Teaching Resiliency in Tough Times


 
Daniel Marullo PhD

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, creating a sense of normalcy where kids can feel safe and continue to develop the social skills they will need to navigate a complex world isn't easy.

The calendar doesn't stop for developing young brains and maturing personalities, even in a global crisis of unknown duration. Everyone is feeling the burden of the pandemic, but somehow parents, teachers, health and mental health providers need to prioritize making sure the children in their care have the support to continue building the skills that will help them become well-adjusted adults.

Now that health anxieties, financial stresses and an overabundance of togetherness are adding to family stresses, behavioral and mental health issues may be more likely to surface.

"Resilience is one of the most important skills we can teach children," Children's of Alabama psychologist Daniel Marullo PhD, said. "Parents want their children to be happy, so there's a temptation to try to make everything perfect so they aren't disappointed. But life isn't perfect. It helps to learn early that instead of just getting frustrated, a better way to deal with disappointment is to look for actions that can improve the chances for a better outcome.

"Children learn by watching us. If they get a bad grade and we respond by rushing to the school to complain, what are we teaching them? A more productive response is to use the situation as an opportunity to teach problem solving. Team up with the child to help them identify what is not working and to understand what they need to learn to do better next time."

When schools open again, we will likely see the reemergence of bullying - an all too common problem which could be sharpened by stresses that have been building while children were at home.

"Bullying can happen at any age, but the middle school years are usually when we begin to see it in pediatric patients," Marullo said.

Both the child who is bullied and the child doing the bullying tend to have multiple issues that need family support and may call for professional counseling.

"The child who is bullied is usually the one who is different in some way," Marullo said. "Perhaps they wear glasses, look different, do better in class, or have traits that may be seen as LGBTQ or linked to other marginalized groups. They may be quiet or not have many friends, so they are seen as easy targets.

"It is especially important for these children to learn resilience. They need to understand their own value. It should feel real to them, not just something their parents said to make them feel better. When they know who they are, it's not as easy for bullies to use name calling to hurt them. Bullied children may also need to learn how to be verbally assertive and learn skills for handling conflict without violence. Parents need to let them see how they handle conflict in a healthy way."

Finding their tribe is also likely to help reduce bullying. They can become less isolated by finding their niche and making friends with people like themselves.

"If they are targeted because they are smart, make friends with the other smart kids. If they are sensitive, creative and have different interest, join other children who are interested in music, theater, computers or whatever you like. When they feel part of a group, it's harder for bullies to make them feel less than who they are," Marullo said.

What about the other side of the coin? You get the dreaded call from the principal's office and find they want to have a chat because your child is the bully.

"You first need to find out what is powering the behavior," Marullo said. "The child who bullies may himself be bullied in another situation or feel powerless at home. If he sees aggressive behavior in an older sibling, friend, or parent, he may be acting out what he has learned.

"There could be stress at home, depression, anxiety or a poor self-image that causes him to need to feel powerful to feel better. You also see examples of 'popular' kids who think they have to show dominance to maintain their status as part of the 'cool' group. Frustration and feeling powerless may trigger the need to create a situation where they can feel powerful."

Depending on what is driving the aggression, children who bully may need counseling or other interventions to deal with underlying issues.

What about empathy? In a society where winning has become everything, where a killer instinct in business is celebrated above fairness and political extremism puts winning above doing what is right, where has empathy gone?

"Some people seem to be born with more natural empathy than others," Marullo said. "But empathy is also a skill, and it needs to be taught starting with the toddler years. When grandmothers encourage children to share their toys and play together, they are teaching empathy and cooperation. These are two skills the next generation will need to solve the problems their world will be facing.

"Everybody is entitled to have a bad day, but it shouldn't be allowed to become a pattern of behavior. Pandemic or not, we need to continue socializing children to grow up and be part of society as functioning adults, and that involves a lot of skills they need to learn."

The children who witness bullying are also affected by it.

"Many who witness it feel guilty if they don't do anything about it, but they are fearful of what might happen if they try to intervene," Marullo said. "Talking with parents can be helpful in determining how to respond in these situations so they can do the right thing in a safe way."

The crisis of the Great Depression left its mark on the children of that generation. They grew up with a sense of scarcity that influenced their lives. Some found clutter difficult to throw away because someday they might have a need for it.

Will children of the pandemic be similarly marked by what they are experiencing? Will more be anxious, or develop a phobia of germs or a tendency to horde supplies?

'It's too early to say what the long term effects will be," Marullo said. "A lot depends on how the pandemic affects the people around them, and how long it continues. We need to watch for emotional effects like depression, anxiety and loneliness. Parents also need to be aware of what they are feeling and what they are showing their children.

"The most important thing now is to talk to your children in terms they understand. For younger children, it may be more black and white. With older children and teens, the conversations can be more abstract and thoughtful. You can talk about things like ethics and what they are feeling and choices in how to handle problems. They aren't alone. You're all in this together."

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Tags:
aggression, anxiety, bullying, child psychology, Children's of Alabama, Daniel Marullo PHD, depression, empathy, frustration, pandemic, Pediatric mental health, resilience

 

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