Written by a local and recognized family therapist, but shared as personal experience.
I really like to be prepared for the “what ifs” of everything. I always have first aid kits in every car and medicine cabinet. When my husband and I consider a family vacation we spend hours gathering information about hotels, restaurants, and activities that other families have found enjoyable. When I go to the pediatrician’s office my list of questions is VERY detailed (and sometimes with bullet points). I can make a pros/cons list a mile long about even the smallest of decisions. I feel fulfilled in my role as my children’s protector if I have prepared for all of the “worst case scenarios.”
I know I am not alone in this, and I only need to look at any media source since COVID-19 has become a part of our vernacular, to know that the entire world is doing the same thing. The television news is bombarding us with information. You can’t go to an internet site without finding overwhelming amounts of advice on what you should be doing right now. There is the straight forward and clear, “Wash your hands, don’t touch your face, stay 6 feet apart” but there is also endless amounts of advice and opinions about what to do in our homes: “create your new normal”, “find a schedule and stick to it”, “10 ways to be a great teacher at home”, “A million ideas to keep your child from being bored,” “Make your home an anxiety free zone.”
There is just too much, and it often contradicts each other.
I am NOT a teacher and I don’t want to be one, although I can probably direct my child to the day’s lessons. My kids have been bored at some point in every single day (as have I for that matter), and every time I think we have some sort of a schedule I inevitably make changes to it, almost as quickly as the government guidelines change. Most of all, I can’t possibly imagine creating a space where anxiety doesn’t show up, at least a little bit right now. It’s an anxious time, it just is. Being human means experiencing a bit of anxiety. It is a naturally occurring emotion, a helpful one if understood and managed correctly.
No doubt, though, anxiety can be a pretty intolerable feeling, especially when it gets really big.
That is why we all seek (more like desperately crave) information, direction, and expert opinions when anxiety creeps in. We look for certainty, especially when we feel immense uncertainty. So, it is only natural that we would do the same thing right now, when risks feel like they are around every corner. Our attempts to gather as much information as quickly as possible, to become informed and prepared, to feel competent and confident, are all with the goal of protecting our family. Yet, competency and confidence come more from our own experiences than from gathered information from outside sources.
The truth is, there is no right way to prepare for an unprecedented pandemic. We have to turn to what we already have, and already know. No amount of additional toilet paper is going to ensure the safety we are seeking. We need to use the resources we have found useful in past situations. We need to turn inward, be our own guide.
What are the strengths your family has used to get through difficult times in the past?
What parts of your parenting often make you feel proud? After this is all over how do you want your children to describe their parents and what they did for them?
Really, what if you just stick with the things that have always felt good to you? If cooking great meals is your jam, keep doing it. If telling bad jokes has brought eye rolling giggles, keep ‘em coming. If warm, wordless hugs and snuggles have felt incredible before, they will feel good right now. If sitting in front of the TV together for hours is your family’s regular routine, by golly, it should continue.
Listen, the bottom line is: this is brand new to all of us!
None of us are experts at parenting in a pandemic, and right now it is difficult for our best selves to show up. We are all going to be TRYING our best, no doubt, but there are just too many uncertainties, too many stressors, too many changes, too much anxiety for us to be grading any of our actions. It doesn’t matter what arsenal of information we gather, we will fail at meeting high expectations, or winning an “A+ PARENT” award right now…sorry if you were really hoping to earn that logo on a mug.
So quit trying! Instead, be “A PARENT”. Be present, show up. If that means you nailed it in developing a home school schedule and your kids appreciate that, great, but if it means you simply made it through a day without murdering a family member, that is JUST AS great.
The antidote to anxiety and fear is not only preparedness.
See if you can also combat those emotions with curiosity, with playfulness, with togetherness. Try to take a break from the endless stressors demanding your attention and do something just for fun. Or sit with your children, without expectation, and just see where your conversations and actions go? Exchange roles with your children and let them be the expert. Ask them if they have any advice for the adults and try to follow it for a bit. Jump in some puddles with them, dance and sing, move your bodies, create something together. At the end of the day, gather together and try to recall something that made you each smile. There is almost always something that did, yet if we don’t take the time to really remember those smiles, they can blend in and fade away. Basically, see if even for just a bit, you can shift your attention from trying to protect, trying to be the best, and instead try to save some space to connect. After, take note of your anxiety levels, and your children’s, have they lowered?
And if you can’t do ANY of this, that is ok too! These days, “good enough” is plenty.
Personally, even when I look at the times I have prepared expertly for our vacations, or scoured my pros/cons list before making a decision, none of that is what my family remembers, or finds most useful, after it’s all over. Honestly, the memories and stories we savor the most are when things went wrong and we just “winged it”. The time we got lost in a city, all disagreeing and screaming at each other about which direction would take us to safety, we still laugh about it until we cry. More frequently than I would like to admit, I have to throw my pros/cons list away and just “go with my gut.” Almost every time I present my questions to a physician they retort with, “That is up to you, you have to decide what it best for your family”. As a matter of fact, that is exactly what I often find myself saying to clients in my own office. Finding what works for your specific family is your “special sauce” and its unique ingredients make it delicious to you and your family!
There will always be uncertainties in the world.
We will always fear we don’t know everything, aren’t doing a great job, aren’t the best parent. I do know for certain, though, what our children will remember most about these times; the scary times, the hard times, the sad times. They will remember the moments spent together, their parents showing up for them, the connection they felt with those who they looked to for safety and security, they will remember the love.
Many of our children’s schools have gone to a different grading system in order to adjust to all of the changes right now. They have switched to pass/fail, or as my son’s school calls it: credit or no credit. Why don’t we set these standards for ourselves, as parents? At the end of the day do you think you earned credit for your parenting? Did you show up? Did you participate? Did you try your best with what you had on that given day, even though you may not have produced your best? During this time when not much feels safe, do you think your child felt safest with you? Do you think your children know that you love them?
Well then, you earn credit, and you can claim you’re the prized mug with “A PARENT” printed in bold. Because being “A PARENT”, any parent, right now takes extraordinary effort. I hope you recognize that. Feel proud, raise your mug high…and fill it with your special sauce!
Resa Hayes, MA, LPC, NCC
Child and Family Therapist, Parenting Consultant, and Child Development Specialist
It might seem strange to respond to misbehavior with support and empathy, but kids right now need “much more compassion than ever before.”
My kids have been building a lot of forts lately, and their passion for the endeavor is equal parts adorable and deplorable. The other day, my 8-year-old kicked my 5-year-old in the eye for having the gall to procure a small pillow from the fort he’d built the day before, even though he wasn’t playing with it anymore. I frequently find myself wondering how best to respond to situations like this.
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t be cooped up together 24 hours a day in a home with only 12 pillows. Should I be more lenient, then, when my kids act out? Or should I be strict in an attempt to maintain limits? What is the best way for parents to respond to misbehavior in the midst of a global crisis?
Children don’t have to worry about losing their jobs or ensuring there’s enough food in the house. (Instead, they get to spend their time building forts!) Nevertheless, “we’re asking something that is pretty huge of kids right now,” said Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., a psychotherapist and the co-author of “No-Drama Discipline” and “The Power of Showing Up.” Young kids’ lives often revolve around seeing their friends and exploring the world, so being forced to shelter at home with their family can feel really hard. Many kids also thrive on routine and structure — simple things like always having preschool circle time at 9 a.m. — and these predictable aspects of their lives have also disappeared, causing some to struggle more.
Young kids often don’t know how to cope with their unease or unhappiness, so they communicate it by becoming more touchy and difficult. They’ll “have less ability to tolerate when things don’t go right — even if that thing is just that you serve them peanut butter instead of macaroni and cheese,” said Tovah Klein, Ph.D., a child psychologist and the director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development. The other day, my son burst into tears when he made a mistake on a drawing; in normal times, he would have just shrugged and grabbed another piece of paper. “You have to expect more acting out, more meltdowns and misbehavior — not because they’re bad, but because they really do feel destabilized,” Dr. Klein said.
So if your child throws his fort pillow at the cat in a fit of fury, what should you do? First, take a deep breath (or three) so that you don’t lose your temper. “Remind yourself, your child’s not trying to drive you crazy,” said Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., a psychologist and the author of “Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking.”
Next, validate their feelings. Say, “Oh, buddy, you’re having such a hard time,” or, “Oh, wow, you seem so angry,” Dr. Bryson suggested. With young kids, it can help to get down on their level — to literally sit on the floor with them — as it’s easier to meaningfully connect with them that way. Ask them if they want a snuggle or a cup of water. It might seem strange to respond to misbehavior with support and empathy, but kids right now need “much more compassion than ever before,” Dr. Klein said.
Consider, for instance, how you deal with your kids when they are sick. You’re probably much more patient and tolerant of their whining and outbursts because you know they’re not feeling well. The situation now isn’t that different: When kids act out during a crisis, they are essentially saying, “I really need help right now. I’m having a hard time,” Dr. Bryson said.
After they (and you) have calmed down, address why their behavior wasn’t acceptable. You can say, “The way you talked to me hurt my feelings,” or “It’s OK to be mad, but it’s not OK to hurt your brother,” Dr. Bryson said. Ask them what they think they should do next to remedy the situation. Should they apologize or clean up the mess they made? Encourage them to identify strategies that will help them the next time they feel angry or sad. Could they take a few deep breaths or go yell in their room? Could they ask you for help or a hug?
You should do what works best for your family, but the psychologists I talked to suggested easing up on punishments right now. “You have to be careful about coming down too hard on children when they’re having a hard time,” Dr. Klein said. Dr. Bryson agreed, explaining that discipline is really all about teaching, so when you convey to your kids your expectations, and help them problem-solve ways to meet them, you can help shape their future behavior without taking away privileges or giving time-outs. “This is not a permissive approach. You really still can have expectations and boundaries,” Dr. Bryson said.
You can also help your kids get out some of their anxious energy in positive ways. None of us has much, if any, extra time right now — but if and when you can squeeze in two minutes of fun with your kids, do it. Put on music and dance with your kids while you make dinner. Make up silly, giggle-inducing bedtime songs. Be sure to let them play — and join in every once in a while.
Play helps kids “process what’s on their minds, what’s stressing them out, and allows them to have some control,” Dr. Bryson said. If parents and kids can sometimes be playful together, “that’s going to be so powerful — not only to relieve stress, but to give kids those doses of a parent who’s really connected with them and joining with them in those moments.”
Creating a daily schedule for your kids can help those who crave stability and predictability. You could even pencil in one-on-one play time with a parent, which would give each child something to look forward to. “It really could be like a 10-minute thing,” Dr. Chansky said. “You can, in that amount of time, really enjoy and connect.”
You may think you’ve largely shielded your kids from your concerns over the coronavirus, but kids “are sponges for adult emotion and adult worry,” Dr. Klein said. So it may help if you let go of things that are causing you extra stress. When schools closed, I made plans to cook elaborate family dinners every night. A wonderful goal, for sure, but it wasn’t realistic in the midst of a crisis — and the expectation I’d set for myself only added to my stress, which I’m sure then became perceptible to my kids. Consider the things you may be demanding of yourself that aren’t essential — and ask yourself if the benefits are worth the potential costs. If not, ease up. (And forgive yourself: It’s impossible to do everything right now.)
Think, too, about things you crave or need that you’re not allowing yourself. Brainstorm ways to make time for those things, at least every once in a while. “We’re all stretched very thin and a little bit rattled — or a lot rattled. Being kind to ourselves is really important,” Dr. Klein said. Maybe it’s worth putting your kids in front of a TV show every day so you can call your best friend or do yoga or hide in one of their forts with a bag of potato chips. These may sound like luxuries you can’t afford right now, but if they help you cope, they might help your kids stay calm as well.
No Name Calling Week (Jan. 20-24)
Human Trafficking Awareness Day (Jan. 11)
Global Family Day (Jan. 1)
National Clean Off Your Desk Day (Jan. 13)
National Fun At Work Day (Jan. 28)
A key way to maintain good behavioral health hygiene is to build resiliency into your daily life. Resilience is your ability to handle adversity – when life gives you lemons, are you face down on the floor or already looking up recipes for lemon-meringue pie? In the former case, a lack of resiliency represents no protection from negative stress or threats, whereas in the latter case it is precisely those resilient qualities in an individual which empower her to acknowledge the setback, moderate its negative effects, and begin adapting it into something more positive.
So how do you build resiliency into your life in the first place? The short answer is: self-care. Taking care of yourself consistently in a variety of ways and not neglecting your own well-being creates space in your life to absorb, process, and transform negative experiences – if not into positive ones, this sort of resilience at least mitigates the negative effects of stress and trauma. Here are some ways to build self-care into your daily routine.
Be active and mindful of your self-care. Tell yourself that you’re doing these activities explicitly for you – because that’s just what you’re doing: taking good care of yourself now to make it easier to cope later when life gives you lemons.
How Stress Can Improve Your Well-Being
Everyone experiences stress. It’s a ubiquitous part of modern life. We stress over our jobs, our families, our social lives, our education, our health, our finances – the list could go on and on. It seems that everyone is on a never-ending quest to eliminate stress from their lives. Would a completely stress-free life be a good thing? Surprisingly, the answer is no – some stress is good stress.
Good stress or eustress is temporary worry and tension that accompanies challenging situations or activities which remain within our abilities to handle. Think of a series of concentric circles, like a target. The first is your “comfort zone” – here there’s no stress because you are fully confident that you can succeed at anything that crops up. Now imagine another circle beyond the first, which represents your “capability zone” – you’re out of your comfort zone, so you’ll experience stress, but expectations of what you can manage are realistic. Beyond your capability zone is where you experience negative stress or distress – so far out of your comfort zone that your abilities no longer match what’s needed to face a particular challenge. The limits for each of these zones are different for everyone. Where public speaking or riding a roller coaster might be fun activities that create a buzz of excitement for one person, they may be terrors for someone else, who would be overwhelmed with distress if they attempted them.
The key is finding that sweet spot where you can step out of your comfort zone in order to feel the satisfaction of successfully learning a new skill or overcoming a challenge without slipping into negative stress.
Eustress has a number of benefits, particularly for well-being in general:
On the other hand, the effects of distress are harmful, especially when experienced chronically. Negative stress:
Stress is not inherently bad, but in order to take advantage of maximizing eustress in your life, there are three key behaviors to strive for.
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