Take a Breath. Kids Are Learning Crucial Life Skills from this Pandemic


You don’t have to be a homeschooling pro for your kids to absorb important lessons right now.

No birthday party? No prom? No graduation ceremony?

COVID-19 has caused anxiety, disappointment and losses for children of all ages, particularly adolescents. The switch from the classroom to remote learning is disruptive enough. Having to spend entire days under the same roof as their parents and having little contact with friends exacerbates the situation.

While this pandemic has upended our lives, there is a silver lining. Kids can learn how to deal with disappointments and upheavals in a way that builds their resilience—that is, their capacity to bounce back from adversity feeling stronger and more competent. Here's what they can learn right now:

How to handle disappointment and loss

As parents, we are hardwired to protect our children from pain and suffering. Taken to the extreme, when our protectiveness doesn’t evolve according to our children’s age and stage of development, we can actually undermine what I refer to as the “psychological immune systems” of our children. We’ve all heard the term “helicopter parents” or “bulldozer parents,” which describe parents who hover over their children and move obstacles out of their way to ensure their children are “happy” and successful. While it’s well-intentioned, the downside of this parenting style is that kids are deprived of the opportunity to solve their problems and learn that life involves trials and tribulations.

The COVID pandemic offers daily opportunities for our children (and us) to learn more skillful ways to respond and adapt to varying types and degrees of hardships from loss of a graduation ceremony to the death of a loved one. What is most difficult for parents is that we cannot control, fix or protect our children from the hard realities we’re all confronting.

Viktor Frankl, who survived a Nazi concentration camp (and knew a great deal about human suffering) wrote in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning that “when we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” This is the essence of adaptability and coping, which are essential elements of resilience. Children and teens will learn this by watching what their parents do and how they behave, and less so about what we say.

So, what can we as parents do to help our children adapt and respond in skillful and effective ways?

First, we ask ourselves how we’re dealing with stress during this pandemic. Are we constantly complaining or becoming irritable and snappy? Can we acknowledge our own fears, frustrations, disappointments and losses?

We also need to let our children know we understand how they’re feeling about what they might not be able to experience, such as a formal graduation.

One of my young adult patients said to me over teletherapy, “I always thought that my freshman college year would be fun and exciting, and I’ve spent half of it at home.” The harsh reality is that he won’t get his second semester of freshman year back.

We can also help our children and ourselves by balancing the recognition of what we’ve lost with what we’ve gained. I suggest that you and your children keep a gratitude journal and write about three things you are grateful for each day. For example, they can write, “I am healthy”, “My loved ones are healthy” and “I have food.” It is important to note that research suggests that shifting our attention to positives produces important changes over time.

How to turn boredom into creativity

A common result of no longer having a scheduled, daily routine is boredom. For many kids who are accustomed to being over-scheduled, this can be another source of anxiety. But tackling boredom can be an opportunity. For many, it’s unusual to have the quiet and time for reflection—which can spark creativity. Help your child explore new avenues to invest their time.

Use this time as an opportunity to do things they typically don’t have time for, such as playing an instrument, learning another language, reading for pleasure or perfecting a hobby. Build in ways of exercising, such as stretching or taking a walk with them. Find “healthy” forms of distraction away from their screens, such as working on puzzles, drawing or painting. Increase virtual contact with friends and family outside of the home. Keep a journal about the pandemic to give our children a sense of their place in history. This is an opportunity to remind children of the catastrophes previous generations have faced and acknowledge that this time in history is something they can share with their children.

How to keep things in perspective

Parents model behavior for their kids, so how you cope during this crisis will impact your children. If you are stressed, chances are your kids are, too. Be honest with your kids about your own feelings of uncertainty but assure them that you will get through this together.

Cut yourself and your kids some slack during these unique circumstances. Reduce the focus on achievement, or, at least, make it less important. Pick your battles and avoid unnecessary conflict in your home. Is your teen staying up a half hour later than normal really that big of a deal?

Teaching your children constructive ways to handle disappointment and the upheaval you’re all going through affords them the experience of having endured a very challenging event and becoming resilient in the midst of it. A supportive parental relationship and skill building are the foundation of resilience.

How to seek space

While a “silver lining” of the pandemic is the ability of families to spend more time together, it is important to the wellbeing of parents and especially teens that they and we enjoy some solitude. Keep in mind that the central psychosocial task of adolescents is to develop a sense of identity by distancing themselves physically and emotionally and defining themselves in relation or in contrast to their parents. Finding peers and a sense of belonging are also important during adolescence but it becomes more challenging when a family is confined to a home. Let them seek out solitude when they need it.

How to be resilient

One of the most important ways that adults get through current hardships is remembering times when we’ve overcome or gotten through something very difficult. These experiences give us confidence that we can persevere, and the realization that feelings of pain and loss give way to love and joy again. Your love, assistance, support and modeling in the midst of this pandemic will boost your kids’ resilience and prepare them for the future. After all, our children will one day live life and all its vicissitudes without us.

Written by Frank Bartolomeo Ph.D. Lcsw for Working Mother and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.


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