While I waited as my daughter was going through a particularly difficult surgery, I walked over to the hospital library. I knew I couldn’t do anything for her. It was up to the doctors. Over the years I’ve found libraries are a good place to calm down. A research paper was posted on an announcement cork board. The main thing I remember about the study was that the parent’s reaction to a child’s trauma determined the severity of trauma in the child. As hard as that time was, this common sense research greatly encouraged me. Gave me a direction. Calming down gives the frightened child a chance to feel safe. And in that safety, a chance to psychologically heal.
This pandemic is not a typical disaster. There’s not a sudden unexpected shock like 911 or an earthquake. Or an intense few few days followed by an ongoing crisis like hurricanes bring. The course on this one is, as Drake sang, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint, but I still gotta win the race, yeah…”
The 2020 Pandemic began slow as a warning, bringing a sense of threat. This increased to schools closing, shelter-in-place, masks, and images of nightly deaths on TV. As parents now are home-schooling their children, the question remains about how to facilitate the child’s emotional health through this unique disaster. Along with all the economic academic social challenges, the adult care taker must ask— how can I prevent psychological scarring and facilitate emotional resilience through this pandemic?
First, let’s look at what we are likely to see in children who are now encountering this unique and confusing threat. The sad, but usual response to disaster, across the age span of childhood is regression. The little ones, toddlers to kindergarten, may increase their clinging, temper tantrums, forget recently learned skills, and/or demand more attention. Elementary school children’s regression may show up in night fears, academic inattention, behavioral problems, and/or feeling self blame and guilt. The middle and high school kids, reacting to the shock of losing their in-person social life, may show regression via isolation, poor home schooling progress, and, again, self blame and/or angry outbursts.
The child with learning, psychological and/or developmental challenges brings other questions to parenting and caretaking. Boundaries can get murky in the confusion, and again, we are faced with cognitive and emotional regression.
Though each child is wondrously unique, there are patterns in childhood. Understanding these can help us and decrease the potential for psychological damage.
Things we can expect:
- The child will watch you intently, especially your face, for clues as to what is going on.
- If there is no conversation about the disastrous events, in this vacuum the child will become increasingly confused, and/or blame themselves or the adults in the room.
- If the expectations are too high, or too lax, the child will flounder in guilt, blame or self absorption.
- If the adult ignores their own need to heal, because this is a long term challenge, the risk of burn out and emotional exhaustion is high.
The fundamental role of parent and guardian is to protect the child. And the most basic of this protection is physical: sustenance, shelter, safety from attack. Following this is protection by the support of an environment where the child’s needs for social, intellectual, psychological, creative, moral, and spiritual development can be met. In a predictable environment, the child can grow. In a chaotic environment the child’s survival mechanisms overwhelm all other needs creating deficits.
This pandemic challenges both the most basic protections adults must provide as well as their, our, ability to provide counsel and guidance. It’s hard to provide leadership in this unknowable environment. This question of the parent/guardian’s ability to protect can down shift to self shame. The challenge then is both external and internal. External in the sense that ‘business must be taken care of.’ Food must be on the table, time boundaries must be set, expectations must be provided, play must be allowed, personality growth must be encouraged. But on an internal level, the parent/guardian must face their own powerlessness and vulnerabilities without falling into paralyzing self recrimination.
Ways to resilient parenting:
- Communication: Open up a conversation. First and foremost, listen. What does the child think and believe about the pandemic. What does the child feel? Before you correct misunderstandings and false information, acknowledge what they think and feel. Then give them age-appropriate information. Add on the emotional support as you go.
- Schedules: Both over scheduling and under scheduling can be problematic. This is the moment where the child’s unique needs come into play. One child may need strong clear routines while the sibling may need greater flexibility. Neither Boot Camp nor Lord of the Flies.
- Limit the news: This global crisis is overwhelming for us all, especially children.
- Build the adult team: Strategize with other parents/guardians. The medical and social situation is fluid, frequent check ins with other concerned adults helps us see alternatives as well as the recognition that we are all in this together.
- Take care of yourself: When they see a calm, relaxed adult, that emotional tone calms their fears and anxiety. Many a child will challenge that tone to see if it is real.
- If the child begins to experience intense anxiety, withdrawal, outbursts, crying, etc. check in with your pediatrician or a therapist. Telehealth works for children, too.
- Know parenting is the hardest job in the world. And the most important. You don’t have to be a hero. That goal can lead to burn out. The challenge is not to do the perfect job, it is to show up everyday and do the best you can. Then take a break.
- And, most importantly, enjoy this time with your children. It’s like God said to us all—Go to Your Room! In there we can build resentments, overwork and make our ourselves miserable.. or.. we can grow with our children, learn from them, role model the joy of learning and living.
- Let them teach you how to play again.
- Humor helps: As Dr. Seuss said: ‘Everything stinks till it’s finished.’
Go easy, folks.