Resilience in the Home: A Silver Lining in a Pandemic

By Ambika Mathur and Sara Wierbowski

In the midst of reports of the negative mental health effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacted upon children, we are happy to uncover an unexpected silver lining: improved familial relationships. At the Center for Community Resilience (CCR) we know family and community environments are important resources to help children rebound from adversity AND provide the launchpad for them to bounce forward and thrive. As we begin a slow process of recovery from more than a year of physical, psychological, and social stressors brought on by the pandemic, it is critical that we identify strengths and buffers that have enabled resilience for some families and inform how we support healing for all.

The pandemic’s effects on mental health in children

As discussed in our previous post, mental health issues in youth have increased at an alarming rate during the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychosocial problems in children emerged as a top challenge in focus group discussions conducted by the Baltimore-Washington Parent Learning Network (BWPLN), a joint effort led by the Center for Urban Families, the Early Childhood Innovation Network, and CCR. BWPLN is a parent learning network aimed at providing a platform for caregivers, especially fathers, to support their children’s academic and social-emotional success in remote learning. In our discussions with parents, some described their children’s frustration with virtual learning: “his school was this escape from home…they took that away from him.” Other parents noticed “depression seeping in” and felt the worry of “losing her [child] socially,” leading them to seek out therapy for their children.

Yet while parents observed concerning shifts in their children’s social and emotional health during the pandemic, they also noticed something positive. Camaraderie, particularly among siblings, has surfaced as a source of support for some families. As one parent stated in response to his delight at seeing his young daughters bonding during this time, “I’ve always tried to tell them family is more important than anything else.” The strengthened bond between these sisters is evidence that familial connections can spark resilience in the face of extreme circumstances, as long as other basic needs are met. This includes food, shelter, and, for children forced into a virtual learning environment, access to high-speed internet and computers.

With basic needs met, not only are family dynamics able to grow in the face of adversity, these new connections expand the confidence of children to take on additional roles and responsibilities, further contributing to the social cohesion of the family. One mother expressed that prior to the pandemic “mommy [did] everything,” but now her daughter “got that big sister mode…and just started to do more things or, you know, be more inquisitive, asking more questions.” Another parent marveled at his children “getting closer together and taking on [new] roles and seeing each other’s needs.” Even as they faced new daily struggles, these children began to develop an improved sense of empathy allowing them to express awareness of and attendance to each other in a way that they hadn’t before. This demonstrates that even in the face of dramatic disruptions to daily life, children and families have found new ways to support one another through these unprecedented times. In turn, these family and community supports create positive childhood experiences that can serve to buffer the current and future impacts of the pandemic on children’s well-being.

Program and policy solutions to support positive childhood experience

Positive childhood experiences (PCEs) support child development and provide a buffer against adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The Healthy Outcomes from Positive Experiences (HOPE) initiative, led by Dr. Bob Sege at Tufts Medical Center for Community Engaged Medicine, uses research to identify and highlight the PCEs that support resilience in the face of trauma. Leading with a public health approach that considers how relationships, environments, engagement, and opportunities affect child development, HOPE aims to guide effective partnership between parents and children to prevent child maltreatment. Their work also informs federal and state policies that mitigate childhood health inequities, including those created or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Legislative and programmatic models built on HOPE’s framework can promote stable, protective, and equitable environments within families and are strongly associated with better functional (e.g., academic performance) and health outcomes for children, even in the presence of ACEs. Using research and resources from BWPLN and HOPE, school districts in Baltimore and the District of Columbia can focus on fostering PCEs in their COVID-19 recovery plans to create a pathway to resilience for students experiencing adversity. With more investments in education, training, and programs that cultivate PCEs, we can begin to build systems that give communities the resilience needed to survive and thrive through adverse circumstances. That, combined with the community resilience that some families have been able to tap into during this pandemic, should give us hope.

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Center for Community Resilience

A Milken Institute School of Public Health collaborative seeking to address the root causes of childhood & community adversity.