We can’t always rescue our children from the dangers and uncertainty in the world. But parenting expert and best-selling author Dr. Michele Borba says it’s crucial to teach them skills that will help them overcome adversity throughout life. Read on for her advice on helping kids navigate crises and tough events with less anxiety and fear.
Kids today have uncertainty coming at them from all directions—from shootings to fires and hurricanes to ongoing pandemics. Emergency situations like these are tough for even adults to handle, so it’s no wonder the anxiety and depression levels of children are skyrocketing. Altogether, our crisis-prone world has become a recipe for suffering and fear.
But Michele Borba, Ed.D., says you can help your kids prepare for and navigate their way through difficult situations so they can thrive on the other side.
“Parents can’t protect or rescue kids from the bad stuff in the world—whether it’s COVID or stranger danger or something else,” says Dr. Borba, author of Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine. “And rest assured, there will always be ‘something else’ just around the corner that could leave our kids paralyzed by fear. But parents can teach kids skills to help them stay calm, work their way through frightening situations, and build resilience.”
In other words, you can help your kids become Thrivers—a term Dr. Borba uses for mentally tough children that have a sense of control over their lives and flourish in a rapidly changing, uncertain world. Thrivers aren’t just born though; children have to be taught the character strengths that will safeguard them for the future and then practice resilience-building strategies until they become second nature. Dr. Borba’s new book offers plenty of practical, science-backed ways to help kids develop these strengths and overcome adversity.
“Remember that children will fare better in difficult situations when they are familiar with those difficult situations,” says Dr. Borba. “Even navigating everyday situations can build their self-confidence and prepare them for whatever comes their way. Then when (not if) a crisis arrives, they will feel more in control because they are in control and have agency that counteracts helplessness.”
Finally, when kids are inevitably exposed to crisis situations, parents can use them as teachable moments. There is no better time to help them deepen their empathy—one of the seven essential strengths Thrivers possess—and practice compassion.
Read on for some strategies you can work on with your child to build their resilience and help them thrive no matter what comes their way.
1. First, and foremost, encourage your kids to talk about their concerns—and be ready to listen fully. Give them plenty of room to express their feelings about their fears around the pandemic or any other areas of concern, and take care not to dismiss their concerns, says Dr. Borba. Depending on what your children tell you, you may be able to pick up on what they need from you. After listening to them, you can also help them express themselves better. For example, younger children may not be able to fully verbalize their feelings, but you might tell them it’s okay and normal to feel sad, nervous, or confused. Over time this will help them recognize and name their emotions.
2. Remind your kids to just breathe! Fear can sometimes be a blessing because it keeps us tuned in and alert, but what you don’t want is for fear to paralyze your child. Thrivers, however, stay cool in a crisis and their inner strength allows them to think straight, self-regulate, and make split-second decisions so they are more likely to rebound.
A simple way to help kids master fear is to teach them to take some deep breaths when they are feeling frightened or anxious. Teach them strategies like this one called “tactical breathing,” which Dr. Borba learned from the Navy SEALs. It’s the fastest way to keep stress at bay: The second you feel stress kick in, take a deep breath from your abdomen. Then while concentrating on the breath and telling yourself “Stay calm,” let the oxygen make its way to your brain. Hold the breath and then slowly exhale twice as long as you inhaled. Another breathing tactic comes from the Phoenix Police Department: Breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, breathe out for four counts, hold for four, and start again.
3. Teach them to “Hug-a-Tree” if they get separated from you. The best advice to teach kids if they become separated from you or think they’re lost is “Stay put.” If lost in the wilderness, coach your children to sit down and “Hug-a-Tree” until help arrives. This makes them a lot easier to find than if they venture off course. You can also instruct them to make a cross out of twigs, or S-O-S out of brush or rocks to get attention. If the child is in a public place like a shopping center, instruct them to text you or walk to the person at the cash register, report they are lost, and stay there until help arrives.
4. Unleash the power of brainstorming. “Thrivers are not derailed by adversity,” says Borba. “They’ve learned that there is no problem that can’t be solved—all they have to do is storm their brains for a solution. Brainstorming is a good tool they can use to think of alternatives to their problem. There may be dozens of ways to solve their problem, but unless kids have the courage to think of them, they may never know all the possibilities for making their troubles better. And remember you can’t ‘rescue’ your kids by coming up with solutions for them. Let them brainstorm their own solutions.”
Here’s some advice for teaching brainstorming: When your kids are dealing with a problem, teach them to say the first thing that comes to mind and don’t worry if it doesn’t seem realistic. (Just emphasize to them that putdowns or insults are never okay as the “solution” to a problem.) Instruct them to turn their brain power on and let their mind go. Once they have exhausted their possibilities, then instruct them to narrow their choices, decide on the best one, and try it out.
5. Give them age-appropriate advice on being prepared. Kids do better in emergencies if they know what to do “just in case” something goes awry. So, if they’re going hiking, remind them, “Bring water and a whistle.” If they’re going boating, remind them, “Wear a life preserver.” If they’re camping, say, “Bring a flashlight.” The goal here isn’t to scare them, but rather to entrust them with age-appropriate information about a situation so they are prepared, observes Borba.
6. Teach them early on to dial 911 in a true emergency. Describe to your young child what an emergency is (such as a fire, a person who is hurt and can’t wake up, or a stranger in your home) and show them how to dial 911 to get help. Explain that the operator on the other end is there to help and send someone to assist you. Remind them to tell the operator their name, who needs help and what happened, and where they live. And be sure to emphasize, “You should never call 911 unless it is a real emergency.” Finally, post your cell phone number where your child can find it, along with other emergency contacts like doctors, a friend, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
7. Instill the power of speaking up with strong comebacks. Stress to your child that if she ever needs to respond when someone is treating her disrespectfully, speak up right away. Explain that simple direct commands work best, such as “No,” “Cut it out,” “Stop,” or “Back off.” A big part of success is the ability to deliver comebacks assertively with a strong determined voice.
8. Give them a safety PLAN. Being unable to stand up for yourself can make a child feel helpless, start a dangerous spiral of pessimism, and increase stress, anxiety, depression, and feelings of emptiness. Help your child create a plan to avoid dangerous hot spots and be less likely to be bullied with these four steps.
P-Pal up. Hang out with a larger group; stay with one companion or find someone who is older or bigger who can help look out for you.
L-Let an adult know. Talk to someone you trust and seek that person out if you don’t feel safe.
A-Avoid “hot spots.” Stay away from areas where bullying occurs or where unsafe situations are more likely to happen and adults aren’t there to supervise (bathrooms, back of the bus, far corners of a playground, under stairwells).
N-Notice your surroundings. If you think there could be trouble, leave that spot. Take a different route, but don’t go off alone.
9. Practice natural disaster drills. “Airlines always hold brief safety announcements prior to take-off so passengers know what to do in case of an emergency,” says Dr. Borba. “We must do the same for our children. Plan escape routes out of each room in your house (like via a door or window). Show your kids how to use escape ladders, and practice opening windows and feeling your way out of a dark room with hands and eyes closed. Plan for each type of disaster that might occur and designate a meeting place outside your home where each member will go and wait for everyone to come.”
Tornado or hurricane: Go to a storm seller, basement, or interior room without windows, or get into a bathtub with a mattress over you.
Earthquake: Move away from windows. Find cover under a heavy table or doorway.
Fire: Check doors to see if they are hot; if so find another way out. Use the stairs, not the elevator. If your clothes catch on fire, don’t run, but instead “Stop drop and roll.”
10. Establish a secret family code. Create a word like “Pinocchio,” or “Jeronimo” that only family members and a designated relative or close adult friend know. Then use it in situations where your child might otherwise feel unsafe. For example, if you can’t be there to pick your child up from school, be sure to instruct the person who will pick up your child to use that word. Your child will know that they are not to get into the car unless the person can tell them the secret family code. You can also create a secret text code (like “ZZZ” or “Y”). If you receive the code from your child it means that they are in an unsafe situation (like an unsupervised party) and want to be picked up, no questions asked.
11. Work together to make a list of identified champions. Thrivers always have people in their lives that they can count on. Ask your child: “If you had a problem at school or when I’m not home, what adult could you call?” Once you identify that adult, make sure they know that they are the designee and that your child has their phone number and might call them for help at some point.
12. Turn crises into opportunities to teach your kids about compassion and empathy. Frightening situations, such as the pandemic, are good opportunities for parents to help their kids put empathy (one of the seven essential strengths Thrives possess) into action by acting with compassion.
You can help your kids tune into their empathy and compassion in several ways. First, show compassion to your kids so they understand what it feels like to be on the receiving end. If you have noticed that they are having more frequent meltdowns or other problems due to pandemic-stress, recognize that they are suffering and give them plenty of extra nurture, love, and patience.
Next, you can help them understand the perspective of others going through a crisis, such as tornado victims or people who have contracted COVID-19. When kids are able to imagine how others feel, it increases their empathy. Finally, ask them to brainstorm some ideas about how they can help others who are also suffering. Maybe they can collect food for hungry community members. Or they can order a pizza lunch to be delivered to the doctors and nurses working on the COVID unit at your local hospital. Or they can put together a care package for someone recovering from the virus.
13. Teach them the mantra: Don’t give up! Above all, tell your child that if they are ever in a tough situation to not give up. Remind them that you as well as countless friendly strangers will do whatever they can to help and won’t stop until they help them.
Remember, kids don’t learn the skills of resilience in the midst of a crisis. The best way to prepare them is through repetition of age-appropriate practices that teach your child exactly what to do until they can perform the action without you. These exercises are a great starting point and should be in every parent’s toolkit.
“The reason some kids thrive during tough times while others struggle is that they have the skills and confidence to handle all kinds of challenges,” concludes Dr. Borba. “Your child can be one of them. As you work on these exercises, you will begin to see positive changes emerging and before you know it, they will be ready to handle whatever life throws at them.”