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“Don’t forget your mask!” we shout to each other as our family heads out the door. We’re going to church, work, and back to school. Just when we thought we might be free of these small facial burdens, they have crept back into our lives. Along with the new CDC recommendations, the old arguments have resurfaced as well.
Children, heading back to school for what looks like another uncertain year, have landed in the middle of these debates. But this is not what they need. Kids are ready and waiting to learn. They need lessons in reading, writing, arithmetic, and … resilience.
We’ve all had to deal with more grief, loss, and change than usual over the past 18 months, and that includes the children in our families, churches, and communities. In many places, kids missed an entire year of in-person learning and connectedness. These losses have resulted in academic learning gaps, but also in social, emotional, and mental health struggles.
As parents and teachers representing the body of Christ, we are called to help—to make efforts to repair and restore that which was lost. But we feel unqualified and ill-equipped. So we throw up our hands, we criticize policy-makers (although we’d never want their jobs), and we pray for an end to COVID.
However, there is more we can do.
Resilience is the Key
As an educator, I’ve attended several inservices in recent years on trauma-informed education. These principles guide teachers as they work with children whose lives have been scarred by trauma. By definition, trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event, typically associated with being in or witnessing physical danger (e.g. an accident, abuse, natural disaster).
During the first 18 months of this pandemic, most children have not suffered trauma to this degree, although to be sure, a small percentage have lost loved ones to COVID, become very sick themselves, or been forced to live in abusive homes without reprieve.
By and large, however, the majority of children experienced COVID not as trauma, but as a significant stressor. They had to adjust their daily routines, alter expectations, and miss out on special events and activities. They lost personal connections with friends, teachers, and mentors. They might have fallen behind in school.
Even though these stressors do not register as “traumatic events,” the ability to come through them without long-term detriment depends on the same quality required for those surviving trauma—that is, the quality of resilience. This key factor—the ability to bounce back from struggles and trauma—is one of the best tools we can give our kids right now. Our churches, and Christians in general, are qualified and equipped to do just that in at least three ways
1. Rebuild Connections and Restore Relationships
First, we can assist kids in rebuilding connections and restoring relationships. Bringing kids back together in physically safe ways is key. Letting their interactions occur naturally, and not through a screen, might be awkward for them at first, just as it was for all of us as we began to emerge from our COVID cocoons this past spring. Encouraging them to meet safely in person might push them out of their familiar COVID-restricted comfort zone, but the sooner we can reestablish those relationships, the better.
As a church, we can provide safe environments for our youth groups and Sunday school classes to meet. Offering community events and gatherings for families with children, such as church picnics, trunk-or-treat, or campfire gatherings for older youth, can restore that sense of connectedness that has been missing.
As adults, it’s easy to assume that kids and teens are content with their peer interactions. But kids feel valued when the adult members at church check in with them. During the fellowship times, it takes only a few minutes to ask how school is going, inquire about their extracurricular activities, or chat with them about their experiences related to the pandemic. This small gesture shows kids we have a genuine interest in their well-being and consider them a vital part of our community. Feeling connected is one of the pillars of a resilient mentality.
2. Be Role Models of a Positive Mindset
A second way we can help our youth build resilience is through modeling positive mindsets.
When students came back to in-person learning at our school last year, things were different. There were masks, plexiglass dividers, social distancing, and lunch in their classrooms rather than the cafeteria. There were quarantines with virtual learning and whole-school shutdowns for weeks at a time. It was the hardest year our teachers and administrators have had to endure.
And yet, through positive attitudes on the part of the staff, our students complied with the rules and adjusted to these new routines in a matter of days.
Remember, our kids are watching us. They listen to the conversations of the adults around them, see us on social media, and catch glimpses of televised school board meetings on the nightly news. By now, most have heard the arguments for and against masks, vaccinations, working from home, virtual learning, and a host of other COVID-related topics.
If adults let their own anxiety or discontent surface through stressing over lost opportunities or by criticizing the policy-makers, the children also will feel anxious and unhappy. Proclaiming the injustices of wearing masks and getting vaccinated, or criticizing those who don’t, will set our kids up for a school year that is focused on everything BUT learning.
Instead, we can support their learning by teaching them that compliance with rules we might not like, as long as they don’t contradict our Christian beliefs, is our duty as good citizens. Respecting others whose opinions don’t line up with ours demonstrates a Christ-like spirit. If we model patience and fortitude as we deal with discomfort and inconvenience, we will build resilience in our kids that they might need for even bigger struggles later in life. Remaining positive and looking for the silver lining (e.g. slowing down, clearing our calendars to spend more time as a family, being able to meet in person again) will go a long way in building resilience in our children.
3. Renew Faith in God
Finally, as Christians who have experienced tough times in the past, we can point to God as our source of strength. How many of us have had accidents, lost loved ones, or survived other disasters in the past? I think of the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy experienced by Americans 20 years ago. As I remember it, the nation and much of the globe came together on that horrible day as never before. Churches opened their doors immediately to listen to God’s Word and to pray for his protection and comfort.
Our faith in a God who holds the world in his hands, who will not let our feet be moved, is a crucial part of surviving this pandemic with our emotions, mental health, and spiritual well-being still intact. This doesn’t mean we sit on our hands and do nothing since “God is in control.” Rather, God calls us to bring his kingdom to this earth, fallen as it is.
Weighing our decisions in light of his Word shows our children that God is our guide. He calls us to care for all of his children. Praying to him for a sense of peace during these crazy times reminds us he is present. In him and through him, we have the power to come out on the other side of COVID with a renewed sense of his presence and our purpose. If we listen for his guidance, we can help our children do the same.
Not only will our children survive this pandemic, but the resilience they gain will prepare them for further struggles they are sure to encounter in their lives. When the pressures of life come, they will look for connections they have come to trust within the church. They won’t be overtaken by anxiety but will draw on positive thinking to keep their focus on hopes for a brighter day to come. And they’ll have the certain knowledge that their heavenly Father is present with them, even during tough times.
(For more guidance on building strength and resilience as we lean on God during life’s storms, see Lessons from the Trees.)