Stress, Resilience, and the Role of Science: Responding to the Coronavirus Pandemic

by Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D.
March 20, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has the capacity to affect every person in the world—and how each individual responds can potentially affect everyone else. In addition to the efforts of courageous health care providers, first responders, and a wide range of workers providing other vital services, countless numbers of selfless individuals are leaping into action to meet the rapidly changing needs of people most affected by the economic, social, and health impacts of this crisis. We at the Center on the Developing Child especially wish to honor and support the extraordinary efforts of our colleagues across the early childhood community who are working tirelessly to assure the continuing availability of essential services while focusing public attention on the many challenges facing families with young children.

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See more relevant resources on COVID-19.

At this early stage of what is sure to be a long-term challenge, two lessons are already clear.

(1) The immediate effects and long-term impacts of this rapidly changing situation will not be evenly distributed. The stresses of caregiving (for children as well as for adults at greater risk) are rising for everyone. For the millions of parents who were already struggling with low-wage work, lack of affordable childcare, and meeting their family’s basic needs from paycheck to paycheck, the stresses are increasing exponentially. When unstable housing, food insecurity, social isolation, limited access to medical care, the burdens of racism, and fears related to immigration status are added, the toxic overload of adversities can also lead to increasing rates of substance abuse, family violence, and untreated mental health problems. We cannot lose sight of the massive consequences of these threats to the health and development of our most vulnerable children and their families—now and for years to come. Yet our hope comes from the dedicated, creative individuals and organizations that are innovating minute by minute to overcome barriers in collaboration with the people they serve—often in the face of threats to their own health and economic well-being. We salute these inspiring efforts and we pledge our support in whatever way we can.

An African American woman shows her son how to properly wash his hands (Photo by CDC on Unsplash)

(2) Acting on the best available and most credible scientific knowledge has never been more essential, yet science by itself does not have all the answers. Coming from two very different areas of research, the most highly relevant science-based messages are urging both supportive relationships and social distancing as critical priorities. Prolonged physical separation is absolutely necessary to slow down the progression of a pandemic; responsive social interaction is essential for strengthening resilience in the face of adversity. Reconciling these conflicting necessities and developing effective strategies requires the combined wisdom of rigorous scientific thinking, on-the-ground expertise, and the lived experiences of a wide diversity of people and communities. As we pull out all the stops to prevent broader infection, we must also remain vigilant in caring proactively for those who are especially vulnerable to the threat and consequences of social isolation.




This is a moment in time for all of us to stretch the limits of our abilities and the boundaries of our creative capacities. Our Center is assembling easily accessible and actionable scientific knowledge for supporting the developmental needs of young children and their families in this current context—and we’re eager to learn from your efforts so we can, in turn, use our platform to share those insights with others. We’re also mobilizing our website and social media channels to shine a bright light on the rich resources available from many other organizations.

The question is not whether we will get through the ordeal that lies ahead—because we will. The important questions are how well we can work together to protect all young children and their families and how much we will learn from this unprecedented challenge and make necessary changes for the future. Please remain connected, stay safe, and share your creative ideas so we can all learn from them.

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