We know that resilience can boost our ability to endure and rebound from misfortune, but the only surefire way to measure it comes from getting through tough times. In her research, LSA Associate Dean for Social Sciences Rosario Ceballo investigates the role resilience plays in protecting children and adolescents from the adversity caused by poverty and community violence, and how it can help us get through the COVID-19 crisis.

Can you describe resilience?  Are there ways people can use it to manage the stressful environment created by COVID-19?

Rosario Ceballo: Resilience refers to the ability to persevere and function well despite experiencing significant adversity. Resilience researchers do not simply study “risk factors;” they also investigate “protective factors” that promote people’s success and positive outcomes in difficult and challenging circumstances. One of the most important things research tells us is that there is no one type of resilience or one specific resilient trait that some people have and others don’t. People cope resiliently in a variety of different ways; similarly, resilience in children looks different than it does in adults. Resilience may look different in response to different forms of trauma and may change over time. The most important point is that people are highly adaptable, and we will find ways to survive the destruction caused by COVID-19.

Most people in the United States have experienced at least one seriously traumatic event, and the vast majority of people don’t succumb to profound dysfunction. Resilience is not a rare phenomenon, and that’s very important to remember as we live through this trying time of COVID-19. This does not mean that people will be free of distressing symptoms, but it does mean that, on a whole, we know that positive functioning emerges as the most common trajectory for children and adults who have experienced traumatic events.

Does your work offer any insights that can be adapted to support families—especially ways parents can help their children be more resilient?

RC: In our research with children who see and experience chronic, life-threatening violence, we have found that the closeness of parent-child relationships, religious beliefs, commitment, and, what is known in Latinx culture as familismo—family unity, ties, and connections—can all be protective factors for children and adolescents. In several studies, we found that greater reliance on religious coping and familismo were linked to fewer symptoms of depression among children who were personally exposed to high levels of violence.

These findings do not imply that if you pray a rosary 10 times a day, you will avoid the negative psychological effects of traumatic violence. Our takeaway findings are broader: having a value system to guide or give one a sense of purpose and a community of people who share it can help us cope with traumatic events. And close familial relationships where we feel cared for, listened to, and valued can likewise shelter us from the most devastating events in life. 

My advice to parents is to remember to listen to children and to prioritize listening as a key part of keeping communication open. Parents don’t have to have all the answers; they just need to listen, care, and share that they too get scared by things that happen in the world but they will face those things, with their children, together. 

Parents can also help children and adolescents focus on what they can control. It’s okay to be sad about things we can’t control but we also want to identify what we can control to stay safe, to continue learning, to stay connected to friends and family, to appreciate the blessings in our lives, to make time to enjoy nature, and to keep doing the things that we find meaningful and joyous.

I would encourage children and parents to cultivate and nourish the things that are both meaningful to them and within their control—time with family, playing a musical instrument, staying on top of one’s basketball game, learning a new hobby, etc. I would also encourage us to invest in our relationships with others—with extended family, friends, and neighbors. I believe these things are most likely to offer measures of “protection” from the uncertainty of our current time.

Your research focuses especially on families in low socioeconomic households. Are there particular stresses you anticipate for this population and strategies or supports the rest of the community can offer them? 

RC: In many ways, the pandemic accentuates the inequities and scarcity of resources available to those who are most in need. Families who are the most vulnerable during ordinary times will undoubtedly be hardest hit by COVID-19. We are seeing, in very real life-and-death terms, the racial and socioeconomic disparities in access to fact-based medical information and quality health care.

In families where adults have suddenly lost jobs, the impact of an economic crisis can be drastic. Before COVID-19, numerous families in our country struggled with food insecurity and paying for basic necessities. As a result of COVID-19, the number of families in this category will continue to grow and the needs will become even greater, while many of the social and community networks of support that families relied upon have fallen away. Still, it is heartening to see how many communities have found ways to continue to provide food to the elderly who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 and to school children who no longer receive nutritious meals at school. It was also heartening to see citizens lining up six feet apart and waiting for hours to vote in Wisconsin, because they refused to be disenfranchised.

With social isolation and the real psychological distress caused by an economic depression, some psychologists are worried about seeing a rise in people coping with depression and anxiety as well as domestic violence and child abuse. Even in families that are better functioning, we know parental distress is one of the main conduits by which economic upheaval influences children. During a national crisis that affects everyone, all parents will need help and support from others. We are simply not meant to live in isolation so we must find ways to maintain the care, support, and guidance others can give to our children in order to help both parents and children. Finding ways to help each other, offering as well as accepting help, and helping those with fewer resources is now more important than ever.