How crises can teach resilience, according to an Akron psychologist

By Steve Van Auken

Parents today may find themselves worrying about the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. But oral history, as well as psychological research, offer welcome reassurance of the emotional resilience of our children.

This pandemic is far from the first disaster within living memory. I had a personal connection to a previous one. My mother, Lois, was born in 1918 as the Spanish Flu was ravaging the world. Somewhere between 50 and 100 million people would die. She and her family were among the lucky ones.

My mother’s parents, Clara and Harold Holly, grew up in small towns in the woods of Pennsylvania. They became the first in their families to graduate from college. After they married, they settled in Schenectady, NY, when Harold went to work for General Electric. They didn’t stay long. Harold was dispatched to Japan and later China, to sell generators for use in the dams being built there. His young family went with him.

Lois celebrated her fifth birthday a world away from her former home. She was about to experience one of the great disasters of her time. She talked about it for the rest of her life. Her experiences speak to the power that crises have to shape us in ways that can be destructive, but that can also build great resilience.

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On Sept. 1, 1923, they were comfortably settled in Tokyo. Harold drove that morning to his office downtown. Clara, several months pregnant, stayed home with Lois, the cook, and the gardener. Just before noon, the ground began to shake. By the end of the day, 200,000 people would be dead. They died in the earthquake and in the fires that resulted as ruptured gas lines ignited. Japan had experienced earthquakes before, but the Great Kanto quake stands out for its catastrophic level of suffering.

It may sound absurd, but as a child, I felt I had been there. The reason was the vividness and detail of the pictures that my mother would paint with her words. It wasn’t until years later that it occurred to me that the images she evoked were all filtered through the consciousness of a child who would now be considered too young for kindergarten.

She held terrible memories. Being trapped waist-deep in the churning earth, plucked out by the gardener. Watching as her mother climbed down the drainpipe after the stairs collapsed. Seeing her father finally rush in, having walked and run from downtown because the roads were in ruins. Huddling through the night among the crowds on the golf course, the one place they were not at risk of being crushed. And she recalled the kindness of the Japanese people who shared balls of rice. Sometimes she would tell us about the school for girls that stood near their home until it collapsed in the first tremors: “I listened, but I couldn’t hear the girls’ voices anymore.”

My mother told her story again and again. My sense is she did so in order to bear witness to us of what she had seen, but also to validate that she — and, by extension, we — could successfully confront great hardship. This crisis from her childhood gave her strength to deal with the challenges she faced in the course of a long life.

We know that memories children form when they see their caregivers profoundly distressed can be very durable. In some cases, these images cause the formation of a post-traumatic stress disorder that can leave the child, and later the adult, troubled by cognitive, mood, and behavioral difficulties.

But other times, the outcome is quite different. In ways we do not fully understand, the child successfully processes the harsh memories. The crisis and its outcome can become a source of resilience. Psychological research shows that many children can integrate even extremely challenging experiences.  

Individual differences do play a role. Some children are by temperament more vulnerable to anxiety than others. They may hold onto trauma and need some specialized help. The same can be said of children who have had previous trauma exposure, as well as children dealing with a serious underlying medical condition.

The good news is there are things all parents can do to help their child grow in resilience. The most important thing is to take care of yourself, to avoid becoming unduly anxious or despondent. Your child does not require you to be perfect. They do need to see you coping. This helps them feel secure and imparts important lessons about how adults handle hardship. If you find you are overwhelmed, it is very important that you reach out for help.

Relationships are a pillar of resilience. A crisis is not a time to withdraw. The presence (even through Zoom!) of aunts, uncles, friends and neighbors helps your child understand that we are all in this together.

As a parent, you are the gatekeeper of information. Your child, and probably you as well, do not need to be exposed to every news blast. Children lack the life experience to put all the announcements from the front lines of the health crisis into perspective.

As usual, in parenting, it matters that you are present both physically and emotionally. You do not have to have all the answers. It is enough to listen and to encourage the expression of thoughts and feelings. The child who feels heard is on their way to integrating experiences, not being overwhelmed by them.

Children living through this pandemic will retain memories. Some will be unpleasant. Some children, unfortunately, will have to deal with truly painful grief if a family member is lost. We know that some children are more vulnerable than others. Some families are suffering more than others. But if kids are able to see the adults at the center of their lives taking practical steps to cope, and taking time to talk with them in a calm and accepting way, for most there need be no lasting traumatization.

The experience of being part of a family coping effectively in this difficult moment can serve as an emotional resource in years to come. As my mother’s example showed me, the spirit of a child is powerfully resilient.

Steve Van Auken is a longtime contributor to The Devil Strip and a psychologist.

Photo credit: Megan Combs