Few of us ever imagined a situation as pervasive and scary as the Coronavirus pandemic, but I have hope that we can turn this crisis into a unique opportunity for our children and for us to build the special kind of resilience that comes from facing adversity. Crises like this one give our innate emotional survival skills the chance to grow stronger.
Studying neuroscience over the past decade, I have learned about a powerful survival strategy that evolved to help humans survive difficult times. Millions of years ago, humans developed this ability to stay alive, an improvement on the more primitive methods of simply running away, fighting, or shutting down in the face of life threat or risk in the environment. Over time, humans became hardwired to get through difficult times by banding together in tribes, communicating and keeping each other safe through certain forms of social engagement.
At the most basic level, the parent-child relationship is designed to do just that. And this moment, in which many of us are home with only our immediate families, presents a singular opportunity to flex our social-engagement muscles as never before and, in turn, to build our children’s resilience (as well as our own).
Priming the social-engagement system isn’t difficult, but it starts with feeling okay yourself, so try to get enough sleep, proper nutrition, emotional support, and fill your own parent tank first. And then:
- Connect, connect, connect. Hugs, reassuring looks, a gentle tone in our voice, singing favorite songs, playing games — these actions calm the nervous system. They buffer stress physically and emotionally because the mind and the body are interconnected.
- Play is the neural exercise that all children need in this moment. It helps children process stressful or traumatic experiences. Play offers the opportunity to supercharge resilience-building: simply join your child on the floor and follow your child’s lead —even if you have only five minutes at a time. Pay attention to the themes that emerge; children reveal what’s on their minds through the forms of play they subconsciously choose.
- Change it up and be creative. Novelty is distracting for kids. How about setting up a tent in the living room, or having breakfast for dinner? Pillows and couch cushions are great for creating an obstacle course. The home or yard provide great places for a treasure hunt.
One day in the future our children will tell their own children about the great Covid-19 pandemic. The stories they tell and the memories they will carry forward are being formed now. What if what they remembered was having more time to play with their parents, and doing things they would have never done with their families if not for the quarantine?
Now there’s something to imagine.
*I share more about how to strengthen children’s resilience in Beyond Behaviors and Social-Emotional Development in Early Intervention.