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A week’s worth of activities for parents and children to grow resilience and cope together
By Dr. Sheila Modir, pediatric psychologist at CHOC Children’s
It is normal to feel anxious or worried about what is to come during this time of uncertainty due to COVID-19. Situations like these can be stressful for everyone in a family. Now more than ever, we need to help our children navigate these difficult obstacles and adversities and build their resilience.
Resilience is our ability to thrive or bounce back after a stressful situation. The good news is that resilience can be taught. Resilient children tend to be happier, more motivated and engaged, and adopt a more positive attitude about difficult or challenging situations. As a parent, you can help promote your child’s emotional well-being by engaging them in an environment full of opportunities to learn helpful skills to becoming resilient. Resilient skills can include:
Here’s an outline for how you can spend one week focusing on resilience-building for you and your child:
Monday: Making a schedule
Whether times are uncertain or not, all children benefit from having a routine in place. Following a schedule provides consistency, structure and predictability. When we don’t know what the world is going to throw at us next, building in some routine and predictability serves as a buffer from the outside chaos. Collaborating with your child to create a weekly family schedule could give them an appropriate level of control and influence in their world.
Here are some things to consider when you sit down with your child to create this schedule:
Tuesday: Emotion identification
Today is a great day for a family movie night, and what movie does a better job of describing the internal world of a child than Pixar’s “Inside Out”? Consider making a family fort and gathering your favorite movie snacks. After the movie, grab some markers and paper and have your child draw what recent feelings they have experienced. What does that feeling look like? What would it say if it could talk? What does that feeling need to feel better or safe?
Another art activity is to have your child draw out the many faces of emotions, such as, what does a grumpy face look like to them? A sleepy face? A calm face? Draw up to 10 faces and write out the emotion underneath the face. Or, look through magazines and cut out various facial expressions that they see and label them. Does the person in this photo look sad? Does the person in the car look happy? We call these “Feeling Faces.” Children who can identify their emotions adjust better to challenges and are able to communicate their needs effectively.
Brainstorm as a family where to hang up these faces in an easy-to-see place, like on the refrigerator or next to the TV. Refer to your “Feeling Faces” throughout the week by setting an example like, “I am feeling sleepy today because I didn’t sleep too well last night. How are you feeling?” or “It makes me sad when you say mean things to me.” You can have the child point to the “Feeling Face” that they are experiencing if they are not ready to verbally label it.
Wednesday: Coping skills
Today is the day to practice different ways to manage big emotions!
Deep breathing is an important coping skill for children and parents. There are several great apps and videos available online demonstrating how to practice deep breathing with your child — such as the Calm app, the Headspace app or the Virtual Hope Box app. However, there’s ways to practice these coping skills without technology. Some ideas include:
Progressive muscle relaxation
When we get stressed, we tend to experience muscle tension. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a great way for children and adults to manage stress and relieve muscle tension by tensing and releasing different parts of their body one by one. There are free PMR scripts online to read aloud, as well as free guided online videos. An example PMR script is included at the end of this article. A creative way to teach children PMR is by telling them that you are making the muscles in their bodies go from hard, uncooked spaghetti into relaxed cooked noodles.
(No, not the kind where someone got in trouble.) Grounding is any activity that brings your attention to the present moment. One of the best and most readily available ways to do that is to use your five senses (see, touch, hear, smell and taste). You can call it a five senses scavenger hunt! Prompts include asking your child:
Another form of grounding is mental grounding. Examples include:
Plan throughout the day to practice this skill with each other, especially when someone is starting to feel stressed or anxious. If you are worrying about the future, then the present is where you can do something about it!
Thursday: Family coping box
Grab a shoe box and some construction paper and start building a family coping box. A coping box can include tools that different family members can utilize when feeling stressed. The family box should be located somewhere that everyone can access it easily. Decorate the outside of the box and begin identifying items you all would like to place in the box. You can even refer to your five senses and include items that feel soft, taste good or smell soothing. Here are some other ideas:
You can also go online for free printable visual calming tools to include in the coping box. In addition to a family coping box, children may also like to make their own coping box and keep it in their bedroom. Encourage your child to use the coping box when they are starting to feel agitated, stressed, sad, mad or restless.
Friday: Conflict resolution and accessing social support
With many adults working remotely and children home from school, you might feel like you’re living in tight quarters right now. Under these circumstances, it is natural for disagreements and conflicts to occur. One way to manage conflict is to establish communication rules. A handout on these communication techniques is included at the end of this article.
Another way of teaching your child conflict resolution skills is to teach them when and how to ask for help. Feeling connection is very important during this time. Children are now isolated away from people who they might have normally confided in — whether it’s friends, other family members or their teachers. How can parents help their children know when to ask them or their siblings for help? Starting a conversation and making a family helping plan together could be one way. You can have each person write out who they would go to when they are feeling mad, sad, happy or anxious. You can say they can go to anyone, and maybe there is a specific person in the family that understands a certain emotion better. They can even call or FaceTime with a specific person that isn’t in the home or talk to a pet if the dog is someone that brings comfort to them! You could also make a “Connections Calendar” and include windows of 10-15 minutes of your child’s time to connect with someone on their social support list, like a grandparent or a friend. Get creative because we may be staying inside for a while and who we can turn to for support during this time is important.
Mindfulness is a powerful tool to help us slow down, pay attention and be fully present in the moment. Sometimes this can be tough to teach to a child, so we want to make sure we manage our expectations, but there are also creative ways to help them understand helpful components of mindfulness.
The idea is that our attention is a muscle, and we want to practice strengthening it. When we choose where we want to put our attention, it gives us greater opportunity to then choose how we want to think about something. When something like COVID-19 makes our physical world a lot smaller, it can be comforting to exercise what is in our control.
To end the weekend on a good note, let’s engage in practicing gratitude for all the things we have and get to experience. Research has found that teaching gratitude to children increases their happiness, optimism and generosity. Some gratitude activities include:
It is important to note that while you engage in all of these activities with your child, make sure to have it be a technology-free time, where cell phones and tablets are placed on silent and you are providing your child with your full attention. Listen and reflect on what your child is saying while engaged in the exercises. When your child says, “Mom, I am using the red marker to draw a red, mad face!” you can respond by saying, “You’re picking the red marker to draw your mad face.” Provide praises throughout the activity because who doesn’t feel good when their positive behaviors are being noticed? You can use unlabeled praises like, “Good job!” or labeled praises like, “Good job drawing all your different faces!”
Feel free to continue to repeat elements of this weeklong schedule as many times as you want. You can advance to different “Feeling Faces,” add new items to the coping box, and practice mindfulness and gratitude daily. The reinforcement of these skills is what helps make it stick for children, so the more practice, the more we are increasing their resilience — or their capability of taking on challenging situations.
Here are additional tools that I often recommend to my patients and their families.
Books that teach resilience: