Fives Strategies to Help Children Grow in the Wake of a Crisis

By Anya Kamenetz (excerpted from New York Times)
During the pandemic, young people — especially, but not only, the most vulnerable — have experienced massive disruption. More than 200,000 American children, and counting, lost at least one parent to Covid. Young people in foster care, as well as those in juvenile detention centers, sometimes went an entire year without seeing their families in person. Children with special needs often regressed without therapies and interventions. And many kids suffered academically, from remote learning and missed class resulting from quarantines.

Even the luckiest children in the United States confronted enormous loss. They lost family members, social interactions and milestones they will never get back. Children who were seldom told “no” may have suddenly heard it a lot: No birthday party. No summer camp. No Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s. No hugging your friends. No prom.

The rise of mental health concerns among children and teens now qualifies as a national emergency. So the question is: As families try to recover, can kids grow from the difficulties they’ve faced?

Teach kids that adversity can bring gifts. You might use stories from your life or your family’s spiritual tradition to explain how overcoming a difficulty can leave people stronger. Or, you can approach the same idea through brain science. For example, nonprofits like Turnaround for Children offer curriculums to teach kids about neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to adapt and change when we take on challenges and learn new things.

Prepare for difficult emotions. Sharing experience is essential for post-traumatic growth. But to effectively discuss and process those difficulties, children need techniques to deal with emotions like sadness, rage and anxiety. Jonah, an 11-year-old from San Francisco, struggled with remote learning and has autism and A.D.H.D. There was a list of activities on the fridge — cuddle his cat, lie like a starfish on his bed, take deep breaths — to try when he was on the verge of a meltdown.

Dr. Tedeschi noted that caregivers also need emotional regulation skills, because they too can become overwhelmed when children express distress.

Listen. But don’t judge. Expert companions are people who can listen openly, without “closing things up with platitudes and easy answers,” Dr. Tedeschi said. But this requires doing something that can feel counterintuitive: prompting children to disclose the details of a difficult experience, even more than once.

Ask questions about tough times. Listen to your kids without judging or downplaying anything, while expressing how much you care about them.

Help children understand their experience. Trauma, as Dr. Tedeschi defines it, includes a loss of meaning: What you thought you knew about the world turns out to be wrong. Part of post-traumatic growth is discovering a new meaning. “Narrative development” is his term for turning the facts into a cohesive story.

You might ask, “What did this experience mean to you, all in all?” or “What do you know now that you didn’t before?” But, when helping your children assign meaning, be mindful that your values might not reflect what they are actually experiencing. You might fret because your teenager is underperforming in math, but they may be more upset about missing a season of basketball.

Encourage acts of kindness. Over the years, Dr. Tedeschi has found that many people experience growth after a crisis when they choose to help others, especially those in similar situations. He suggested, for example, that a teenager who is catching up academically from the pandemic might try tutoring younger children.

Helping others lends perspective to our experiences and expands on the feelings of compassion that arise when we encounter difficulties. Plus, Dr. Tedeschi said, “Having an impact on other people is very gratifying to most of us.”

Anya Kamenetz is an NPR education reporter and the author of “The Stolen Year.”