Times are tough. With the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent life changes, the murder of George Floyd and spotlight on racial inequality, the divisive political landscape, job losses, fluctuations in the economy, canceled programs and events, and the plethora of other stressors families are facing, life can be hard to manage. In fact, in a recent article for the “New York Times,” Dr. Jenny Taitz, clinical professor in psychiatry at UCLA, called these days “the emotional equivalent to an ultra-marathon.” So what’s it going to take to ensure our children emerge resilient from the challenges of 2020 and beyond? I’ve come to wholeheartedly believe that healthy, reliable relationships are what will get them across the finish line.
It comes down, really, to science. Dr. Pamela Cantor at Turnaround for Children makes the point that when people experience stress, the hormone cortisol is released in the body, producing the “fight, flight, or freeze” impulse. Some stress is useful in preparing children for challenges like tests, presentations, and performances. This is the limbic system in the brain at work, calling attention, concentration, focus, memory, and preparation to work on high alert. This can be effective for short durations of time but persistent high levels of stress can become toxic, negatively affecting the development of the brain architecture and other organ systems and increasing the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment well into the adult years. On the other hand, relationships that are strong and positive release the hormone oxytocin, which produces feelings of trust, love, attachment, and safety. Oxytocin not only helps children manage stress, but also offsets an overdose of cortisol and produces resilience to future stress.
This oxytocin release sounds pretty great, right? Well, here’s our current predicament: we have a bit of a safety paradox. The precautions that help ensure physical safety like isolating at home, social distancing, and wearing masks run contrary to what inspires emotional safety -- human connection and relationships. On top of that, watching our current news cycle can leave many feeling powerless and re-traumatized. This is why, now more than ever, we must prioritize building strong bonds with others, particularly the children in our lives.
It may help to remember that children are managing their stress with diverse personal experiences, coping styles, support, and perspectives, and often their behavior reflects how they are handling these tough times. Children can be challenging and press every last one of our buttons and then some. In these moments, they need a positive connection with a caring adult ... so take a few big, deep breaths, calm yourself, and protect that relationship. “Resilience depends on supportive, responsive relationships and mastering a set of capabilities that can help us respond and adapt to adversity in healthy ways,” says Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. “It’s those capacities and relationships that can turn toxic stress into tolerable stress.”
Whether it’s your child, a family friend, neighbor, or grandchild -- and even if your interactions are through a mask, phone call, or Zoom call -- the relationships you nurture now can have a lasting and positive effect on a young child’s brain and body. It is in fellowship with others that children will make sense of our current circumstances, grieve losses, adapt to changes, make meaning, heal, and emerge resilient. And you never know, investing positive energy into another person and building human connections could be just what helps you finish this emotional ultra-marathon with less stress and more resiliency too.
Kathy Riley has a bachelor’s degree in sociology/history and a master’s in social work. She serves as the school counselor for younger students and teaches social-emotional skills in the Lower School. One of her main goals is to make children aware of their ability to positively impact others with kindness.
Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1924, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.