Health & Well-being

Coping with changing alert levels

Parenting Place Changing Alert Levels

One of the best movies ever made is Die Hard. It is our family favourite and we watch it every Christmas Eve. It’s got everything: Action, great one-liners and, if nothing else, Bruce Willis wearing a very tight singlet. If you haven’t seen Die Hard (what?!?!), it’s about a guy called John McClane who attempts to save his wife and free the hostages from the clutches of some very bad guys just before Christmas. There is one scene in the movie that gets me every time. After Mr McClane has bravely fought his way through wave after wave of the bad guys, (wearing the aforementioned singlet), he finally manages to free the hostages and get them to the roof to be rescued by an FBI helicopter. Alas the FBI mistakes him for one of the terrorists and shoot at him instead. The freed hostages are forced to leave the roof and go back into the building and it feels like poor McClane is back at square one. He’s exhausted, frustrated and disappointed (to say the least!).

And that is probably how many in Auckland felt when they heard that the move from level 4 to level 3 effectively means lockdown life continues for another two weeks at least. After bravely battling through uncertainty, worry and a mountain of chocolate (not to mention the many bottles of PVA glue and glitter), we've been eagerly awaiting our ‘rescue’. But it would seem that our liberation is still a wee while off. While takeaways may be back on the menu, the bubbles remain.

If we – the grown-ups – are feeling disappointed and frustrated, how are our children going to feel when they realise that they still won’t be able to see their friends in person, go to the park with their neighbours or visit their grandparents? And worse, how are we going to help our kids to deal with their disappointment if we can’t deal with our own? It can be incredibly difficult when our children experience uncomfortable feelings, mostly because we ourselves know how unpleasant those feelings are! So, a bit like John McClane, we tend to want to rush in and save the day. We want to problem-solve and fix things for our kids so that they can feel better quickly. But the truth is, disappointment is an unavoidable reality. It’s a fact of life!

Disappointment and its melancholy companions

Research tells us that disappointment tends to be accompanied by sadness, anger and indifference (or apathy). You may have noticed these emotions in your children (and in yourself!) during lockdown. Sadness is understandable – our kids have given up a lot of highly anticipated events, treats and just normal rites of passage: birthday parties, school trips, sports events and hanging out with their friends. The fact that your children still won’t be able to do these things at level 3 might make those feelings of sadness and loss even more intense.

You also may have noticed an unexpected levels of anger. Believe it or not, anger is actually a very ‘effective’ emotion. It moves us to action and most of the time we use it very successfully to protect ourselves from feeling the emotional pain of disappointment. If your child seems more angry than usual, they might be trying to protect themselves from feeling the effects of disappointment. You may notice your child becoming even angrier in the move from level 4 to level 3, especially because there will be so little difference in ‘bubble life’ for most families. Also, don’t be too surprised if your previously mellow child all of a sudden develops a very short fuse during level 3!

The third emotion related to disappointment is apathy or indifference. Basically we stop caring and don’t want to do anything about overcoming our disappointment or making the best of a difficult situation. Feelings of apathy usually come from a sense of powerlessness. It leads us to ask questions like: ‘What’s the point of trying anyway?’ or make statements like ‘I don’t care anymore’. It can be very difficult and scary for us as parents when our children show apathy or indifference. It can make us feel powerless and helpless too, and then we want to jump in and problem-solve. Unfortunately, when we try and fix things for our children, we accidentally end up reinforcing their sense of powerlessness. After all, nothing says ‘You’re helpless’ like someone else solving your problems for you! Maybe John McClane should have told the hostages to sort out their own issues!

We should listen to our children with empathy and compassion because that validates their feelings and lets them know that we understand.

In support of emotions

So now that we understand the emotions behind disappointment, what can we do to support ourselves and our children?

Most importantly, as parents, we need to look after ourselves first. As we move through the levels, we have to be able to manage our own feelings of disappointment (whether it’s sadness, anger or apathy), otherwise, adding our children’s big feelings to the mix might just overwhelm us even more.

It is also very important to really listen to what our children are saying. Remember, for the most part, big behaviours are the result of big emotions. So we should listen to our children with empathy and compassion because that validates their feelings and lets them know that we understand. We should use as few of our own words as possible – no matter how helpful we think our words might be!

Now, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t support our children. We will need to help them to problem-solve so that they can actually face and overcome their disappointment. It just means that listening and empathising is always the first step.

So let me leave you with a few helpful tips:

  1. Help your child to have realistic expectations
  2. Encourage your child to look on the bright side
  3. Give your child some control

1. Help your child to have realistic expectations

I think a lot of us, children included, felt disappointed by how similar level 3 is to level 4. Ask your children to write down (or draw a picture if they are quite young) what they expected from level 3 and what they actually got. This can open up helpful communication and give you insights into your child’s thinking. Doing this exercise before the move to level 2 will also give you an opportunity, together with your child, to figure out which expectations are realistic, and which ones might need some tweaking.

2. Encourage your child to look on the bright side

Yes, there is nothing more annoying than someone who continuously points out the positives when all we want to do is wallow in the negatives. But, as parents, it is our job to make sure our children see situations from all perspectives. Now is a great time to practise gratitude. You can even do this as a family brainstorm. Get a piece of paper and ask your bubble mates to take turns naming things they are grateful for. You could even nominate the kids as the scribes or illustrators to capture all of your gratitude. You might be amazed at the many things your family can be grateful for during this lockdown period.

3. Give your child some control

To combat feelings of apathy, give your child the opportunity to make a plan, see it through and reap the rewards at the end. This can be as simple as negotiating a new routine, letting them decide a dinner menu or allowing them to plan a bubble trip to a special place in your region (when alert levels allow it, of course!). Giving your child back some control may build their inner belief that there are still things they can do to make the most of the situation. This realisation is also likely to equip them to deal much better with future disappointments.

4. And lastly (if your children are old enough), watch Die Hard.

We know that it’s not Christmas, but hey, it’s the best movie ever made.

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