How to Process the Pandemic for Emotional Growth
By Jenny Woo, Ph.D.
If you are a parent of primary school-aged children like me (I’ve got 3), then you may be familiar with the “I Survived” books by Lauren Tarshis. In the series, each book recounts one of history’s most terrifying events through the eyes of a child who…you guessed it, survived to tell the tale. The destruction of Pompeii, the attacks of September 11, and Hurricane Katrina are examples of “I survived” events.
Since my kids love action-packed stories, I bought a few “I Survived” books, hoping to expose them to real-world events by reliving the crises…in the comfort of their homes.
Then, the pandemic hit. I had forgotten all about the books. I was drowning in a sea of responsibilities: supporting kids’ distancing learning, running Mind Brain Parenting, and teaching Emotional Intelligence at the University of California-Irvine. Repeat.
By the time my daughter came down with COVID-19, I was running on fumes and masks. We immediately kept her in her bedroom, hoping to keep the rest of the family healthy. On day three, our oldest tested positive, and into his bedroom, he stayed. On day ten, we were down to the last kid standing. I was running around the house in a flurry of homecare and homeschool activities. My COVID-free kid suddenly declared: “Mommy, this is just like ‘I Survived.’” “Huh?” I looked at him blankly, and it took me a good minute to figure out that he was referring to the “I Survived” book series.
Isn’t it ironic that we could be in survival mode without ever realizing so? This especially rings true for us parents/caregivers and teachers. We have mouths to feed, minds to nurture, and bodies to hug. Every. Single. Day. Our “get it done” resolve propels our minds forward, alternating from planning to predicting—no time to look back. Or perhaps, we don’t want to.
“You live life looking forward, you understand life looking backward.” – Soren Kierkegaard
But how do we process the depth of our vulnerability, loss, and grief during the pandemic and still manage to emerge emotionally replenished and resilient?
I recently conducted a half-day workshop on how to support children’s social and emotional development during the pandemic. To prepare, I combed through the latest studies and reports on the impact of the pandemic on mental health. I also dived into the crisis and resilience literature to understand why some people experience posttraumatic stress while others express posttraumatic growth.
I found that people—across all socioeconomic statuses—fare better when they engage in what I call perspective-setting. Like perspective-taking, perspective-setting is our attempt to interpret our personal circumstances through different lenses. To do so, we draw on our beliefs, values, and goals to reframe a perceived threat into a challenge. For example, young people who coped well during the pandemic saw it as an opportunity to learn to be grateful and to focus on what matters the most in life (August & Dapkewicz, 2021). In doing so, we shift our tone from helpless to hopeful, without
the discounting the risks and vulnerabilities in our lives.
Perspective-setting is particularly useful for our tweens and teens. Children at this age have yet to develop the long-term perspective of “this too, shall pass.” As a result, they see life’s difficulties and obstacles as unrelenting and permanent. For example, children ages 9 – 11 reported more PTSD symptoms than younger or older children 2-3 years after a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina (Kronenberg et al., 2010). On the other hand, a study on students’ following the September 11 terrorist attack found that those who expressed feeling grateful to be alive and closer to loved ones were less likely to develop depressive symptoms (Fredrickson et al., 2003).
So how do we help our children and ourselves heal and grow through perspective-setting?
Write your own “I Survived the COVID-19 Pandemic” story.
Circling back to my personal experience, after my COVID-free son declared our circumstances as an “I Survived” book, I asked him to write a story (see an excerpt of his story below). What started out as a way to buy me time turned into an insightful window into how he interpreted the pandemic. I found discrepancies between what I thought was affecting him and what actually bothered him. I was then able to help him engage in perspective-setting.
No matter what phase of the pandemic you are in, have each family member write (or record) an “I Survived” story. Here is a list of questions to discuss in your story:
- What were your achievements (big, small, and silly) during the pandemic?
- What were three things that bothered you the most during the pandemic?
- What advice would you give your younger pandemic self in 2020 if you traveled back in time?
- What are you grateful for now? What can you do now that you could not do a year ago?
Swap and share the stories. Discuss similarities, differences, and surprises.
For more prompts and exercises categorized by social and emotional learning skills, check out my award-winning series of card decks to experience with your family: 52 Essential Conversations, Relationship Skills, Critical Thinking Skills, and Coping Skills.
August, R., & Dapkewicz, A. (2021). Benefit finding in the COVID-19 pandemic: College students’ positive coping strategies. Journal of Positive School Psychology, 5(2), 73-86.
Kronenberg ME, Hansel TC, Brennan AM, et al. Children of Katrina: lessons learned about postdisaster symptoms and recovery patterns. Child Dev 2010; 81:1241–1259
*CPCK Note: Major congratulations to Dr. Woo who just completed her doctoral degree and so deserves those extra letters behind her name!
Jenny Woo, Ph.D. is a Harvard-trained educator, TEDx speaker, and founder/CEO of Mind Brain Parenting. Jenny conducts research in social and emotional learning, emotion regulation, and resilience. She is the creator of a series of award-winning emotional intelligence games: 52 Essential Conversations, 52 Essential Relationships, 52 Essential Critical Thinking Skills, and 52 Essential Coping Skills. Her games have won the 2018 Parents’ Choice Awards, 2021 National Parenting Product Awards, and were featured by Harvard and CASEL.