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It is amazing to see how many children manage to survive, recover, and even thrive after tumultuous events unfold around them. This might involve getting through natural disasters such as floods or coping with the impacts of poverty or war, be it losing one’s home or enduring precarious shortages of food. Over and over, in diverse situations around the world, we see some children manage to do well while others are hit much harder.
These young people may have very different experiences, but children who show resilience almost invariably share at least one fundamental protective factor. Typically, in the background, there are people connected to these children – usually parents and teachers – who are holding it together amid chaos and trauma to buffer children in their care from the dangers that surround them.
For example, over the years, I have seen a lot of effective parenting in emergency shelters. Despite scary situations and uncertainty, many caregivers manage to hold steady, even when they do not know where their family is going to live or how they will feed their children.
Buffering children does not mean shielding them from all stress. But it does mean keeping stress manageable. Children need to learn how to handle stress, setbacks, and failure, as well as what to do when they become overwhelmed. As an analogy, consider the functioning of our immune systems. Research tells us it is unwise to protect immune systems from all exposure to germs, although it is helpful to bolster them with vaccinations.
“Parents have often felt as though they were the first and last line of defense.”
Likewise, children need some exposure to challenges, supported by effective caregivers and teachers who ensure that they are not exposed to overwhelming trauma. All lives have major blows and face many kinds of adversities. Problem-solving skills, social support, and confidence that one can overcome adversity are important for resilience, but they develop best when they grow over time, honed by experiences of overcoming manageable challenges.
Systems and families have protected children
During COVID-19, we have seen impressive examples of family, education, health, and other community systems mobilizing to protect children. Parents, schools, health care, and social services – as well as neighborhood communities – have stepped up to shield and buffer children. They have tried to provide safe spaces to play and learn despite turmoil and unseen dangers. Not all those efforts have been successful, in part because the pandemic was so disruptive. We also discovered profound gaps in our preparedness for this kind of widespread catastrophe. Yet clearly, many systems eventually succeeded in protecting children from at least some of the dangers around them.
Parents carried the burden
Parents, in particular, have often felt as though they were the first and last line of defense. This was particularly true during the early stages of the pandemic, when many schools and child care facilities did not function as they usually did. During this time, a heavier burden of educating and caring for children passed to parents, even though they, too, were often struggling. Parents were expected to keep their children safe, healthy, and learning, even when they were juggling nearly impossible demands of work and family, illness or loss, and worries about paying the rent.
It is remarkable how the resilience of multi-layered systems – such as families and communities – springs into action in times of such stress. The surge in support from these quarters has been impressive during the two-plus years of the pandemic. But systems cannot keep surging capacity indefinitely. It is essential for parents and other protective systems to recharge and replenish their capacity.
If support systems are not maintained and restored, they may not work well when they are needed to take the strain again. The same is true for systems surrounding children. That is why maintaining children’s resilience requires a clear focus on looking after those who carry the greatest load of responsibilities for protecting and nurturing children. Bolster children’s buffers and you will strengthen children’s capacities to withstand blows, recover, and even thrive, in spite of trauma or disaster.
Capacities to cope for long periods
We know from research that many people weather long-lasting, difficult situations. Studies of those who survive prolonged conflicts or natural disasters show that recovery is possible even in situations of severe and chronic adversity, especially when the recovery environment is supportive. People help each other, often relying on cultural and religious practices that provide comfort and concrete supports such as food to those in need.
Although the mobilization of resilience may lag behind the challenges confronting families in unexpected and severe situations of adversity, the complexity and speed of resilience responses can be impressive. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have witnessed many striking surges in resilience capacity – from the expansion of intensive care units and globally coordinated vaccine development to individual volunteering and giving.
Such acts of kindness benefit not only recipients but can help the givers feel better, too. I saw this after Hurricane Katrina in the United States. Schools developed programs for children to help their community prepare and plan for future disasters, and taught them to make “go bags” or put together care packages for families. Kind and helpful activities provide children with positive feelings while at the same time countering the sense of helplessness and loss of control that often accompanies experiences of severe adversity.
“Maintaining children’s resilience requires a clear focus on looking after those who carry the greatest load of responsibilities for protecting and nurturing them.”
However, the length and complicated challenges of this pandemic have sorely tested the resilience of systems and individuals supporting children. The pandemic itself may continue, perhaps in a diminished form, for some time. Additionally, lingering consequences may continue to affect families well into the future.
Many parents, teachers, and health care workers already feel worn out, yet they must remain on the front lines of defending and fostering children’s well-being for the long term.
The burden is great among disadvantaged families
The experience of the pandemic has also exposed weaknesses in the supports that protect disadvantaged families. When child care centers and schools were closed or struggling to continue serving children, some better-off families could mitigate the worst effects of the resulting disruptions on their children. They could hire nannies and tutors, team up to create learning pods, and afford private education systems that were more likely to stay open than publicly funded schools.
In contrast, low-income families often struggled with poor digital access and food insecurity as they waited for public systems to swing into action. The pandemic amplified, at least in the United States, effects of long-term underinvestment in child care facilities, health care for children, parental leave, and public school systems.
Support those feeling burned out
Now that we may be starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, there is an important and much-needed debate about how to help children “catch up” in their academic and social skills. But it is also vital to focus on how to support the people and systems that serve as the primary buffers for children in these difficult times.
Many caregivers and educators have run a marathon and they are exhausted. They need our collective support to recharge and carry on the crucial work of protecting children in the present and nurturing their resilience for the future. That support can take many different forms from family, friends, employers, NGOs, and governments, including listening, childcare, organized activities for children, family-oriented celebrations, flex-time, or tax credits. The well-being of children depends on the adaptive capacity of these unsung champions and, in turn, the future resilience of all our societies depends on developing resilience in children, preparing them for the life adversities they will inevitably encounter.