The COVID-19 pandemic has strained support systems for children and families, harming family stability and emotional security. But the evidence and research on resilience suggest that there is a lot of capacity for recovery as long as we put what we know to work and collaborate and coordinate what we’re doing. 

Ann S. Masten, PhD, LP, Regents Professor of Child Development at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, presented “COVID-19 Risks and Resilience for Child Behavior and Development” at the Dr. Robert L. Austin Endowed Lectureship in Pediatric Medicine, Pharmacology & Health Care Policy March 17, 2021 at Western University of Health Sciences.

A video of the entire lecture and supplemental materials are available on the Austin Lecture website.

Resilience is the capacity of a system, whether that system is a child, a family, a community, an economy, or the whole world, to adapt successfully through multisystem processes to the challenges that threaten the function, survival or development of the system, Masten said.

Dr. Ann S. Masten served as the keynote speaker at WesternU’s Dr. Robert L. Austin Endowed Lectureship in Pediatric Medicine, Pharmacology & Health Care Policy.

Development is shaped by the interplay of systems from a genetic level through a sociocultural level, and also by the physical environment All those forces come together and shape the individual people we grow up to be, she said.

“It is also important to remember systems are interacting with each other. A child as they develop is part of a family. They’re part of a peer group. As they get older, they go to school and children are influenced by their interactions with these different kinds of groups,” Masten said. “We’re complex, biological, sociocultural organisms. We are shaped by the many interactions, and we’re even shaped by the systems that are distant from us that we never directly contact. Governments and polices are made that affect the development of children everywhere.”

COVID-19 has caused multisystem challenges.

“It’s been life threatening around the world on a massive scale, and it’s disrupted many resources that are important for children and their families and disrupted many of the systems that normally promote and protect human well-being and development,” Masten said. “For children, we have all observed the harm this has caused, and the burden to families. It’s been challenging to caregiving, to family stability, to emotional security.”

Dr. Ann S. Masten

What can we do to promote resilience? There has been a profound shift away from focusing only on risk factors and problems, a deficit-oriented model, to a broader model that includes positive outcomes and strengths that children and families have, and is focused on building capacity for resilience on many different levels, Masten said.

The three basic strategies to promote resilience are: prevent and mitigate risk, boost resources and mobilize resilience capacity. In the case of the pandemic, we mitigate risk by reducing exposure to COVID-19 with social distancing and educating the public.

Schools have provided computers and hotspots to boost resources for children who couldn’t otherwise conduct distance learning at home. Schools and humanitarian agencies have delivered food and supplies to families in need. Health systems innovate and increase access to health care, to supplies, to testing, to tools and training.

Mobilizing resilience capacity includes developing safe ways for children to sustain positive relationships and health care systems encouraging healthy sleep and exercise.

“Professionals in pediatric professions provide a very important resource, buffer and support for families, especially in times of danger in a pandemic like this,” Masten said. “Many parents are worried about the physical and mental health of their children, and the knowledge that pediatric providers provide is extremely important.”

COVID-19 is a wake-up call, Masten added. We are keenly aware of how systems are interconnected now. The workforce is devastated when schools are closed and there is no child care.

“I think we are realizing deeply that our mental health care system for children is inadequate. We’re seeing the safety net gaps. We have very fragmented support for childhood development, and I’m hoping that we will take lessons away from what we’re seeing,” Masten said. “We’ve underinvested in child development. We’ve underinvested in infrastructure for kids and disaster preparedness for a while.”

It’s important to keep in mind that ordinary human adaptive systems are powerful, and the resilience of children can be supported and promoted, Masten said. Resilience can take some time, especially when we keep having these cascading rounds of adversity.

“But all of the evidence and research on resilience suggest that there’s a lot of capacity for recovery. We just have to put what we know to work and collaborate and coordinate what we’re doing,” she said. “Resilience of all of our societies depends on resilience that we can muster for our children and their support systems. I particularly want to thank you for all you do to support resilience in children, and training other people to support resilience in children.”

The Dr. Robert L. Austin Endowed Lectureship in Pediatric Medicine and Pediatric Health Care Policy is made possible by a generous donation from Mrs. Gloria L. Austin of La Mirada, California in memory of her husband, Robert, a pediatrician and early supporter of the University. In addition to the lecture, the endowment provides funds for annual scholarships for both an osteopathic medical student and a pharmacy student.