The COVID-19 pandemic and its associated socio-economic stressors present several significant risks to the development and well-being of children. Over recent months, children have been confronted with major changes to everyday life, such as physical distancing and home confinement. Rates of unemployment, poverty, parental mental health problems and substance abuse, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect tend to increase during times of crisis, and all of these factors can impact upon the ability of families to meet the physical and emotional needs of children. Furthermore, children may not be able to access the critical support that they need when community services are limited and fewer adults can have direct contact with children.
Building psychological resilience in children
Thus, the concept of resilience is of particular significance in the current climate, as governments and international agencies search for evidence and guidance on what helps to mitigate risk and promote resistance or recovery in the face of threats to societal functioning and the health and wellbeing of individuals.1 Decades of research demonstrate that resilience can protect children from harm and increase the possibility that they will adjust positively during times of mass adversity, such as during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Resilience can be broadly defined as the dynamic relationship between an outcome and a particular context, which requires both the presence of risk and a positive outcome concerning functioning. Ann Masten, a leading expert in the field of resilience research, summarises that resilience should not be thought about as a trait or characteristic, but as “the maintenance of positive adjustment under challenging life conditions”.2 Advances in resilience research over the past five decades have demonstrated that early childhood is a critical period of development for understanding and promoting resilience.3 Research that demonstrates how some children function well in the context of risk factors, whereas others do not, has led to much interest in the idea of how to support those who struggle in the context of adversity so that they can be supported to achieve better outcomes.4
The presence of protective factors
Protective factors are key processes that alter the effects of adversity on outcomes.
The presence of protective factors explains why some young people appear resilient, while others do not.5 It’s a balancing act; protective factors and coping skills on one side counterbalance significant adversity on the other. Resilience is evident when a child’s health and development tip toward positive outcomes — even when a heavy load of factors are stacked on the negative outcome side. Negative outcomes are more likely where the risk factors outweigh the protective factors.
Approaches that are effective in building resilience involve a combination of supportive relationships, adaptive skill-building, and positive experiences to mitigate exposure to adversity and other stressors. The presence of at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult is important. These relationships provide the personalised responsiveness and protection that buffer children from developmental disruption. They also build key internal capacities — such as the ability to plan, monitor, and regulate behaviour — that enable children to respond adaptively to adversity and thrive.
External influences that promote resilience
On a broader level, external influences that promote resilience emerge via wider social systems, such as effective schools and communities and opportunities to succeed. Families, peers, schools, and communities all have a role in maintaining the growth, stability, and recovery of these systems. Building resilience in children is, therefore, something that takes place within a multi-dimensional context, and communities have an important role to play in reducing risks, providing resources and encouraging protective developmental processes that foster resilient adaptation in children. During a global pandemic, the resilience of children depends greatly on the resilience of these interdependent systems.
1 Masten, A. S., & Barnes, A. J. (2018). Resilience in children: Developmental Perspectives. Children, 5(7), 98.
2 Masten AS. Resilience in individual development: Successful adaptation despite risk and adversity. In: Wang MC, Gordon EW, editors. Educational resilience in inner-city America: Challenges and prospects. Erlbaum; Hillsdale, NJ: 1994. pp. 3–25.
3 Masten. A.S., Gewirtz AH. Vulnerability and resilience in early child development. In: McCartney K, Phillips DA, eds. Handbook of early childhood development. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishing; 2006: 22-43.
4 Masten, A.S. Resilience in developing systems: Progress and promise as the fourth wave rises. Development and Psychopathology 2007;19:921-930.
5 Masten, A.S., & Barnes, A. J. (2018). Resilience in children: Developmental Perspectives. Children, 5(7), 98.
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