The pandemic keeps piling on the disappointments for our kids, and they are struggling to cope with the strain of a year-plus of losses. While all kids benefit from exposure to a little stress now and then, Michele Borba, Ed.D., says COVID has caused more grief and trauma than most kids can handle while robbing them of long-anticipated milestones like prom and graduation. Now it’s time for parents to help kids build their resilience—not only to help them cope with COVID losses, but with future setbacks as well. “The pandemic is a wakeup call that shows how poorly kids today handle disappointment,” says Borba, author of Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, March 2021, ISBN: 978-0-593-08527-1, $27.00). “Prior to COVID, our main focus as parents was on helping them earn high grades and test scores and encouraging them to excel at extracurriculars—so naturally our kids learned to form their identity based on accolades, trophies, and scholastic merits. Then the pandemic pulled the rug out from under them, and now kids must learn to deal with those disappointments and losses. Dr. Borba says parents can help teach these lessons and guide kids to redefine and broaden what “success” really means. With your help, your kids can become Thrivers—Dr. Borba’s word for mentally tough kids who flourish in an uncertain world. “After all, stress and disappointments are part of life,” adds Dr. Borba. “Helping children realize they can handle them is a big part of helping them thrive.” Thrivers have a strong sense of who they are beyond achievements and accolades. Their sense of purpose helps them manage everyday stress (remember, learning to manage stress in small doses is healthy and beneficial) and leads to success in school as well as life. Their high levels of resilience mean they can find hobbies and interests that bring them joy and help them cope with life outside the classroom. The great news is, raising Thrivers is easier than you think. Dr. Borba’s new book offers plenty of practical, science-backed ways to help kids develop these strengths and overcome adversity. Read on for strategies you can use to help your kids cope with COVID disappointment and lay the groundwork for thriving in the future. Use this time to “reset” priorities. If your kids rely too much on being the spelling bee winner, the star athlete, or earning the highest GPA, intentionally use this time—when they are more likely to be close to home—to help them reset and refocus on the character strengths that make them more resilient and empowered to deal with disappointments. The good news is that ordinary interactions, like daily conversations and activities that unfold organically, can foster these strengths and have an extraordinary impact on a child’s ability to rebound. One way to help your kids reset: Praise them for more than their grades and scores. We’re so quick to inquire, “What did you get?” and not so much for, “What caring deed did you do?” Further, remember that resilience is internally driven and never relies on trophies or accolades. So announce a “no rewards for every little thing” policy and then expect your kids to do their best—without those enticers. Encourage them to talk about their (very valid) disappointments. Give your child permission to share their concerns with you. Their outlook on missing their 16th birthday party or canceling their senior spring break trip due to COVID might be far different from yours. But often just knowing that you are listening and want to understand is enough to let some of their disappointment dissipate. Plus, treating them empathetically as they struggle helps them develop their own empathy—a superpower Thrivers possess. “Hear your child out and let them voice their sorrow or regret,” says Dr. Borba. “Let them know that you understand. While you can’t restore the loss or missed graduation or other milestone your child had been looking forward to—sometimes for years—you can let them know you are here as a source of support.” Break down their disappointment so kids can focus on the (brighter) future. Kids can become overwhelmed when dealing with disappointment. When they get a bad grade, they may think, I ruined the whole project, when the reality may be that just one part of the project didn’t work. The same goes for COVID losses. After so much lost time, they are likely to think, This is never going to end. Or, I’ll never see my friends again. Help your kids break down the disappointment and put it into perspective. Point out that while the past year has been hard and disappointing, the future is bright. Schools and businesses are starting to reopen. More people are getting vaccinated. Soon they can see their friends again. Yes, they have been through something hard, but reminding them that things really are getting better helps them develop optimism—another character strength of Thrivers. Help them brainstorm solutions when their plans are ruined. Brainstorming is a great resilience-builder that also nourishes your child’s curiosity, another strength Thrivers possess. Thrivers have a sense of agency that makes them feel they are in the driver’s seat when challenges arrive, and this same inner sense of control is also a great stress reducer. To help them practice brainstorming, involve your child in coming up with ways to celebrate the event in safe, healthy, and creative ways. For example:
Postpone it. Set a specific new date for the event and mark it on the calendar.
Downscale it. Instead of hosting a graduation party for 300 kids, plan a smaller version for 10 of your child’s closest friends.
Recreate it. Change the end-of-year sleepover to a socially distanced campout under the stars.
Help your child build connections to combat loneliness. Physical distancing has reduced the face-to-face support systems that are so necessary for mental health, and research shows that kids are now suffering due to isolation. Teens and young adults are far more likely to be lonely as well as suffer from anxiety and depression. Loneliness and depression can be a toxic combination, especially during physical distancing. In fact, a recent Harvard study revealed that 43 percent of young adults reported increases in loneliness since the outbreak of the pandemic. An alarming 61 percent of young people aged 18-25 are suffering miserable degrees of loneliness. “Find creative ways to help your child connect with friends, such as setting up regular virtual playdates, book clubs, exercise or yoga groups, study partners, or exploring hobbies with a friend,” says Dr. Borba. “Encourage digital use as a way for your child to reach friends face-to-face. But be sure to set limits on screen time if the activity is not ‘with’ another person.” Take action if you suspect your child is in serious crisis. If you see a disturbing new trend in your child’s behavior, find out what is causing the change by seeking help from a trained mental health professional, counselor, pediatrician, psychiatrist, or psychologist. And if your child discusses plans of self-harm or your instincts tell you that something is wrong, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. (You might want to post the number so you and your child can easily find it.) If there is an immediate danger, take your child to the emergency room or call 911. The bottom line: Kids are growing up in an uncertain world, and we can’t shield them from losses and letdowns forever. Better they learn to cope with disappointments of all kinds now rather than later. “Your child can’t get back the opportunities they’ve lost, but they can find new ways to measure their self-worth and move forward in the post-COVID future with newfound confidence and resilience—and you can help them every step of the way,” concludes Dr. Borba. Here’s a quick checklist that shares some red flags to look out for. If you see these signs in your child, they may need intervention from a mental health professional. Over the next few days, watch them a bit closer (without them knowing). What you’re looking for is a negative/concerning change in your child’s typical behavior that lasts. A = ATTITUDE
Feels worthless, empty, or misunderstood: No one understands.
Hyper-critical of self and criticism, assumes guilt: I’m not good at anything.
Negative, pessimistic, feels life is bleak and the future is grim: Why bother?
Expects rejection or assumes failure: What’s the point?
B = BEHAVIOR
Stomachaches, headaches, change in appetite
Increased irritability, anger, impulsivity, temper tantrums, even over small matters
Disruptive, more aggressive, risky behavior, doesn’t comply
More sullen, less communicative, or more secretive
Self-harm, cutting, burning, excessive tattoos, drinking, self-medicating
C = CONNECTIONS
Decreased interest or wants to stop participating in social activities
Clingier, more anxious, pulls back, problems fitting in
Withdraws from family and friends once enjoyed
Chooses to socialize less, pulls away from friends or parents
D = DEMEANOR
Dark circles under eyes, appears sadder or distraught, drained overall look
Body posture is slumped or looks discouraged
Less attention to personal hygiene or appearance
E = EMOTIONS
Moody or sulking
Unhappy, sad, feeling down most of the time, crying spells for no apparent reason
Afraid, more fearful, excessive worrying
F = FOCUSING
Trouble thinking, concentrating, or difficulties making decisions
Loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities and things once enjoyed
Restlessness, lack of energy, or fatigue during waking hours
Poor academic performance, lower motivation, not doing homework, drop in grades
Sleeping too little or too much, feels drained most of the time
Use the TOO Index to further recognize a marked change in what is normal for your child’s behavior. No one knows your child better than you. Use your instincts to apply what Dr. Borba calls the “TOO Index.” Watch closely and notice if the behavior you’re observing is too different from the child’s nature, is too concerning, occurs too frequently, spills over into too many others, and lasts longer than two weeks. All kids will display signs of stress, fear, or sadness every now and then. Be concerned when you see a marked change in what is “normal” for your child’s behavior. “Remember that if you’ve been feeling hopeless lately, there’s a good chance that your kids have been feeling that way too,” concludes Dr. Borba. “It’s far better to monitor their behavior for warning signs of a serious problem than to assume everything is fine.”
About the Author:
Michele Borba, Ed.D., is the author of Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine and UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, and is an internationally renowned educational psychologist and an expert in parenting, bullying, and character development. A sought-after motivational speaker, she has spoken in nineteen countries on five continents, and served as a consultant to hundreds of schools and corporations including Sesame Street, Harvard, U.S. Air Force Academy, eighteen U.S. Army bases in Europe and the Asian-Pacific, H.H. the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and a TEDx Talk: “Empathy Is a Verb.” She offers realistic, research-based advice culled from a career working with over one million parents and educators worldwide. She is an NBC contributor who appears regularly on Today and has been featured as an expert on Dateline, The View, Dr. Phil, NBC Nightly News, Fox & Friends, Dr. Oz, and The Early Show, among many others. She lives in Palm Springs, California, with her husband and is the mother of three grown sons.
About the Book:
Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, March 2021, ISBN: 978-0-593-08527-1, $27.00) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.