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Acknowledging Your Uncertainty Shows Your Kids the Way to Resilience

March 3, 2021

We’re hitting a strange anniversary this month. It’s been a year since the pandemic’s first reported deaths in the U.S., and this week, we crossed the dark threshold of a half-million deaths due to COVID-19. With the vaccinations available to more and more people, there’s a sense of light at the end of the tunnel. But most kids still aren’t in school, attending birthday parties, visiting Grandma, taking vacations. The youngest kids might not even remember life without masks, going inside other people’s houses.

As parents, we feel the responsibility of maintaining normalcy for our kids, even while their worlds are anything but normal. You may have been successful explaining why they can’t have friends over. You used strategies and techniques to help them channel their emotions in more constructive directions, and set sights on a hopeful horizon, not far off. But do you believe your own words? Children as young as infancy can sense the unspoken emotional signals of adults. How do we make sense of this for them, when we’re not even sure it’s OK for us?

There’s widespread concern about the mental health effects of parenting young children during a quarantine, and research confirms this troubling reality. Among parents, 42 percent report feeling lonely at least a few times a week since the pandemic started, according to data from the American Enterprise Institute. Data from Brigham and Women’s Hospital reveal that 36 percent of pregnant or postpartum women reported clinically significant levels of depression, up from the pre-pandemic level of 15-20 percent. Likewise, the quarantine affects the emotional and social development of children, with symptoms including clinginess, irritability, disturbed sleep, inattention, and separation-related anxiety, according to the journal Psychiatry Research.

But it is important to keep in mind that children are resilient. And with the vaccine rollout picking up steam, we are likely talking about just a few more months of navigating this isolating time—not an eternity. 

We try to help our children understand that this is temporary, but words are just hollow platitudes if they are not backed up by emotional and nonverbal messaging that rings true. We are still in the winter of our discontent. But important practices and perspectives can help us as we navigate these strange days. 

  • When so much is different, routine is more important than ever. Routines provide a sense of security, and predictability. Schedules and habits provide a sense that even though our days may be different—without traditional school schedules and playdates—there is still a sense of safety in the familiar. We keep regular mealtimes, brush our teeth and go to bed at the same time. We still have household chores like setting the table and making the bed, because these are important tasks and part of being a responsible member of the family. These activities also provide us an anchor in time, tethering us firmly in the now, connecting to a healthy yesterday and anticipating a fine tomorrow. The message that some things are the same and need to be attended to is an important counterbalance to uncertainty. 
  • Acknowledging our own feelings is critical in helping our children navigate how they are feeling, too. Voicing how we feel communicates that we realize emotions matter, and we care. We appreciate that children might have feelings they don’t understand, and we want to listen and help them to understand, deal with, and manage their own emotions. Most importantly, we want to let them know they aren’t alone in their feelings, and give them a glimpse of how we deal with ours. Sometimes even mom and dad don’t feel like getting out of our pajamas to work from home, so I understand why you might not want to change for your Zoom. But here’s why I think it’s important. 
  • The young brain is especially wired to seek answers. Neuroscientific advances and child development studies show that early childhood is a sensitive and critical period in the growth of the brain’s architecture, and an opportune time for developing emotional intelligence. The more we can help our kids become aware of their emotions and manage their intensity, the more those experiences will strengthen the neural pathways in the development of empathy, capacity to deal with stress and anxiety, and confidence to navigate future crises and social problems.
  • Be the change: help others help themselves. Finding ways to be of use in the community is a powerful source of empathy in children, and the confidence they gain from their contribution is empowering. Children might not be able to participate in school, sports, and activities, and travel in the same way they’re accustomed to. But together we can model participation in activities and efforts that make a difference in our communities, like delivering groceries or meals to shut-ins, making donations to shelters, or grooming gardens and parks to prepare for spring. These may seem like small gestures, but they are activities with lasting emotional effects and have the added benefit of creating a sense of personal agency and positive change, particularly at a time when there is so much need.  

You might think you can hide your stress and anxiety from your kids. But you can’t. Children are emotional detectives, picking up on discrepancies between what we say and how we behave. If the emotional signals emanating from caregivers do not match their actions, children won’t know which to believe. The truth will win out. 

Children need a dependable role model to help foster their own resilience, and successfully cope with the stress and anxiety of challenging times. Being authentic about your own feelings shows your children emotional regulation and self-care in action. It doesn’t make you less of a trusted adult; it makes you credible.

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