Resilience in children and the impact of COVID

The pandemic has significantly impacted children and adolescents around the globe.

In looking for a possible silver lining in the dark cloud of COVID-19, it is important to explore whether anything positive, such as an improvement in resilience, occurred in children who had survived the pandemic.

Dr. Raymond Havlicek, a clinical and forensic psychologist in the North Country, explained that in looking at all outcome measures from the pandemic, it is not possible to identify a single benefit that accrued to children or teenagers. He states that the pandemic doesn’t have any potent impact on post-traumatic resilience, the grit that can sometimes occur in humans who have survived a horrific event. He notes that there isn’t a single viable positive trajectory in any of the observations of children and adolescents who have persevered through the pandemic. However, there seems to be potentially global differences in the adaptation to the adversity of COVID-19 and other stressors.

For example, a report about Chinese adolescents noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the rates of depression and anxiety. Although there is a great deal of negativity and adverse outcomes in this population, it is also important to determine what factors might either mitigate the risk of developing anxiety and depression or increase the resilience among this young cohort. Furthermore, resilience doesn’t occur in rare circumstances but, rather, develops from the ordinary interactions between children and their adult families and communities.

Brooke Feeney, PhD, has researched the impactful and healing aspects of relationships. Warren Buffet has observed that one develops and evolves based upon the small group that one associates with. Therefore, synagogues and churches and other houses of worship provide a social support to the fabric of a community. In addition, children and adolescents likely have better technology skills than other family members, and serving as an expert to family might very well produce resilience and improved self esteem in children and adolescents.

Even police and fire trucks can provide support when the local officials play birthday music and announce the birthdays of local children.

COVID-19 has negatively impacted entire systems, including healthcare, education, economies, family life, work, transportation, emergency services, humanitarian agencies, financial operations and family life. Such a cascade of multiple layers cannot have a single solution but, rather, a multi-systemic integration of potentially effective interventions.

Access to treatment is dependent not only on the resources available through demand and supply, but also allowances made for racial discrimination and marginalization of vulnerable sectors of society. The science of resilience evaluates the impact of pandemic related multi-systemic stressors.

It is important to look at the role of resilience in children during other traumatic stressors that pre-dated COVID-19. For example, during the HIV/AIDS crisis, children were impacted not only by the fear of individual morbidity and mortality, but also by the fears and risks to family members who become ill and leave their children as orphans.

In order to understand resilience, it is first necessary to define what it is.

Masten, et al., have defined resilience as “the capacity of a dynamic system to adapt successfully to challenges that threaten the function, survival, or development of the system.” Resilience is not merely an isolated strength that develops in a sea of stressors, but rather is a multi-process capability to adapt to traumas. The concept of homeostasis in biology refers to a well balanced baseline physiology that is normative. When the homeostasis is disrupted by multiple stressors, it is important to determine what interventions could restore a system to its natural balance. Coordinated adaptive responses can collate a panoply of healthy and positive results. Disasters are multi-systemic in origin, and can impact human physiology, brain function, interpersonal support mechanisms and economic and financial disequilibrium. Like other natural disasters, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, or tornadoes, COVID-19 also poses a multi systemic traumatic etiology.

In order to help children and adolescents during this pandemic, integrated solutions are crucial. In the same way that an illness in a child can negatively impact family members and community, families need to rely on their communities, and children need to rely on their parents, to surmount a successful outcome. Just like in warfare, an overarching strategy to triumph must include a multi pronged approach.

Sesame Workshop, for example, has produced special shows for families and children to teach about the virus and to create a web based resource called “Caring for Each Other.” There are also examples where teachers have driven to the homes of their pupils, waving to them or leaving a chalk message on their driveways. Graduation ceremonies where students are in separate cars along a racetrack provide for ceremonial celebration at a time where in person celebrations were dramatically decreased due to social distancing.

Engaging youth in multiple ways, such as through volunteer opportunities in FEMA’s CERT programs, will give an appropriate seat at the table to youth cohorts to share what they have experientially learned from the pandemic.

Berkes, et al., looks at an integrated approach to community resilience. It is important to build resilience through self organization and by focusing on the people and place connections that create a psychological foundation. By graphing an entire social system, it is possible to identify areas where there is unpredictability and nonlinearity, as well as areas where feedback loops and windows of opportunity can be elucidated. Zolkoski, et al., notes in a 2012 research review that there are literally endless examples of trauma and the associated multi-factorial impact of trauma on child growth and evolution. Warfare, family discord, rumination about getting sick or losing the ability to function are all exogenous stressors in youth. Research notes that the ability to become resilient is an innate and inborn characteristic.

Resilient children are noted to have five attributes. These include the sense of meaning or purpose in life, ability to solve problems, critical consciousness, and the ability to navigate social expectations. The latter includes the competence that enables one to have empathy, communication skills, a sense of humor, and flexibility. These virtues are crucial in helping children to have positive relationships with friends and relatives and community. These multi-layer supportive relationships, and the ability to form authentic bonds, is an integral part of developing resilience.

Critical consciousness “involves heaving an insightful awareness of structures” of cruelty (such as a sadistic parent or abusive sibling). In developing strategies to survive this, and even to thrive in the future, it is crucial that children and teens develop problem-solving skills that help them to think outside of the box. This will help them to acquire the social and cognitive skills to achieve goals through negotiation and problem solving.

The development of resilience in youth is a balance between risk factors, which weaken resilience, and protective factors that promote resilience. Individual resilience can be nurtured when a child has positive and adaptive relationships with community and school. These characteristics also elicited a positive response in community and family to the children in their social structures.

Werner, et al., writes that a study of 5-year-olds demonstrates a concordant relationship between poor regulation of positive emotions and low levels of interactive and social behaviors. There is also a linear relationship between positive emotion regulation and high and robust levels of pro social activity.

Resilience is a by product of self confidence and healthy self esteem. The subgroup of children who thrive during disasters are able to navigate the unpredictability of life, and able to form a bilaterally strong rapport with their support system. The temperament of children who develop resilience is buoyed by this ability to develop positive responses in both strangers and in children. Family conditions are another important variable in resilience development. Optimal competence in children is associated with an authoritative parenting philosophy. This structure and clear expectations provide a holding pattern for children during traumatic events. In the same way that swaddling clothes provide security to a baby, the strong boundary frame that produces resilience helps to overcome exogenous obstacles.

The impact of the pandemic on children and teens requires much more research to determine all of the factors that provide protection. However, the data so far has identified protective factors in the family, the school, and the community. Much of this seems to be common sense, and the stronger and more authentic interpersonal relationships are, the more likely they are to mitigate against risk and to provide a supportive and positive self image and meaning in life.


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