Helping your child develop independence and resilience is a big challenge in the best of times. During the COVID-19 pandemic, anxiety, isolation, and disrupted schedules make it harder. Dr. Julia Martin Burch shares insights and tips to help you build a resilient child, even during COVID-19.

Childhood is full of challenges, from learning to be a student to managing disappointments to resolving conflict with friends. As parents or caregivers, you are charged with the difficult task of supporting and guiding your child through challenges, while also stepping back and allowing them to learn new skills and handle problems with an age-appropriate level of independence.

It can be very difficult to strike this balance because your natural instinct is to step in when your child struggles. This instinct is only heightened during the current pandemic as you likely want to do whatever you can to make your child’s life a little easier during this difficult time. Yet, children only become confident in their own abilities to handle challenges by doing so themselves. When you fix a child’s difficulty for them, the child is deprived of the opportunity to learn to cope with uncomfortable emotions, creatively tackle problems, and deal with natural consequences when they occur. In fact, the current pandemic is actually an ideal time to allow your child to start tackling challenges more independently. This is because independent problem solving also gives children a sense of ownership and agency; qualities which are in very short supplies in kids’ lives these days. Whether your child has returned to in-school instruction and some extracurricular activities, or if they are still learning and interacting virtually, building these skills is empowering.  

All this being said – it’s also important to maintain perspective on this moment in time. Parenting at baseline is hard work. Parenting during a pandemic can feel impossible! When thinking about how to incorporate the following tips into your parenting, gauge your own stress level as well as your child’s. If you do not have the bandwidth to try these tips now, consider re-reading this in a few months.  

Check in with yourself

Ask yourself how often and at what times you currently intervene on your child’s behalf. Is there anywhere you can give your child more autonomy to make mistakes and muddle through challenges in the service of learning and developing new skills? If you keep intervening as you do now for the foreseeable future, will your child be ready to independently handle challenges in high school and college? Take a hard look at the current level of support you offer and where it might be hindering your child’s growth and independence. 

Set goals

Identify one or two initial areas to focus on. These will look different depending on your child’s age and your current level of involvement. For example, with a younger child you might slowly reduce the level of support and problem solving you provide around preparing lunch each day during breaks in virtual school. With an older child, you might work on reducing how much support you offer around alerting teachers to technical issues in the virtual classroom and instead let your older child email the teacher themselves.  

Once you have identified areas to address, talk to your child about it. Explain to them that you want to help them feel confident in their ability to handle daily challenges and solve problems without relying on you. 

Make small changes

Choose a small initial step or two that helps your child build the skills they need to be more self-reliant and independent in the chosen situation. For example, you might help your younger child brainstorm a list of easy lunches that they like and know how to make, or you could help your older child practice what they will say to their teacher about the technology difficulties. As your child masters each step, slowly give them more responsibility and independence. 

Support their learning from the sidelines… And prepare for natural consequences!

Struggling is a natural and valuable part of learning. When your child faces a challenge, resist the urge to fall back into old patterns and jump in immediately to help. Instead, validate your child’s emotional experience and encourage independent problem solving. Express confidence in their ability to handle the situation. For example, if your child is back in in-person school, you might say “I get that you feel frustrated that you forgot your snow boots at home on a snowy day. How do you want to solve this problem for yourself?”. 

When your child is first learning this skill, consider brainstorming problem-solving options together. Go back and forth and take turns coming up with ideas. Be sure to include some level of independence in each one. For example, your child can tell their teacher that they forgot their boots and stay inside at recess, they can just wear their normal shoes and get a little wet and cold, or they can hang a reminder to bring weather appropriate clothes on the front door at home. Note that none of these solutions involve the parent driving the snow boots to school! This is because natural consequences, such as feeling a little uncomfortable at recess, are a crucial part of learning. If the child never has to sit with a little discomfort when they forget their boots, it is less likely that they will be motivated to remember to bring them on their own. 

Practice your own coping skills

It is very difficult to watch your child struggle while knowing that you could step in and fix the problem. To resist this urge, remind yourself that your child will learn much more from facing challenges than from having you fix problems. While you could email the teacher about a homework assignment, that deprives your child of the opportunity to learn multiple important life skills including organizing their own homework, asking for help from an adult authority figure, and tolerating uncomfortable emotions. Make a plan ahead of time for how you will compassionately, but firmly encourage your child to solve their own problems and sit with your own distress when they struggle. 

Maintain perspective and seek help if needed

In tough moments, try to remember that while the stakes often feel high in a given situation, they only get higher and more serious as your child grows up. By letting your child struggle a little and learn important lessons now, you are laying a foundation for them to be independent and self-reliant in high school, college, and beyond. 

If your child is consistently struggling with age appropriate academic, social, and extra-curricular responsibilities, it can be helpful to consult with a licensed mental health professional to assess for any difficulties with attention, executive function, or anxiety, among other challenges.  You can use this link to help you find a therapist near you. 

by Julia Martin Burch, PhD

This Article's Author

Julia Martin Burch, PhD is a staff psychologist in the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program and the McLean School Consult Service at McLean Hospital in Boston. She is also an instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Martin Burch completed her training at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School. She works with children, teens, and parents and specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety, obsessive compulsive, and related disorders. Outside of her work at McLean, Dr. Martin Burch gives talks to clinicians, parent groups, and schools on working with anxious youth.