Coping & Resilience
Q&A with Director of Health & Wellness Ginny Fendell
Director of Health & Wellness Ginny Fendell oversees the social emotional learning aspects of Whitfield’s Advisory program and partners with teachers across all grade levels to implement and strengthen the Habits of Mind & Heart curriculum.
Ginny answers the questions below with insight and advice for parents as we continue to cope with the pandemic.
What have you noticed about kids during the past year?
Not to overstate the obvious, but we’ve noticed that this has been really difficult for kids. While they are incredibly resilient and resourceful, they are also suffering real loss on top of loss and the cumulative effects are weighing heavy. Summer might seem right around the corner, but kids don’t have the perspective or life experience of many adults who have lived through ups and downs, navigated loss, and know that this will get better. What might seem “so close” to adults, may seem unbearably far away to kids. Teens experience time differently, their brains are not geared for future planning as much as they are for experiencing the intensity of the moment. Any reassuring words of wisdom that you give should be applicable now, not, “when we get to summer.” Acknowledge that things are tough, but then say, “look at us, we are sitting here talking, walking through this together.” Messages that reinforce “we’re doing this” are empowering and promote growth.
What data are you seeing? What are some national trends?
Data from Teens in Quarantine: Mental Health, Screen Time, and Family Connection collected last July suggested teens were getting more sleep, spending more time with family and less time on social media. More than half of teens surveyed at that time reported feeling stronger and more resilient because of the pandemic.
But as time, and the chronic stress of dealing with all of these changes has worn on, so too has our kids' mental health worn down, especially for those with prior mental health issues, financial worries, or other stressors. A CDC report from October 2020 showed a 31% increase in mental health related emergency room visits for 12-17 year olds compared to the same time period in 2019. Researchers expect to see a dip in resilience and increases in symptoms of anxiety, depression, disordered eating, and suicidal ideation. A University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll from March 2021 shows an increase in new or worsening anxiety and depression for 1 in 3 girls, and 1 in 5 boys. I’ve heard from many parents who are surprised that their child, who has been “doing fine” up until now, is showing a lack of motivation, loss of interest and other signs of depression or anxiety.
What do you suggest parents think about or do as we wrap up the last couple months of the academic year?
Check in. Check in. Check in. I know it’s challenging! Teens are developmentally driven towards independence so it might take some effort to create a time for connection in order to get more than an “I’m fine” response. Take the time to ‘hit pause,’ sit with your kids, go for a walk, or share a favorite snack and ask them how they are feeling about everything after more than a year now -- what they miss, how they are dealing with all of the changes and losses. Giving them a space to grieve so that they can move through it is so important.
Keep an eye on their sleep patterns, eating habits, moods, and school work. Kids might be struggling with the motivation to complete assignments. To expect them to just hunker down or to have their pre-pandemic motivation for school may not be reasonable. Many teens have not had to figure out until now how to “do school” when they didn’t feel like it. As adults, most of us have developed our own strategies in that area based on our life experiences - we can distinguish the difference between things we ‘have to do’ from things we ‘want to do.’ Right now for many kids everything feels like it’s something they have to do. To help them work through this, rather than applying even more pressure or restrictions until assignments are completed, try sitting next them as a reassuring presence. Psychologist Lisa Damour has other tips in this recent article.
As parents we like to “fix” and this is something we can only soothe. Don’t promise things you don’t know. Kids appreciate honesty in conversation and like any human, kids appreciate some empathy. Damours’ favorite question she advises parents to ask their kids when having these conversations is, “What am I doing that is making this worse?” Be open to their responses!
How might we use this pandemic to teach our kids to be more resilient?
We have a perfect opportunity as the adults in our kids' lives – whether we are parents or educators – to model healthy coping and resilience.
Now is the time to hold emotions with them; to teach them what we as adults have all learned, which is how to deal with disappointment and loss. Their coping might not be the same as ours because they may not have had something this heavy to cope with. As an example, when someone close to us dies, we understand the importance of grieving in community, of being together and talking about it. Many of our kids have not yet had that experience – this is the first ‘big thing’ they have had to deal with.
The other thing we can point out to our kids is that being resilient and adaptable is what we were built to do as humans. That’s the foundation of evolution – we adapt, change, and grow. Just like building a muscle requires stressing that muscle followed by a period of rest and repair, building resilience requires facing and dealing with stressors, followed by some rest and down time. The chronic nature of this pandemic has really impacted our ability to get that essential rest and recovery. Prioritizing sleep and knowing when to ask for help to create a plan for managing the stress are two things we can teach our kids to do right now to promote resilience.
It is also important to understand that we all experience different types of stressors with varying levels of resilience. It can be tempting as parents to compare our child’s ability to cope or handle stress with how someone else’s child is coping (or our perception of how they are coping). Our kids are doing that constantly, too. Just be thoughtful: that type of comparison is not helping. Instead of feeding into the social comparison, use those moments to shift towards compassion or self-compassion. Acknowledge that individuals who, even before the pandemic, were struggling with anxiety, depression, or another mental health issue, are probably really suffering now and may not have the capacity to handle one more thing. If that is your child, you may need to solicit some additional support and care.
What other ways can we help our kids find perspective?
We can remind our kids (and ourselves) that circumstances change – that’s the reality. And while we can’t always control those circumstances, we can control how we respond. We do that by reaffirming our values, talking about what matters, being the kind of people we want to be at this time (whatever reasonable, “good enough” version of ourselves that is). I understand that anything additive right now feels too heavy, like we can’t do it – exercising, preparing healthy meals, or spending an hour reading or listening to an informative webinar – yet it is essential to our health and wellbeing. Taking care of ourselves and maintaining optimism is how we serve as strong role models for our children.
The other piece is that this is an ongoing, evolving reality. It’s highly dynamic, even if your kid has been fine up to now, May can be a stressful month (even in a “normal” year). Our kids are going to need us to help them. We may need to sit near them or be close by as they study for exams, to help them with the final push to close out the academic year. They may also grieve the loss of all the year-end celebrations that may not happen this year like dances and parties. We must maintain what we have heard throughout this pandemic – we know that there is going to be an end, even if we don’t know how long the middle part will be. In the meantime, talk with your kids about what we are all going to take away from this, how our relationships have changed, and hopefully strengthened. Remember together the conversations that you had as a family, the things that you did together during the lockdown, and what you have learned about yourselves. This is the time to then leverage those relationships as parents – to help your kids navigate the disappointments and the losses they feel this spring. And maybe they will recognize the unexpected positives that came from the pandemic, instead of the things they missed out on.
“Teens on a Year That Changed Everything,” New York Times (March 7, 2021)
Health and Wellness tab in Warrior Web
ISACS Parent Series Webinars and Parent Webinar Series Debrief Sessions (April 8, 15, 22). See the announcement in today’s Whitfield Weekly for details and sign-up information.