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Building a Lifelong Foundation of Resilience in Children

Image provided by UnitedHealthcare Community and State

The COVID-19 pandemic has created new and unprecedented challenges for children—from quarantines and new protocols to illness in families and the loss of loved ones. A U.S. Surgeon General report found that between March and October 2020, the percentage of mental health emergency department visits for children ages 5 to 11 rose by 24%.

With the level of adversity that our children have faced, it’s more important than ever for parents and caregivers to focus on cultivating resilience in children—the ability to adapt in the face of hardship and trauma—in their children to manage anxiety and distress.


You can help your children develop resilience and tackle tough situations together with the following suggestions:

Take a break

When children are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, encourage them to step back and take a break—and ideally model this action yourself to reinforce the message. Whether it be for only a few minutes to take some deep breaths or longer to do an activity they enjoy, taking a break can help children (and adults) reduce their anxiety and re-energize.

Reframe

You can easily become frustrated and discouraged when facing disappointment. Rather than dwelling on the negative experience, focusing on their strengths can build confidence. Remind them of a past difficulty they overcame and invite them to consider how that experience made them stronger.

Name it to tame it

Emotions can be difficult to manage, especially when children are confused about what they’re feeling and why. Naming, drawing or talking about their feelings offer ways to express themselves and identify their emotions. Modeling this behavior as an adult will show children how to practice this concept in day-to-day life. Continual practice can also help children explore the cause of what they’re feeling and gain a better understanding of themselves.

Develop confidence

Everyone is special in his or her way, but it’s not always easy for kids to see or believe it, especially when they compare themselves to others. Take some time to help your children notice and name the qualities that make them strong and capable. Encourage them to practice new talents and learn new skills whether it be painting and basketball or being kind and compassionate.

Practice patience

Patience is a key marker of resilience, and it acts as a savings account to tap into when facing challenges and difficulties. A reserve of patience helps children better tolerate or recover from challenges. A few minutes can feel like an hour to kids, making it difficult for them to be patient. To help grow this skill, model with your children playing games to productively redirect energy, especially in situations that require patience and waiting. Challenge them to play “I Spy,” count to 10, sing a song or dance. Help value time and keep it in perspective by comparing routine tasks to other familiar activities, like the amount of time it takes to brush their teeth or drive to school.

Although resiliency is not an innate skill, practice and skillful modeling by adults can help children learn it. By using these tips, you can help your children build a strong foundation for overall wellness now and for the rest of their lives.

Dr. Arethusa Kirk is the national senior medical director for UnitedHealthcare Community and State where she serves as the East Region Chief Medical Officer.

For more information …

Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind Sesame Street, has partnered with UnitedHealthcare to launch new bilingual resources to help children build resilience to thrive in their communities. The free content includes:

To access these resources, visit sesamestreetincommunities.org/topics/resilience.

About Dr. Arethusa Kirk