By Sue Tiffin
On the evening of May 6, adults across the Trillium Lakelands District School Board region took their students’ places in front of a screen to learn about how, in their roles as parents and educators, they can support themselves and their children through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Michael Ungar spoke to “Nurturing resilience during the pandemic,” in a presentation hosted by the TLDSB district school council and parent involvement committee, held virtually on the evening of May 6.
Ungar is a family therapist, and a professor of social work at Dalhousie University, where he holds the Canada Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience. He’s authored almost 20 books including Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success.
“The most common definition of resilience tends to focus on, it’s our individual capacity to bounce back, to do well, to cope, to be flexible, to show grit,” said Ungar, then suggesting that parents push those notions aside. “Resilience is much more than that. And I hope I can sort of bring you into that thinking a little bit here this evening to maybe give you an optimistic message about the possibilities of maintaining resilience.”
While we don’t necessarily know much about pandemics, Ungar said, we do know about other disasters. He reminded the audience of the wildfires that devastated the community of Fort McMurray in 2016, just a few years after flooding of the High River in Alberta had also displaced 100,000 people. Ungar retold a story he had heard about how, to help with the crisis, bankers and insurance brokers acted to outfit buses with bank machines so people could access money, and sending insurance adjustors so that insurance claims could be settled quickly. Within six months, some people in Fort McMurray were rebuilding their homes.
“If you want to think about resilience, and you want to think about what gives us resilience – we have an idea of future orientation, we have hope, we’re not being worn down by stress, we’re flexible, we’re able to connect with others, we feel good about ourselves, we feel in control of our lives – those aren’t things that you just simply gather by looking in the mirror with personal affirmations, or a weekend retreat on a yoga mat. Not that those things are not good. But resilience, we now know, is kind of both those experiences of individual growth, and whether or not an insurance adjustor comes to your aid and gets your insurance claims settled after a major disaster.”
Referring to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed the idea of mindfulness-based stress reduction, studying the meditation habits of Buddhist monks and suggesting that it is possible to rewire the brain with tens of thousands of hours of meditation, Ungar noted Kabat-Zinn’s idea that ‘you can’t stop the waves but you can learn how to surf.”
“The science of resilience teaches us a little something different, because it’s a lot easier to learn how to surf if you also have a surfboard, a coach and a lifeguard,” said Ungar.
Those monks, Ungar said, are not doing it alone but have a community of support – just as someone who will most find success with a diet is the person with a peer group of healthy eaters around them.
“We talk about being a rugged individual [in which people are self-reliant], and there’s nothing wrong with that … and as long as your problems are relatively few, it works,” said Ungar, referencing the 1930s when government support, soup kitchens and housing and transportation subsidies were required after economic collapse. “In other words, it’s one thing to be a rugged individual when problems are few, but we need to be a resourced individual when problems grow.”
Many of us, said Ungar, keep this in balance – taking on just enough credit card debt, requiring just enough of your talents at work that you don’t feel overwhelmed every day – thus maintaining allostatic load and coping with life, until crisis like an ill parent, sick child or loss of job occurs.
“And we pivot, we basically go through a period where we’re out of balance,” said Ungar. “During this pandemic of course that’s something much more profound. We’ve stacked the stresses on us, we’ve actually loaded up the deck and stacked it against us.”
Now with additional concerns – medical, employment, economic – including concern for vulnerable family working in the service industry and children learning at home, even “packing on the COVID-15 pounds,” said Ungar, “it’s just not going well.” Resources typically used to help lift spirits – time at the gym, social time with friends and family, vacation getaways – have for many been lost. Ungar said it’s important to understand the stress we’re under, and also “cut ourselves slack, here.”
Ungar asked the audience at home to calculate their Holmes-Rahe life stress inventory score by giving themselves points for experiences they had had in the past year – whether that be death of a spouse, retirement, job loss, pregnancy, new baby, revision of personal habits, major change in living conditions – many that audience members had faced simply due to public health measures in place during the pandemic. While people are facing many challenges, there are ways to become more resilient, said Ungar.
“You can, of course, first you can try and decrease stress,” he said. “Avoid big decisions about your relationship during the pandemic. I always say to people, you know, don’t quit your job and divorce in the same week. Quit your job, find a new job, resettle and then divorce.”
He also advised that people increase their rugged qualities and access to resources – take more training, learn new talents, and find opportunities to decrease stress and increase resources. The solution to a problem, he said, isn’t always a puzzle piece – for example, rather than people think they need their own private office to work, they might find a more agile approach in taking the desire for extra space and trying to use headphones, or readjusting hours around busy family time, or in asking family members – including children – to help decrease stress by giving space.
“We need to be thinking about putting ourselves together during this crisis, using all of our resources, both our individual, and the resources outside of us,” said Ungar. Making what he called “a pitch for our kids,” he cited a recent study in which 5,000 of the 16,500 participants were kids. What was found was that adults who worked in workplaces with more transparency – why there wasn’t more PPE available, or what the financial stress on the business was – the less stress people were experiencing as adults.
“And it worked the same for our kids,” he said. “The more our children seem to understand what was going on, the more parents said, look, I cannot buy you that nice new pair of shoes because you know even if I haven’t lost my job right now, I’m worried that that could happen … it’s remarkable, but we know from studies of children in war, that when children feel that they’re actually – their discomfort, their disruption to their lives – is making a genuine contribution to the greater social good, they can actually suffer through that far longer without as many consequences in terms of anxiety, depression, or indeed long-term post-traumatic stress disorder or any kind of trauma related to that particular episode … What seems to be the trick is that they understand that they are making a contribution to the welfare of others.”
Ungar said he looks at resilience this way: “That when we are under unusual stress, it’s our ability to navigate our way to all the psychological, social, cultural and physical resources that sustain our wellbeing, as well as our ability to negotiate – or if you prefer ask for – what we need, these resources to be given to us in meaningful ways. Not surprisingly, our individual resilience seems to depend on the support we receive from others. If we can just think about, how are we navigating, how are we finding our way to what we need, and how are we asking for or negotiating to get what we need in ways that make sense to us?”
To thrive, there are ways that people can find what they need during the pandemic. Adults need structure in their lives – sleep routines, eating routines, exercise routines, work routines – and also accountability, which might have led to the number of pet adoptions happening now, said Ungar, and kids do, too.
“If you feel needed, and you have structure, you are actually much more likely to withstand stress, and this is particularly important for children where they’ve actually been doing some studies as well,” said Ungar. “They looked at children who, in the pandemic, whose families were providing more structure and routines in their day, basically eating a meal with the screens off, that type of thing, and they found that those kids actually showed far reduced anxiety levels, because of the structure.”
People need love from others, said Ungar, but many are living alone right now, and so supportive relationships might need to be found elsewhere – in family, in friends, in work colleagues. A need for a powerful identity has led to videos we’ve seen online of people sharing musical talents from home. A need for a sense of control – that we can make decisions and exercise boundaries – includes turning cell phones off so we can’t be reached after work hours or building a fort with a sign reading ‘no adults allowed’ (or ‘no kids allowed’ for adults working from home, joked Ungar.)
Online communities have allowed for people to feel a sense of belonging if they are actively interacting, not just watching or scrolling. Having rights respected helps us carry through a difficult time, and Ungar noted the MeToo, Black Lives Matter, Indigenous rights and climate change movements continuing. Small protections from the government including a pause on evictions and the Canada Emergency Response Benefit have allowed for some basic needs to be met. Just ten minutes of vigorous exercise a day could lead to physical wellbeing, having enough to get by and not comparing to a neighbour promoted financial wellbeing and focusing on positive thinking – remembering not to put blame on oneself – were also essential for people, said Ungar.
The more of the 12 resilience resources that people have or can negotiate to have, the less stress they will be feeling, and that applies to children as well with support from parents when necessary, said Ungar.
He named four strategies for success, suggesting being flexible or finding a way to adapt a situation: change yourself, if that’s enough; make the best use possible of the 12 resources you have; change your world to have more of the 12 resources and when all else fails, change what you want and set different expectations.
“And that also is part of resilience … we are looking, we are navigating, we are negotiating, we are trying to find the resources that we need to cope, even during a pandemic. And what we know, the research is very clear, we are going to survive much better to the extent that we build worlds around us full of resources that bring out our best selves.”
TLDSB Learn@Home School has also launched a parent and caregiver webinar series on Supporting Youth During COVID-19. See https://lhe.tldsb.on.ca/ for upcoming dates or past event recordings.