These are uncertain times. We wish we could protect our children from the stress of witnessing the fear and uncertainty permeating the world right now. To magically take away the disruption, inconvenience, and impact social distancing is taking on young people’s education, activities, and relationships. We want to keep them from being exposed to human suffering. Embedded in our parental bone marrow is the desire to protect our children. The harsh reality, however, is that we cannot control these circumstances. Instead, the best way to protect our children is to shape the lessons they draw from these times. In so doing, we build resilience skills they can draw from throughout their lives.
Self-Compassion and Self-Forgiveness
Feeling like a failure? Join the club. These times are profoundly stressful. You are likely way past keeping multiple balls in the air. If you’re like me, you might be dropping some of them. Who knew that so many of us would have to work from home, keep family entertained, stay on top of our kids’ education, manage emotions, fret about finances, worry about family, friends, or neighbors falling ill all while being told to stay put? Here’s yet another ball coming your way. You’ll want to try to catch this one — it’s about “shaping your child’s future.”
Here’s the good news. Most of the strategies that follow will help you get through these times. The best way to influence your child is to be a model. Perfection is not an option. Instead, forgive yourself. Become intentional about seeing the good in yourself. Show yourself some self-compassion. Your teen will learn more from watching you than words could ever teach.
Acknowledge, Process, and Release Emotions
During times of uncertainty, we all experience heightened emotions. This is the time to demonstrate to our children that we shouldn’t ignore emotions. Too many young people receive messages that strong people contain their emotions and that experiencing feelings is a sign of weakness. The truth is, bottling up emotions allows them to fester and leads to unresolved feelings. Encourage your children to feel their emotions and demonstrate healthy ways to express them.
The word healthy is critical here. There are ways to express emotions that are harmful to the self and others. Discourage outbursts and instant fixes (like mind-altering substances). At the same time, encourage talking, writing, artistic expression, prayer, reflection, and physical exercise. As you model how to express emotions, demonstrate when to engage others and when to create your own space. Sometimes in uncomfortable living situations — as many of us are experiencing now — we must get to our “calm place” privately. Then, join with others to talk things through or share and express frustrations. Our children must learn from us that having emotions is good, talking about them is necessary, and being honest with them is healing.
Create a Safe Haven Within the Home
We cannot control the outside world, but we can be intentional about creating sanctuaries within our homes. It is natural and expected to be stressed now. It is reasonable to “vent” to the people with whom we feel most secure. This crisis poses a particular challenge: it is harder to create the space we all need to clear our heads and regroup. But getting through stressful times requires dealing with the hand we are dealt. We have to talk frankly within our homes. Say, “The world feels frightening right now. So, we are going to make our home a haven. We’re going to choose to be kinder and gentler. We will gain our strength from each other. We are going to speak openly about how we love and care about each other. There will still be little things about each other that get on our nerves. But we are going to do our best to let them go. We are going to get through this together because we will create peace in our house.”
The home also has to be a place to safely “tune out” for a bit. In the age of 24-hour news, homes cannot become peaceful places with the ever-present tension of news reports. Check-in routinely with credible sources to know what to do to remain safe and healthy. Create a calming place to study, reflect, and enjoy time together. A haven is not a place to tuck away or ignore emotions. On the contrary, it is a place to process heightened emotions in a healthy way.
Be a Calming Presence for Others
Your toddler looked to you after falling to decide whether to cry or get back up. There’s a fancy name for this — co-regulation. It means that we communicate unspoken signals (as well as words) that lend our calm to another person. In moments of uncertainty, our minds often race towards worse-case scenarios. The presence of another person who communicates, “We’re going to through this together,” makes all of the difference. I’d love to say that you should always be that person, an ever-present source of calm for your child. But you’re human too. For you to get others to a calm place, you have to get there first. That can mean reaching out for support, finding a space for prayer or reflection, writing feelings down, or screaming into the darkness. The key is you are modeling being human, not a false notion of perfection. It is important to be a calming presence, but also essential to share that it takes work and intention to get there.
There is a phrase that each generation passes along to the next. Young people can naturally assume the worst because they have not yet had the experience to know that crises come and go. Amid a crisis, it is usually hard to see past it. But we can remember to say what many of our grandparents said to us: “This too, shall pass.” And add, “I know you’ll get through this with me by your side.”
Be Clear and Honest
The last thing you want to do in a time of uncertainty is to pretend you are certain. Calm, yes. Thoughtful, sure. Hopeful, always. Certain? Only if you want to lose the trust of those relying on your judgment. Instead, say what you do know. Admit what you don’t. And, model how you are planning to get credible information. Consider saying things like:
“You’re asking the right questions. I don’t know all the answers. But I trust that wise people are trying to figure out the best things to do right now. Let’s look for answers together, and make sure we are searching in places we can trust.”
Also, “You want to know the kind of experts I trust? The ones who have the training to get to the answers. But also the ones who are clear about what they know and what they are still working to figure out. It makes me know that I can believe what they are telling me.”
Maintain Routines and Care for Physical Health
We cannot control all that happens to us. We can affect whether our bodies are healthy enough to support our minds to navigate the circumstances we confront. We can improve our ability to think and deal with emotions by maintaining an exercise routine, prioritizing sleep, and eating nourishing food. Say this to yourself:
“I can’t just sit on the couch all day. Taking naps makes me more tired. I’m going to get up, get dressed, and do normal things. I’m also going to exercise. The gym may be closed, but I’m going online to find a home exercise routine. If I don’t take care of my body, I can’t focus as well.”
Live in Reality and Avoid Catastrophic Thinking
Uncertainty can sometimes make your mind race to the worst possible outcome. This catastrophic thinking then becomes your perceived reality, and your stress responses are activated just as if the worst circumstances were occurring. This type of thinking can make your body feel awful and interferes with your ability to concentrate and plan. After all, if a tiger is chasing you, you are not supposed to be using all of your thinking capacity to work out a solution. Panic mode is what helps you escape. But if the tiger only exists within your mind, you undermine the ability to problem-solve. So catch your thoughts. Stop yourself and say, “I am imagining the worst.” Take a few deep breaths. Ask yourself, “What is the worst-case scenario?” “What is the best-case scenario?” The truth is probably somewhere in between.
This thinking is realistic, not optimistic. It contains hope because it enables you to plan out solutions thoughtfully. It doesn’t sugarcoat or belittle real problems. Instead, it allows you to return to the present moment, where a realistic assessment allows you to problem-solve.
Finding Control Where You Can
Few things create discomfort more than feeling like there is too much to do or nothing at all you can do. And few things restore comfort more than tackling what you can. As long as you view a problem as insurmountable, it will feel like a mountain you can never climb. Instead, think of each mountain as a series of hills. Then, choose one hill you can conquer. Once on top of that hill, the summit of the mountain won’t feel so distant or unattainable.
This is also an opportunity to model the importance of one of the most calming words in the English language: “yet.” It serves as a reminder that a current reality does not prevent us from getting to the next step. “I’ll NEVER ______!” transforms into “I haven’t ______ yet.” “We haven’t YET figured this out. Let’s figure out what we can do right now.”
Let Things Go
Remember those balls that have dropped on the ground? Leave some of them there. Wait to pick them up. Things that may have felt important to you before may not matter as much as they once did. When this is over, you can get back to them. Right now, stay healthy, strong, and compassionate. Take care of those around you who are vulnerable. Let your family members know they are precious to you. Do what it takes to keep a roof over your head and food on the table — even that may not be easy. Everything else can wait.
Find Joy, Give Service, and Discover Purpose
In the toughest of times, we must find space for joy. Sometimes that comes naturally by opening our eyes to the loving presence of those around us. Other times it takes effort, like choosing to play a game or cook a favorite recipe. Sometimes it is just finding solitude. But, we must be intentional about including joy in each day.
We also must fill our lives with reminders that we matter. It is this sense of meaning and purpose that can bring us joy every day and get us through the toughest times. This moment grants us all an opportunity to make a difference in the life of others who are isolated or vulnerable.
The marketers get it. Every commercial now seems to end with, “We’re in this together!” Uncertainty is frightening. Knowing that we are not alone as we are figuring things out brings us comfort. Alone we are vulnerable, but together we are stronger than the combination of each of our strengths. People joined together can take turns between drawing strength from others, and being a source of strength. Above all, young people should see that wise adults actively reach out to others during stressful times.
It would be wonderful if the main lesson drawn from these times is how much relationships matter. Being apart reminds us of our drive to be near each other. Imagine the meaning things previously taken for granted will hold when this is over. This generation will understand and appreciate the simple joy of being with grandparents, extended family, friends, and community.
Image by: Aisa Binhashim/Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia