In your wildest imagination, could you have anticipated an event that would force you to stay inside your home with your children for weeks and weeks on end?
This is the scenario American families have lived since the middle of March, with no clear end in sight. Family therapists recognize a new level of stress for parents as they work from home, monitor children’s activities and school work, and try to keep everyone’s ship afloat. Summer looms before us and we had hoped for relief. Now we might be breaking more disappointing news to children of canceled youth camps and vacation outings.
Isolation and enforced togetherness have taken a toll on family life. The problems we had with each other before Covid-19 struck don’t have a vaccine either. In close quarters, they tend to get intensified. We get irritable and out of sorts, mourning the absence of normal.
Individuals who live long weeks in isolation at the South Pole report listlessness and lack of motivation. Being alone in your own home, day after day, brings strangely similar complaints.
How best, then, to parent children so they come through this stronger and more resilient? Those who specialize in the mental and emotional health of families emphasize some basic guidelines important in this sort of crisis.
How to Reassure Children in a Time of Crisis
“The most important thing during this crisis,” explains Robin Gurwitch, a Duke Universty psychiatry professor specializing in family and child mental health, “is that parents need to sit down and have conversations with their children no matter what their age. There’s been so much talk about coronavirus, that’s why we’re all at home, tell me what you know.” She recommends pulling out the child’s perceptions first and then helping to shape his or her understanding of what is happening.
Children take their cues from the adults around them. They need to hear a parent say, “Yes, this virus has made life harder. But we will make it through this time. And we will make it through together.” In the midst of angst, reassuring words help us hold onto hope and trust, two key components of emotional health.
We don’t know what life will look like on the other side of this virus. But we will find a way together. Those words might sound obvious to us. But our children need to hear spoken reassurance mixed into everyday conversation.
Bessel van der Kolk, the Harvard University psychiatrist known for a lifetime of research on trauma, claims that children fare surprisingly well, even in the most stressful times, if they know a parent is predictably there for them. He cites the surprising insights from studying British children who survived the nightly bombing of London during World War II. Those who remained with their parents in London had better mental health outcomes than children who were shipped off to the countryside. It seems the biggest determinant of a child or teenager’s sense of well-being is the presence of a parent they can count on in the midst of a crisis.
Stick to Daily Routines
There are also some unspoken ways of providing reassurance to children. Keeping a few predictable daily routines remind a child that life will go on.
Justin Coulson, an Australian family specialist recently hosted by the Institute for Family Studies, encourages parents to build on three components as the basis of routine in a time of quarantine and diminished social contact. He focuses on an hour or two of reading or school work, some daily exercise, and a personal or home “project” a child engages in, mostly, by himself or with siblings. Coulson says in a time of upheaval we need to lower our expectations for our children’s productivity and rely on the stability that predictable routine brings.
Have Proactive Dinner Conversations
Two other findings from trauma research can serve parents as they help children weather this time. Children are overwhelmed by a distressing experience to the degree that it can’t be talked about, or so Van Der Kolk explains. Stuffing down grief leads to lots of internal angst. Much of the subsequent paralysis that accompanies a traumatic experience is the result of feeling mute.
One antidote is the revival of a simple ancient practice dating back to Ignatius, reconstituted around a family dinner table. Ask your children to share one thing that has been hard about the day—a desolation, in Ignatius’ words. And share one joy or comfort from the day, a consolation.
This practice has survived the centuries because it’s simple and utterly human and it carries us out of our aloneness. As Mr. Rogers used to say, if something is mentionable, it is manageable.
Trauma research also underscores the need to help our children imagine positive outcomes. We talk with them about the strength and creativity that can come from this unwanted experience. We reassure them it won’t always be like this.
Our psyches tend to be damaged to the degree that we feel powerless, as though we can do nothing about a particular problem. Studies of survivors of the 9/11 terrorist bombing in New York City note very low rates of post-traumatic stress because it was possible to take action. People could run across the Brooklyn Bridge. So, too, when we help our children imagine a positive future and find small ways to actively build toward that, we increase their resilience in the face of a stressful pandemic.
Children Catch Our Calm
Part of the challenge in this shutdown is that parenting is only one of many things we are managing. It’s hard to juggle working from home or applying for unemployment, and keeping up with kids.
Perhaps there has not been a cultural moment where the instruction to “put the oxygen mask on our face first” is more appropriate. What we do to maintain our stability is crucial, be that exercise or prayer or calling a friend. As Coulson says, “Our children catch our calm.” And “calm” is not easily had as this pandemic stretches on.
I talked with a mother who was concerned because she gets locked in a battle of the wills with her second grader over his schoolwork. The harder she tries to get him to get it done, the more he resists.
Such common moments are only amplified in the stress of being isolated together. This mother slowly realized how worried she was over her husband’s potential job loss. An encounter with one of our children can easily become the stage where we play out our own angst.
Children pick up the emotional temperature around them. They sense our anxiety and react with their own. We have to slow things down enough to stay in touch with our guts, to offer ourselves the hope and reassurance our children need to hear. Then we stand a fighting chance of backing off an impossible moment with a child and coming back later in a different way.
Look for the Good Amid the Evil
If there is anything truly good to come for American families from this cultural moment, it’s the chance to reorient priorities and to make time for each other. This virus has utterly disrupted life as we’ve known it. But for many families the best thing the virus disrupted is an insane pace of life. We are being helped to find a new normal.
As one father said recently, “This has been a calmer, more relaxed time with my kids. I almost feel guilty for enjoying the break from the external demands.” Like many families, a thriving economy had allowed his children competition soccer clubs and trips overseas, a flurry of activity that left everyone tired and on edge. He and his wife fought too much. He felt anxious and depressed.
“If you want to see your anxiety and conflict lessen, you’ll have to slow your pace of life down,” I told him. I suggested, only half in jest, that he might consider taking his family to Africa for a year to volunteer in an orphanage together. He called this week to say that the virus had accomplished the feat of slowing down, without going to Africa. He was fishing a couple of times a week with this son and loving it.
Perhaps we will emerge from being stuck at home way longer than we thought with a new ability to appreciate each other. One comfort is that children forget the meltdown moments when you wanted to lock yourself in the bathroom. They won’t be permanently scarred by what a pandemic forced them to give up, as painful as that has been. The misery will slowly fade into the background.
What registers in the long run and what your children will remember is that, however imperfectly, you weathered this crisis together.