BY DEBORAH MOON
The uncertainty, stress and isolation of growing up in a global pandemic will unquestionably have long-term, perhaps lifetime, impacts on the emotional and mental health of today’s children and teens. Yet one of those lingering effects could be a lifelong ability to face new challenges with resilience.
Resilience – the ability to bounce back from difficulties – can, to a degree, be taught and supported. While genetics and a family’s resources play a role in the ability to deal with trauma, how parents “model and talk about responding to adversity or making meaning out of a difficult time absolutely has an impact,” according to psychologist Allan Cordova, Ph.D., of the Children’s Program.
Dinah Gilburd, LCSW, a consultant with Jewish Family & Child Service, agrees. “Resilience develops when children experience challenges and learn to deal with them positively with adaptive coping techniques. Parents and caregivers can help children learn these skills and develop resilience.”
Cordova considers disruption of daily life, especially school and social activities, as the key stressor adolescents have faced during the pandemic. For younger children, the lack of socialization at a time when they are learning to become social beings has been problematic.
“Nationwide and of course locally, schools are seeing serious upticks in anxiety (often in conjunction with anxious parents) and mental health issues,” says Maayan Torah Day School Principal Rabbi Yerachmiel Kalter, adding that the surgeon general recently called this a crisis.
“One of the really important things is making space for difficult emotions rather than trying to sweep them aside,” says Cordova. “I think part of resilience begins with just acknowledging the truth about how and why something is hard; and then being able to move through that process so that you don’t get stuck in the pain or the negativity and identify what are going to be the coping responses to that difficult circumstance.”
Cordova says it is important to acknowledge what is hard before shifting into coping and problem-solving modes. “Helping kids understand and work through their emotions is a huge piece of supporting resiliency,” he says.
“Sometimes as parents, we can get stuck in one phase or the other,” says Cordova. “Overly fixating on how bad something is … doesn’t do any good.” But equally unhelpful is to jump to problem-solving mode, which “can be pretty invalidating and lead kids to feel misunderstood or that their concerns aren’t really important.”
Shaarie Torah Education Director Dr. Sharon Pollin says, “It is incumbent that we provide space for our children to share, discuss and reflect on what they have been through during these past months.”
While Sunday School was on Zoom over the past year, Pollin says teachers used fun emotional check-ins before each class – “for example showing photos of dogs in various poses and expressions and asking, ‘Where are you on a scale of dogs today?’ ”
Shaarie Torah teachers also used resilience vocabulary and asked questions such as “How did you make that happen?” so students could become self-aware of the strategies they employed as well as sharing those with their peers.
In NCSY youth activities and at the weeklong Camp Kesher, NCSY Oregon Director Meira Spivak says, “We have worked individually with teens, specifically the leaders, and coached them to stay committed to a cause despite challenges. It is always easy to run an event when their peers sign up willingly. But what about when recruitment is challenging – do we just give up or double down? Encouraging teens to stay motivated despite setbacks is a skill that we try to instill in them from early on.”
Spivak adds, “If a child sees their parents getting up despite adversity, they will learn how to do it as well. Parents have a real opportunity to model resiliency for their kids. When you feel frustrated and want to throw in the towel, make an intentional decision to take action.”
She says NCSY has worked with parents of teen leaders, encouraging them to stay strong amid teen temper tantrums, threats or bad behavioral spells.
“Teens face many ups and downs, and the roller coaster they ride can often make their parents crazy,” she says. “We are there for the parents, ‘holding their hands’ so they can navigate through tough times, and when needed, recommend professional help for their kids.”
Maimonides Jewish Day School Principal Karen DeNardo notes that the past 20 months have provided ample opportunities to help develop resilience. DeNardo and her teachers have worked directly with students who have been struggling.
“The one on one seems to help as we are able to pinpoint the times of day that are causing a struggle,” says DeNardo. “It is during these conversations that we work on the resilience needed to succeed.”
Rabbi Kalter says he believes resilience is best taught through mentor modeling and role playing. He says Maayan Torah teachers share how they persevered in a tough situation and work with students to explore ways to persevere in different situations.
“Lastly, pointing out when a student was resilient and the ‘rush/good feeling’ they had through persevering teaches young minds that it is worth it to stick with it,” says Rabbi Kalter.
Cordova, who is a member of Havurah Shalom, says Judaism offers an important resource to deal with feelings of isolation. Judaism is great at expanding the focus beyond oneself through tikkun olam and service. “Figuring out how you can both connect to community as well as serve community also really supports resilience,” he says.
For B’nai B’rith Camp CEO Michelle Koplan, Jewish values, middot, are central to both her work at camp and raising her own children.
“For me, teaching resiliency is aligned with gratitude, hakarat hatov, which means ‘recognizing the good,’ ” says Koplan. “Practicing gratitude is recognizing the good that surrounds you. Through our activities at BB Camp, we infuse hakarat hatov. For example, our arts & crafts and teva (nature) specialists teach the middot of hakarat hatov, while campers paint and depict their gratitude for the Earth and tikkun olam, repairing the world together.”
“Teaching hakarat hatov and Jewish values creates resilient children,” she says.
Devora Wilhelm, Judaic studies director at Maimonides Jewish Day School, says that Judaism teaches us God gives us the ability to persevere. “Hashem does not overbear his creatures,” she quotes. “G-d gives us the ability to rise above the occasion and handle whatever comes our way. That does not mean it is easy. Sometimes we have to change our mindsets.”
Rabbi Chaim Wilhelm of Northeast Chabad Hebrew School adds to that concept of Hashem’s guidance the fact that “Purpose helps us in times of challenge: We have Torah and mitzvos that help us stay focused.”
THE SILVER LINING
“Has Covid been challenging? Yes. Has the mental health of our teens suffered? Yes,” says Spivak, a facilitator in the Systemic Inventive Thinking method. “But at the same time, we have spent more time with family, reevaluated our priorities and thought a lot about work/life balance. I am not sure if teens and kids learned more resilience, but they are now being raised by parents who have a different focus. I am sure that overall, that will prove beneficial for their upbringing.”
“Disruption enables and fosters emergence,” says Pollin. “Intentional challenges, such as ziplining, mountain climbing or a demanding class, help to build resilience skills that we may transfer to other life situations.”
“In the wake of the pandemic, things like showing gratitude and finding the good in daily life are lifelong skills that are going to support children and contribute to their healthy development,” says Gilburd. “Learning self compassion at an early age and being kind to ourselves are incredible skills. They are skills to be practiced, and the pandemic has given us an opportunity to learn these skills.”
“Children’s lives have been so disrupted, and yet they have moved forward,” she adds. “I think that as they develop and grow, this experience is going to be part of their fabric, part of who they are and part of who they become as older human beings.”
Raising Resilient Kids – Role of Grandparents
The Jewish Federation of Greater Portland is partnering with the national Jewish Grandparents Network for a 4 pm, Jan. 11, virtual program called “Raising Resilient Kids in a Stressed-Out World: How Grandparents Can Play a Role.”
Join internationally renowned Harvard professor Dr. Chris Willard to explore the foundations of resilience and how grandparents can cultivate qualities of resilience in their grandchildren, among them kindness and generosity, honesty, patience and steadiness. He will include experiential exercises along with simple takeaway tips for you and your family. You can register for the program at jewishgrandparentsnetwork.org/event/raising-resilient-kids-in-a-stressed-out-world-how-grandparents-can-play-a-role/.