In this environment, boundaries are going to change.

Give children some voice on that, but then as parents or adults be the leader and set firm boundaries with clear expectations. This is a really important part of building routine and helping with the healthy body aspect of wellness.

Also be prepared to help your children to practice physical self-care:

  • Recognize physical illness and treat it
  • Practice balanced eating
  • Avoid mood-altering substances
  • Maintain good sleep habits
  • Get exercise

Your strategic attention is something that's within your control. As the caregiver, you can point out, notice, or highlight the times that you see your teens or children take the initiative to engage in these things, follow through, or even make a step toward them. Award and notice the small wins. Focusing energy and attention on those things is going to make children more likely to want to repeat them in the future.

Create meaning

The next way to build resilience is to find purpose and move toward goals. This helps us to create meaning.

Resilient children have learned how to set realistic goals and expectations for themselves. Right now this is changing. Our goals need to be repurposed. What's realistic and what we can accomplish right now has changed.

As adults and caregivers, we can help children to repurpose those goals. We can help them to recognize how they might change things or break down those big problems into more manageable pieces.

For example, in terms of schoolwork, if they're feeling overwhelmed right now because suddenly there's so much that they need to accomplish, sit down with them and help them to break it into smaller, more manageable parts.

In terms of sports, maybe they had a goal of competing at a certain level or in a certain position and that is in question right now. Focus instead on what they can accomplish on their own.

What goals can they set? Can they have a personal best in terms of running or are there some other activities that they can do that will work in that direction?

Helping them to set realistic goals in this time is going to be really important. We know that resilient children believe they have the ability to solve problems and make decisions. They're more likely then to face challenges rather than avoid them.

There are absolutely things that are challenges and difficulties. Instead of seeing these as obstacles or barriers, look at them as problems that you can solve. This is where as leaders, parents step in and say, "You know what, let's figure this out. Let's do some troubleshooting and some problem solving."

Acknowledge that it is tough. We don't want to sugar coat, but we also want to see this as something we can work through.

With younger children, this might involve more modeling and planning ahead. As the adults, we may need to see where those obstacles are going to come in. One example is their birthday party or other activity that they were looking forward to. We might want to say, "Okay, it looks like this isn't going to happen. This is disappointing. Here's some things we can do instead or other options we have."

With older teens, you might want to help them to work through that process on their own. What is the main challenge that they're facing? Help them to identify that. Then help them to identify what their options are and the pros and cons of those options.

Think healthily

Resilient children have a sense of self-discovery. They recognize their strengths and weaknesses.

Asking them questions like these can be helpful and reflective:

  • "How have you grown during this time?"
  • "What have you learned from this experience?"

Taking a moment to reflect on these questions gives them a greater sense of strength.

Think about something that felt unnatural to you or that you were afraid of and conquered, like public speaking. A part of self-discovery is trying to do it despite your fears. You gain comfort and confidence in yourself by trying.

Using your strategic attention, you can point these things out to your children. You can praise those accomplishments and identify the areas that they've grown in that struggle. This will help them to become resilient.

Resilient children also embrace healthy thoughts and accept change. Healthy thoughts help to keep things in perspective. Check for understanding of what is occurring and make sure that they actually have the right information.

There may be misunderstandings. I've heard some younger children be fearful that when they go back to school, they're going to have to repeat a grade. See that those sorts of misunderstandings are clarified.

Try to talk about any questions or difficulties they're having about COVID-19 and their safety. Keeping things in perspective contributes to healthy thoughts by helping them to see the future beyond this moment. It's really hard right now to think past that but, as adults, we can model that and focus on things that are coming up.

Watch for black and white or inflexible thinking, and model being more flexible. Think about how we can get through this or what will come next. Watch for phrases that include things like always and never, or I can't. Also keep an eye out for any other inaccuracies or unhelpful thoughts may come up.

Connecting thoughts, feelings, and actions is a really helpful way to help children connect the dots, make it through, and develop healthy ways of looking at a situation.

As a leader and a parent, it is okay to express optimism. It's okay to acknowledge the difficulty and say, "We will find our way through this. We have done this before and we will again." Try to maintain a hopeful outlook and visualize what you want in the future. It is easier to focus on the fears you may have, but it is critical to try to be optimistic right now.

It is also important to accept change and encourage children to do so. Resilient children recognize where they have control and where they don't. They focus their energy in the places where they have that control. Those behaviors require us to radically accept things that we cannot control.

In terms of using our attention strategically, helping children and teens to identify times in the past that they overcame adversity can be really important. This helps them to identify times that they were brave in the past or times that they were able to become flexible in times of difficulties. These things give them confidence to trust in themselves that they can also make it through this difficult change.

Resilience is a personal thing. It's a personal journey and you know your children better than a lot of other people do. This is why you get to be the leader that bravely guides them through this journey.

Pick through these strategies and decide what will work best for you and your children. Not every tactic will work for every child. You may want to prioritize which areas that you work on.

If you feel like your child is stuck or you yourself feel stuck or overwhelmed, there are other resources you may be able to use. This may be a time for you to reach out and so you can build and foster resilience with the help of a professional.

Remember that resiliency is facing adversity, not avoiding it—working through it and moving forward. You can teach and model this for your children. Use your attention strategically, pointing out the times that they're facing adversity and working through it independently.

What are some ways that parents can teach kids to label their emotions? What should you do when children express emotions physically rather than verbally?

Parents know their children better than anybody else. So, you probably have a pretty good guess as to what's leading to those emotions if you take a step back and focus on what's going on.

After you have done that, label emotions and make the connection between what they're feeling on the inside and what they're trying to get through their actions. Actions are usually sending us a message. When we use action, we're usually trying to get something across that we don't have the words for.

Teach them by telling them you see their physical behavior, identify the emotion you think may be causing it, and ask them if that is right. Here is an example of that kind of teaching language: “I noticed that you're really squeezing my hand hard and we're talking about the fact that we're going to go to the doctor. It seems like you might be nervous.” Once you’ve started that conversation you can guide them to manage the emotion and physical expression.

With older teens, work with them to help them come to their own conclusion about what that emotion may be or what they're trying to get at through their action. Guide them to it instead of helping to phrase it for them.

How do I help my child weather the changes that are coming when we don't know exactly what they are going to be?

This is why it is important to know what you can control and what you can't. Then acknowledge that this is difficult and accept it.

Accepting it doesn't mean you like it. It doesn't mean that you approve of it. It doesn't mean that you're resigned to it. It means that you're accepting this is how things are, this is what we have to manage, and then moving forward with that information, however limited or frustrating it might be.

Face that adversity and work through it and really model and practice flexibility. This is certainly going to continue to be important as we start to reopen different parts of our society and re-integrate.

Are there examples of using your attention to encourage behaviors that you want to see more of from your kids or teens?

Right now we probably have all felt the effects of kids seeking out our attention. Possibly when you enter into a Zoom meeting or pick up your phone or sit down to do work. These are the moments when if children feel like they aren't getting enough attention, they will continue to do things to get it.

What you want to do to avoid these moments is to put your attention on the other things that they're doing that you want to continue seeing. If there are moments when your children or teens are helping out around the house or do something nice for you, notice that and provide gratitude.

Notice when they step out or play quietly during a business meeting and thank them out loud for that behavior. Something like “I know that this is hard for you too and I really appreciate you giving me some space to do this. As soon as I'm done, we'll be able to talk more,” works nicely. Acknowledge that this is hard for them too and praise those behaviors that they're working toward.

This webinar is provided for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute providing medical advice or professional services. If you think you may have the medical emergency, please dial 911 or go to your nearest emergency room immediately. No provider-patient relationship is created by this webinar or its use. Neither the University of Iowa nor its employees nor any contributor to this webinar makes any representations or warranties expressed or implied with respect to the information provided here in or to its use.

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