Wherever we look during these challenging Covid times, there are ideas about how to cope, especially during lockdown. From Facebook and Instagram, to breakfast television and YouTube, there’s heaps of advice and helpful hints on how to talk to our children about the virus, the activities we can do with them, and how to continue some version of normal family life. But while all that information is important, it doesn’t necessarily provide us with practical strategies to help us to meet one of our most basic needs right now: As parents and caregivers, we need to know how to manage our own stress, fears and anxieties first. After all, if we can’t manage our own emotions and behaviours during this time, how can we even begin to manage those of our children?
You might find yourself spending a lot of time trying to figure out the best plan of action for you and your family in the middle of this chaos. Maybe you find your mind buzzing as you think about best- and worst-case scenarios, weigh up options and try to decide on the ideal way forward. It may be helpful to know that all of that thinking and analysing is your brain responding to the stress you’re feeling. You might be feeling like that because you are trying to work out how to ‘survive’ these uncertain times. But while all this thinking is serving a purpose, it’s also using a lot of resources and energy in the process. Subsequently we’re left with very few resources to cope with the everyday things that we would usually handle quite easily. When that happens, we end up feeling easily frustrated and annoyed by even the smallest thing that goes wrong. And when we then try to do some of the wonderful things that people on Instagram are doing with their kids, we get frustrated and annoyed when our kids don’t listen, or don’t even seem that interested in our brilliant crafty/educational/inspiring/noble idea. So, what do we do? How do we manage ourselves (let alone our kids) so that we can actually be the parents we want to be in 2020?
Put your own oxygen mask on first
It’s important to recognise that while our brains are doing important work responding to the stress, this is only the first step. Science tells us that if our children are going to come out of this crisis relatively unscathed, we’ll need to make sure that our relationships with them are positive and supportive. This is because relationships act as a buffer against stress. However, we can’t be a buffer for our children if we don’t look after ourselves and our own emotional well-being. That means we need to do the things that give us the emotional, mental and physical resources to be there for our children. Sleeping well, eating well and staying physically active are probably more important than ever. But so is allowing yourself to indulge in some downtime when you don’t have to look after anything or anyone. This type of self-care is imperative right now. It’s also the perfect time for the kids to engage in some scheduled technology time! Use your downtime to reflect on what is going on for you in your inner world – your fears, worries and frustrations. Be kind to yourself. If you can engage with your own emotions with empathy and compassion, you will be able to acknowledge your children’s emotions with empathy and compassion as well.
Once we’ve created space for ourselves as parents, we will have the energy and resources to support our children. When children are experiencing big emotions, they tell us. However, they usually don’t use words. They generally tell us with their behaviour. So be prepared for their big behaviours and big emotions. You might not remember this from your own childhood, but those big behaviours and big emotions are very scary for our children. Big emotions can make our children feel out of control. It may be really helpful to share with your children information about their brain’s stress response and their brain’s efforts to help keep them safe. This will help them understand why it is so difficult to manage their fears and worries during this time. Psychologist and author of Hey Warrior, Karen Young, shares a helpful resource explaining anxiety to kids on her website, heysigmund.com.
Seen, safe, soothed and secure
Just as taking care of our own emotional well-being is important, needless to say – so is taking care of our children’s emotional well-being. And all the same strategies apply. Make sure they eat well, sleep well and have some time for exercise and fun. Ensure they have downtime. We also want to book some time in with our children where we can ask about their inner worlds and help them reflect on and process their feelings. If we’ve taken the time to understand our own feelings, it will be much easier to take their perspective and understand their feelings. When children know that their parents will take the time to figure out and understand their inner worlds, they will feel seen, safe, soothed and secure (Dr Dan Siegel). This will act as a buffer against the stressful effects of these uncertain times.
Security in the schedule
All that to say, we don’t want to only look after our children’s internal worlds. We also need to look at how we can organise their external worlds. That stylishly designed family schedule you’ve seen the crafty mums throw together on Pinterest could still provide a valid function. Managing our children’s immediate environment through clear and consistent routines, expectations and boundaries will increase their feelings of safety and security and will give them a sense that, amidst all the turmoil, there is still some predictability and consistency in the world. Because the brain loves patterns and predictability, sticking to routines and expectations as much as possible is a simple way to reduce the intensity of the brain’s threat level and our children’s stress response.
As much as it is about parents and children, it is also about families. It’s important to create and maintain a fun, caring and predictable family environment that will make all family members feel safe and secure – regardless of what is going on in the world. Communicating with each other, and showing each other love, appreciation and respect are important ingredients for a positive family environment, as is cooperating and working together. This will require calm minds and calm hearts – all the more reason for us as parents to look after ourselves first.
This article was originally published during New Zealand’s alert level 4 nationwide lockdown.
For more on this topic…
- Pause, Hold, Engage: A simple strategy for complex problems (Tools to support parents)
- Pause, Hold, Engage: Helping kids cope with big feelings (Tools to support children)
- The power of atmosphere and how to harness it at your place
- Pause, Hold, Engage to rescue and restore atmosphere
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