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How to help kids regain their footing after a year of stress and disruption

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“The pandemic has had three phases,” a sixth-grade student told me recently. “Part one, when we thought it would end any day. Part two, when we tried to find creative ways to see friends. And February.” As we head into March, it’s not getting any easier, so I spoke to educational psychologist Michele Borba about her new book, “Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine.” We talked about what caregivers and educators can do to help kids manage stress and stay optimistic, and actually thrive, after a year of disruption.

Phyllis Fagell: We all want to raise thrivers — kids who bounce back from adversity — but more parents are telling me that their child seems “flat” — less academically engaged and less social. Kids are complaining of boredom more frequently, too, perhaps because they feel like there’s nothing fun on the horizon. What have you been hearing?

Michele Borba: We know from the CDC that there’s been a stark increase in recent months of teens going to the emergency room for mental health reasons. Principals are calling me and saying, “Sometimes, the kids we never suspected are the ones who are hurting the most.” These are kids who seemed to have it all pre-pandemic, but who were defining themselves by their GPA or student council position, and who had a hard time when the school doors closed and the accolades stopped.

PF: How can we help kids and teens regain their footing? My students have had to come up with new phrases to capture the complexity of their emotions this past year. They’ll say they’re “quarantine good” or “covid fine.”

How to help a child build resilience during the pandemic (and long after it ends)

MB: Start keeping an index card on each child. Jot down where they direct their focus, what they ask to do more often; that will lead you to their strengths. It could be art, music, puzzle-making, woodworking. If we focus on a child’s strengths, the rest will follow.

I once taught a shy, precious little guy named Michael. He was placed in my special education classroom after he was diagnosed with severe learning difficulties in kindergarten. He covered up his strengths because he was full of self-doubt. But one day he forgot to cover up that he was artistic. I acknowledged his talent and asked him if I could put his picture up on the bulletin board. Many years later, Michael wrote to me and said, “Hey, Mrs. Borba, thank you for putting my picture up on the bulletin board.” He's now an animator for a major studio.

PF: By acknowledging his talent, you changed his self-concept. I’m often struck by how vividly adults will remember a passing comment their teacher made a million years ago, whether positive or negative.

MB: We forget how powerful we are. We’ve got to be a caring champion for kids right now. Thrivers have people in their lives who never give up on them. In 1960, when Ruby Bridges was 6 years old and integrated an all-White elementary school in New Orleans, she had to pass an angry, jeering mob every day. She credits her teacher, grandmother and pediatrician’s wife with protecting her and helping her get through it.

Every thriver also has ways to decompress — it could be deep breathing, a sense of humor, reading or prayer. Ruby has said that praying to God to help those people who were being so unkind helped her get through that torturous year.

PF: Some people are surprised to hear that resilience doesn’t necessarily correlate with the severity of a trauma. What are some other misconceptions about resilience?

MB: That it’s locked into DNA or that it’s temperament. Any child has the ability to thrive. Another misconception is that resilience is a trait. It’s not. It’s a skill set. The difference between those who struggle and those who succeed comes down to seven essential character strengths: self-confidence, empathy, self-control, integrity, curiosity, perseverance and optimism. When two or more of these superpowers are combined, they become even more potent. If you take a kid who has empathy and add curiosity, for example, you’ll have a change-maker on your hands.

PF: Optimism can be pretty elusive these days, for both kids and adults. What can we do to keep a child’s hope alive in the middle of so much change and loss?

MB: Number one: Acknowledge kids’ grief and give them permission to feel and permission to tell. Many milestones have been chopped out of their lives. The goal is not to raise a Pollyanna; optimism has to include a reality check.

Model the attitude you want your child to adopt. Fear and pessimism are easy to catch, but so too is calmness and optimism. Watch your body language and avoid negativity. Use phrases like, “I’m really frustrated, but I’m going to get through this.”

I once interviewed a journalist who lived through the Blitz in World War II. She was in her 80s and recalled, “Every night, the bombs would drop, but I got through it because I never knew there was a problem. My grandparents would pull the curtains and remain very calm, so I was calm.”

PF: You interviewed 100 children, mostly teens, about their hopes for their lives. Did anything surprise you? Do you think there’s a disconnect between what parents want for their kids and what kids want for themselves?

MB: I wasn’t prepared for how honest and open they were. They told me how stressed and empty they felt, and this was pre-covid. I said, “Do your parents know?” They said no, and when I asked why, they said, “Mostly because we don’t want to let them down.”

They also shared that they were having problems reading [social cues]. They blamed texting — they were looking down, not up. At one school in Chicago, the counselor started bringing in her Bernese mountain dog so students could learn to read the dog’s feelings and get better at reading their friends’ feelings.

PF: It may be even worse now; when kids are marinating in stress, they can have a harder time adopting someone else's perspective. What are some of your favorite strategies to help kids regulate their emotions?

MB: When I worked on Army bases and trained trauma counselors, a commander said, “Go talk to the Navy SEALs.” Here’s what they do:

  • They help each other identify their stress signs. You can do this with your child. If they learn to recognize early that they’re starting to feel irritable or out of control, they can do something about it.
  • Brainstorm positive statements with your child, such as “I can handle it,” or “It will get better.” Put these mantras on a mirror or use them as their screen saver.
  • Practice “one, two breathing.” On the slow breath in, say, “I got this,” then exhale for twice as long as the inhale.
  • Chunk the fear. If your child says, “I can’t go outside; the virus is going to get me and I’ll die,” start by simply opening the door and having them stick their foot out.

Another favorite strategy is to designate a calm-down corner. Ask your child, “What do you need to have there to decompress?” It could be a bubble wand, a stuffed animal, books. One girl told me she keeps a playlist on her iPad and if she’s doing well, she’ll crank up Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing,” and if she needs to calm down, she’ll listen to Mozart.

PF: You shared that empathy is one of the seven key character strengths of a thriver. How can we raise kind, caring people in a culture where the adults don’t always exhibit integrity?

MB: The best way to teach integrity is by modeling it, not by giving a lecture. Ask yourself, “If my kid had only my behavior to watch, what would he have caught?” Children are watching adults behave very badly, so we need to be more intentional. Read books about kids who have integrity, such as Malala Yousafzai. Social studies teacher Norm Conard filled a “Hero Box” in his classroom with stories of inspiring people. Parents can create a hero box at home and ask their child, “Who inspires you?”

When I interviewed a group of younger teens from Chicago, they were concerned about their friends who were stressed and didn’t have contact with their counselors. They decided to make quarantine gift boxes with a personalized note and homemade cookies. Their friends would call them in tears afterward and say, “We didn’t think anyone cared.” The kids who delivered the gifts were emotional, too, because they didn’t realize they could make such a difference in someone’s life. Giving is one of the best ways to keep hope alive.

Phyllis L. Fagell, a licensed clinical professional counselor, is the author of “Middle School Matters” the school counselor at Sheridan School and a therapist at the Chrysalis Group. She tweets @pfagell and blogs at phyllisfagell.com.

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More reading:

Stuck at home? Now’s the time to have these important conversations with your kids.

How parents can protect their child’s mental health during the pandemic

How to teach tweens to give to others without sacrificing themselves

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