This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many families are scrambling to make tough decisions about returning back to school. The sense of uncertainty has some parents trading the once normal back-to-school routines for setting up learning spaces at home to better accommodate virtual learning, while others are focused on purchasing masks, portable hand sanitizers and face shields to increase their child’s safety at school. Nearly every parent is feeling anxious and unsettled about how to manage the new set of circumstances that “school in the midst of a pandemic” brings.
One thing is certain; life is full of “uncontrollables.” Some things, no matter how hard we try, will never be ours to control. Things such as the weather, what time the bank closes, falling ill or how someone else feels, are experiences that we must learn to accept as they are. Trying to impose our will over situations and events out of our control does not affect the outcome, it only creates undue suffering. In contrast, life is also full of many things within our control. How we spend our time, where we choose to direct our efforts, with whom we choose to surround ourselves, what behaviors we engage in, are all within our control.
It is human nature, part of our protective, survival instincts, to try to control situations that are uncomfortable. It is not as common to simply focus on ourselves and what we already have at our resource.
Having a sense of agency, an internal sense of control over ourselves and our actions, increases our ability to regulate thoughts, emotions, and be aware of the choices before us. A sense of agency increases our calm and allows our bodies and minds to regulate and be available to learn. Just as our return to traditions, rituals or routines brings a sense of security, routinely practicing a return to our inner resources can increase our sense of security in seemingly out of control situations. Our children deserve the opportunity to learn about and practice cultivating their own sense of agency now more than ever.
Many back-to-school articles will give you tips for getting organized, creating a study space, planning lunches, etc. Here are some tips for helping children cultivate an increased sense of agency in these new and uncertain times.
Take time to recognize, validate, and regulate.
Without question the stress of making the “right decision” about school is weighing heavy on caregivers, including what to do if the schools/daycares close again. Recognize and validate that these are real and difficult experiences in your life. Give yourself permission to feel and honor your truth in this “new normal” world. Anything else will result in the equivalent of trying to put a cap on an exploding soda bottle; a sticky mess.
When we attempt to avoid our feelings, our thinking becomes rigid and laser-focused, in order to keep difficult feelings under control. Validating feelings can be a gateway for flexibility. Saying to ourselves, “Yep, this hurts.” or “This is really hard.” gives us space to think beyond stopping the feeling. It is in this space that we can begin to notice what is happening within our bodies. Noticing tension in our bodies, hurried thoughts, a racing heart, etc. gives us cues into what we need to regulate and move forward in a chosen way. We can take moments to step away, possibly practice focused breathing and/or release tension that is not serving the body in the moment, observe or prioritize worried thoughts, remind ourselves of our safety despite intense emotion(s), etc. These are ways we can come to realize our own sense of agency; the resources within us that can be called upon in moments of distress and unease, if only we give ourselves the space to cultivate our awareness and practice.
Share your calm: Recognize, validate and regulate with your child(ren).
Author and educator, Dr. Dan Siegel, explains in his work on interpersonal neurobiology that a child, when upset, is not able to access his/her logical, left-brain. We often describe this to kids as “flipping their lid.” The emotional experiences we encounter happen primarily in the limbic system of the brain. For children, this area of the brain is far more developed than the problem-solving, logical, rational, and organized area of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex, located within the frontal lobe. Parents can help to bridge the gap by serving as a substitute frontal lobe in difficult moments.
Children, when attuned to a calm and responsive parent, are better able to soothe the needs of their “emotional brain” and can more easily shift into a logical, problem-solving brain space. The concept of attunement is when individuals “feel felt,” according to Dr. Siegel. Recognizing when our children need our supportive calm is an important piece. Using language such as “I notice” when your child is talking in a faster pace or louder volume and staying away from comments such as “I can’t understand you when you are talking so fast!” can help children tune into their own personal cues of emotional unrest. Encouraging noticing and curiosity makes the experience of emotions less overwhelming and creates open dialogue about individual experience.
Just as in our own emotional work, children need validation that their emotions are real, allowed, and accepted. Communicating to our children that they are allowed to feel however they do, without judgment, strengthens that “feeling felt” sense of attunement. It is in this space that parents can share their calm and co-regulate with their child(ren) by modeling deep breathing, quiet reflection, movement, or stretching, etc. A child who feels validated and attuned within their own body and mind, and with a trusted adult, will have a natural tendency to mirror the calm strength being shared with them.
The practice of attunement and co-regulation, shared over and over (especially in the already calm moments), builds capacity and a sense of agency in children so that they can then begin to access and practice on their own. Similar to muscle memory gained in batting practice or piano lessons, we can support our children in attuning to their individual cues and accessing the memory (neuropathways) of how a calm, regulated state feels. This knowledge can motivate children to access their inner resources for self-validation and self-regulation, thereby increasing their sense of agency.
Bring back old, or create new, traditions and routines.
Think back to previous end of summer/start of school traditions or routines that have been familiar to your family. If they still fit, use them! A sense of “normalcy” in the wake of an anything but normal return to school will bring with it a sense of security and safety. If old traditions no longer fit, create new ones with your child’s input. Making plans for new traditions and routines communicate to our children that, while things are different and maybe even uncomfortable, it is still possible to be flexible and hopeful about new opportunities and the upcoming school year.
Allow your child(ren) to talk and ask questions about their concerns without judgment.
Our children undoubtedly have questions and concerns of their own. Many children have heard bits and pieces about the pandemic including health and safety concerns in the community, reasons why they have/have not been able to visit with friends and family, changes to the school year, concerns about another potential school closure, financial impacts on their family, and many other related topics. However, most children do not have an accurate perspective on how these concerns might impact their own world.
Our brains, while a most-amazing biological computer, will often fill in the blanks and piece together assumptions in the absence of a complete picture. Unfortunately, when it comes to worry, our assumptions are most often laden with unsubstantiated fears. Allowing our children to talk openly about their thoughts and concerns for the upcoming school year, without judgment, can allow parents to correct false perspectives as well as answer questions they might have.
Parents often share concerns about giving kids too much information for fear of making them ruminate on their worries. While avoiding worry topics is well-intentioned, it is best to provide fact-based responses that are developmentally and age appropriate. Keep in mind that an absence of facts can often result in “worst-case scenario” thinking. In contrast, providing facts and/or agreeing to seek facts if you do not know the answer, is another way that parents can instill a sense of safety and security in their children. This communicates to our children that we are willing to honor their questions and curiosity, and that we are willing to admit to not knowing and seeking new information. These are skills that build resilience.
Prioritize good sleep hygiene and physical movement.
It is often forgotten that sleep is a critical component of human basic needs. Without proper sleep, all other functions suffer, especially our capacity to regulate emotions. Given that children already filter the world through the emotion center of the brain (limbic system), it stands to reason that we would observe a diminished ability for our children to tolerate the world around them without proper sleep. Setting limits for screen time before bed and prioritizing a calm nighttime routine can be one of the most beneficial steps we can take as parents in supporting the healthy social, emotional, and intellectual development of our children. Here are the recommended hours of sleep per the American Academy of Pediatrics:
• Children 3 to 5 years of age should sleep 10 to 13 hours per 24 hours (including naps) on a regular basis to promote optimal health.
• Children 6 to 12 years of age should sleep 9 to 12 hours per 24 hours on a regular basis to promote optimal health.
• Teenagers 13 to 18 years of age should sleep 8 to 10 hours per 24 hours on a regular basis to promote optimal health.
In addition to sleep, movement is paramount in balancing and regulating the central nervous system. Make sure to include exercise or physical movement into your child’s daily routine. Practice noticing skills to bring attention to movements that appear to increase energy or agitation, as compared to movements that appear to relax and quiet yourself or your child. Movement can enhance our moods and ability to regulate significant emotional states through the use of practices such as yoga, dance, walking, and rough and tumble play.
Practice and model self-compassion.
“We’re all in the together.” This has been the motto of the COVID-19 pandemic, and rightfully so. One of the hallmarks of self-compassion is common humanity, the idea that there is a shared experience of being human. Many mindfulness teachers explain, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” The practice of self-compassion allows us to experience the pain of being human while reminding ourselves that we do not have to suffer through it.
It can come as a surprise to learn that we cannot always think our way out of our pain. Many times, our thoughts are aimed at fixing or stopping the pain we are experiencing, even when the situation is not within our control. Self-compassion is the warm voice within that reminds, “This is hard, but it’s not forever. You’ve got this.” I recommend doing this out loud to start, like you are talking to your best friend.
Parenting is not for wimps and doing so in a pandemic is quite literally a “whole new level.” Practicing self-compassion, validating your experiences, noticing and attuning to what it is you need- these are all beautiful ways to care for yourself and model for your children in the same moment, “We’re all in this together.” And, “We can do hard things.”
Nicole Rickard is a therapist at Partners in Change: Psychological & Community Services, PLC.