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Helping Children Find Meaning in a Pandemic: Questions for a Holiday Reflection

by Willough Jenkins, MD

As the year turns over to 2021, it is a time for natural reflection, and I suspect many families will be having conversations about the COVID-19 pandemic. It is tempting when discussing the hardships of the pandemic to immediately jump to encouraging children to “look on the bright side” or remind them of those less fortunate. This well-intentioned idea is to focus on the positive, but this strategy can feel like it minimizes their experience. It is important to acknowledge emotions, and to hear the struggles and the pain. Generations of youth have gone through adversity; there have been global wars, pandemics and famine, and then there have been individual crises of trauma and adverse childhood events. Children are resilient. Understanding and finding meaning in difficult situations is a skill that promotes that resilience and allows us to persevere in difficult times.

Creating things, cultivating meaningful relationships, helping others and reminding children that they control their attitude are ways to find meaning. When engaging with your family, the following questions can help promote the discovery of  meaning and purpose in the pandemic experience:

  • What has the pandemic taught you?
  • How do you think you have changed this year?
  • What was the worst thing about this year?
  • What was the best thing about this year?
  • What did you learn this year that you hadn’t expected?
  • How do you think the future will be different because of the pandemic? Good things? Negative things?
  • Did you create anything this year?
  • Was there a time you helped someone this year?
  • Who were you closest to this year?
  • What will you remember most about this year?
  • When did you laugh the hardest?

Dr. Jenkins is inpatient medical director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Services and clinical lead of the pediatric consultation liaison service at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, and an assistant professor of psychiatry at University of California San Diego School of Medicine. She has received additional training through the Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy, which is based on the premise that humans are driven to find a sense of meaning and purpose in life.