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Posttraumatic growth: Here’s how parents can help kids overwhelmed by 2020 cope and grow

PHOTO: Getty Images

Our collective experience of 2020, so far, is like a script for a horrible made-for-television movie. Mounting crises are the reality: COVID-19, racial violence, murder hornets, hurricane season and the list goes on. It is easy to become overwhelmed with worry, sadness and anger about each of these experiences individually, let alone all together. 

Following the advice we give parents of children with stressful health conditions, I will not start by helping you to “feel better” or reframe how you are thinking about these awful events. Psychologists do not have a magic wand or remote to wave or fast-forward to next year. 

Instead, we recommend giving ourselves the time to experience and express these normal emotions in these abnormal and stressful situations. This first step of active listening to each other and ourselves is vital. Trying to talk ourselves out of these feelings only leads to more stress and an inability to turn our attention to the second step: feeling we can handle this by relying on problem-solving or coping skills and/or even seeking growth. 

The concept of posttraumatic growth comes out of well-established trauma literature—such as in this article on Research Gate and this one from the American Psychological Association—and recognizes difficult experiences can lead to positive outcomes, such as spiritual growth, increased self-awareness, and closer relationships with others. Having the opportunity to think and talk about hard events helps us better process them and integrate them into our lived experience. We then have the mental space to choose our next steps. This “choice” is important for reducing stress and supporting resilience, as it gives us a sense of control.  

We know problem solving can alleviate some stress when the problem is “fixed.” Some problem-solving measures we can apply to the laundry list of obstacles people are facing in 2020 include: practicing hand hygiene and recommended social distancing; reading about murder hornets; preparing our hurricane kits; donating to food banks; peacefully protesting (while wearing masks and/or face coverings); engaging in discussions about ways we can address systemic racism within our own community.  

While there are certainly some stressors that are uncontrollable, such as whether a hurricane targets your community, we can invest time in helpful distractions and practice positive thinking. Overly focusing on these situations is counterproductive, as you cannot “think” a hurricane away. Instead, through distraction we can invest time in hobbies that sustain us such as catching up on a TV series, baking new recipes with our children, or giving Zumba a whirl. We can also practice positive thinking (“We’ve been able to cope with a hurricane in the past,” “our community is preparing now”), use self-care strategies such as relaxation and mindfulness, and take a humorous position when possible (such as learning entomology to face your fears about murder hornets). 

We can also remind ourselves of the power we have in our communities. I take comfort in knowing we are not alone and that my own individual knowledge of next steps does not have to be 20/20.