How Covid-19 is a lesson in building resilience


South Africans are no strangers to a crisis. From droughts to loadshedding to State Capture and now Covid-19, we have weathered many storms.

But stuck at home for almost five weeks now, facing an uncertain future, this is arguably one of the most devastating crises we’ve faced. 

While our instinct as parents is to shelter our children from all of life’s hardships, these challenging situations, if handled appropriately, can help positively shape their emotional and psychological development, and provide a window of opportunity to nurture one of the most important qualities – resilience. 

“Resilience is what gives people the ability to recover relatively quickly and naturally from a trauma or a crisis,” explains registered psychologist Dr Duvenage, adding that resilience strengthens over time and can be fostered in children from a very young age.  

Our own resilience is being tested

But faced with loss of income, rising debt and general restrictions hampering us from going about our usual daily routines, how can we possibly nurture this quality in our children when our own resilience is being tested?

Focus on what you can control to help curb your own anxiety and be conscious of what you say around your children. 

While anxiety and frustration are unavoidable and it’s healthy to engage with these feelings, Dr Duvenage cautions parents against sharing these feelings with their children.

“Parents who are struggling with their own anxieties and frustrations need to be conscious of not showing these as much as possible to their children, who are fundamentally different thinkers,” he says.

“Children, even teenagers, do not possess broad frames of reference or properly developed thinking skills to rationally interpret situations.

‘Act as if’ therapeutic technique

Their conclusions are more often than not irrational (‘my mom and dad are going to die’) and irrational conclusions sooner or later cause problems.

“Duvenage suggests parents instead focus on projecting a sense of caring and control – qualities that will make children feel secure and loved.

“Parents should employ the ‘act as if’ therapeutic technique – in other words, act as if everything is, or is going to be, okay, even if your children’s world (and your own) has been turned upside down by this crisis.

Doing this can also be a very effective way to model resiliency to children.” 

Children mirror the behaviour they see at home, which is why we need to be conscious of our response to this crisis and how we navigate through our own anxiety and fear.

“Parents should model calm, rational, responsible and effective crisis management to their children, instead of exhibiting panic, anxiety and stress.

Children brought up with such an example of crisis management are more likely to emulate it in their adult lives,” says Duvenage. 

In the same way we can so easily get caught up in our own irrational thoughts, so too can our children and one of the best ways to develop their resilience is to manage these irrational beliefs, particularly during this crisis.

“Parents should identify the irrational beliefs their children hold during this Covid-19 crisis, dispute them in a way they can really understand, explain how these beliefs are often the cause of their anxieties and, most importantly, help them to develop new, more rational beliefs.

Taking these steps will not only make them more resilient during our current crisis, but will also provide them with the mental scaffolding to deal with other future crises,” says Duvenage.

Equally effective in fostering resilience is adopting what Duvenage calls the ‘three A technique’.

Accept, Appreciate and Adapt.

Accept the situation you’re in, appreciate all you have – your privileges, blessings and the loved ones in your life – and adapt to your new situation (even if it doesn’t make sense at all!).

Adopting this technique doesn’t mean you should ignore the harsh realities of your current situation, but rather look for the silver lining (no matter how small).

By doing this, Duvenage says, we encourage a spirit of optimism in our children, which helps to increase their natural resilience.

This crisis is testing us all, but it’s important to remember as parents that our children will take their cues from us when it comes to how to respond to this ‘new normal’. 

We don’t need to be perfect, we just need to be present.  

Five tips to raise a resilient child

Do not overprotect them. Expose your children in a responsible way to age-relevant risks, let them make mistakes and help them to learn from their mistakes.

Build their self-esteem.

Emphasize the value of reason, rationality, facts, logic, and observable evidence in real life, as opposed to using feelings and emotions as guiding principles.

Teach them to be slightly more critical, as opposed to being too gullible.

Promote self-reliance, self-sufficiency, individualism, practical thinking and optimism.

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