Let’s get real for a moment. Experts are sounding an alarm: We are in a crisis. We are not okay. We are heading into our third year of a pandemic. We all thought that things would be more “normal” this fall, and they’ve been anything but. Many of us hoped to travel and have a more “normal” holiday break this year, but that was not the case. To say that we are traumatized is an understatement. And we are re-traumatized every day, when we hear about people around us becoming sick when we worry about getting sick ourselves and bringing illness home to our families when we hear that our hospitals are full and there aren’t enough medical staff to take care of patients. And we’ve been walking around with this trauma for ALMOST THREE YEARS. There is literally nothing emotionally healthy about holding this much trauma and stress for this long.
And here’s the thing… We’re adults. We have adult coping skills. We can read articles to educate ourselves and soothe ourselves with too many sweets and binge a favorite show. We can go for a run or take a yoga class. Maybe we have low moments (and maybe those low moments feel really low!). But we have the life experience to be able to see the bigger picture, to be able to think about these last few years as a blip in a much larger timeline, to know that this won’t last forever (even though it feels that way sometimes).
Our kids cannot do that.
For a 9-year-old, this period represents one-third of their life. A fourth grader’s last normal year of school was first grade. And kids do not have an adult’s coping skills or a mature frontal cortex to be able to process this period and make sense of it.
So when our kids cannot cope, what do they do? They meltdown. They cry and scream and slam doors. They get into fights in school. They curse at their teachers. They become controlling and bossy. They refuse to do their school work. They self-soothe with too much TV and video games and junk food. And these are not indicators that your kid is “bad.” It’s your child throwing up a red flag and saying “This is too much for me.”
“We want to live in a world that is safe, manageable, and predictable.” – Bessel van der Kolk
There is absolutely nothing about our world right now that is safe, manageable, or predictable. Kids do not know if their teachers will be out from day to day. They don’t know if their classroom will shut down, or if their class will be combined with another class because of a staffing shortage. They don’t know if they’ll need to quarantine because they had a playdate with their friend, and the friend now has Covid. They don’t know if they’ll be able to attend after-school sports or clubs. Favorite family rituals like movies and restaurants and museums have been put on hold. Travel is not guaranteed. And wearing masks makes reading social cues and hearing what someone else is saying really difficult.
So what can we do?
- Label it. Talk about it. And keep bringing it up. Talk about how disappointing it was that holiday plans were cancelled. And how scary it is to not know who your teacher will be from day to day. And how lonely it can feel to not be able to have playdates and sleepovers. If your child resists talking about feelings, talk about your own feelings. This can be a great way to normalize the feelings for kids and let them know that they’re not alone in having these feelings.
- Rethink limits for right now. This is not the time to set unrealistic screen time limits, for example. An extra 20 minutes of video game play or a movie on a school night is not going to end the world. Does that mean that all rules should go out the window? Absolutely not. But what can you say “yes” to? Instead of just saying “no” to that extra piece of candy or staying up for an extra 30-minutes, try saying “I’m going to say ‘no’ to that candy right now, but I will say ‘yes’ to putting that candy in your lunch box for tomorrow. Should we pack it together?”
- Get outside. I cannot emphasize this enough. Go play in the snow. Go for a walk in the park and explore a new trail. Go ice skating. Try snow-shoeing or skiing. It’s cold, and our inclination is to hibernate. But getting some daylight and a change of scenery is really important. Plus, every study shows that exercise is a game changer for our children’s physical and emotional health. Aim for 60-minutes per day.
- Focus on connection. It is super-easy to love your kids when they’re quietly reading on the sofa, or snuggled up next to you while watching a movie. But how can you show up with love for your child when they’re having a meltdown? It’s not easy to think loving thoughts about your child who is sobbing and threatening to hit you, and they’re about to miss the school bus. But this is when they need you to show up with love the most. It’s not easy! Checking in with your own thoughts and feelings will go a long way towards maintaining your own sense of calm during these stormy moments. Some parents find that repeating a mantra in their head can be soothing – something like “This too shall pass.” If you are calm, you will be able to share that calm with your child.
This is not an easy time for anyone. And it’s particularly difficult because everyone is going through this hard time at the same time, so seeking help and support from friends and extended family might not be possible at the moment. Focusing your attention and energy just on getting through each day (each morning, each minute) will keep you grounded in the present, and keep you out of the guilt of the past and the anxiety of the future.