Managing Big Changes in a Time of Big Anxiety

Oftentimes, we joke that we wish children came with manuals. But because there is no such thing, we rush to the next best option: one of the thousands of parenting books out on the market today. However, I am not familiar with any parenting books on parenting through a global pandemic. Many of us are going rogue during this confusing time and adding more “hats” to our parenting wardrobe: homeschool teacher, IT specialist, and in many cases coworker with our co-parent or our children. While navigating this anxiety-filled time, it is important to introduce ways for you and your loved ones to create calm. Here are five guideposts to manage big changes coupled with big anxiety.

Create Safety

In Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” model, the first need is physiological, and is quickly followed by the need for safety. Now more than ever, it is crucial to hydrate, get good sleep, eat colorful meals and get moving. When your body feels better, your brain will, too. This goes for children, as well. If children are not getting the movement they need, they will “act up” and create havoc in your home. It is crucial for you and your children to get outside, feel the grass, and look at a vista that is beyond the screen.

Acknowledging and meeting your need for safety is another crucial part to your mental and physical well-being. Creating safety can look many different ways. Maybe it is doing a little extra cleaning because it helps you feel in control of this invisible germ that is keeping us all at home. Maybe it is making lists or schedules that help you feel a little more in control of big changes. Maybe it is letting go of your schedule and cleaning so that you feel freedom, which may give some an experience of safety. Regardless of how you manage to feel safe, recognize the importance of safety not only for you but also for your family. A sense of safety may look different for each family member.

Be Honest

When there are big changes like death, divorce or other experiences that we think are too big for children to handle, we avoid talking to them about it. However, it is important to recognize that children have a strong sense of what is going on whether they consciously realize it or not. Therefore, it is important for you to be honest and authentic in what is going on in the world. Give children the appropriate information for their age and emotional maturity.

It is also important to voice your own feelings about what is happening during the big change. “Mom/Dad is feeling a little extra stressed or worried because I have to work from home and make sure that you get your work done.” Or “I want to make extra sure that we wash our hands and keep this invisible germ away from us and our older loved ones. That is why we are staying home.” When you model healthy expression of feelings (albeit, slightly watered down), you model for your children that it is OK to share big feelings and that there are healthy ways to do so.

Know That Regression and Stress Behaviors are Normal

Children are so wise. If not going to school every day isn’t clue enough that something is off, they may recognize their caretakers are a little more stressed and may catch a clip too many of coronavirus news. In times of stress or big changes, it is normal and natural for you and your children to wake up more in the middle of the night, have tantrums (yes adults, too) and potty accidents (more children than adults). Everyone’s routine is off, and it is important to not catastrophize their behavior. It is temporary.

It can be important to name the stress behaviors. A tool called “externalization” can help with naming the behavior. If you notice your child getting grumpy or hungry, you can make a name for their alter ego (the grumpy, hungry one), and notice their alter ego visiting. “It looks like Hank the Hungry man is coming to visit. I wonder if he is hungry right now.” This does not always work for every child. Nor does it work if the behavior has gone too far, but sometimes it can be a way to alleviate the strife and tension that regression and stress behaviors bring.

Manage Expectations

At the beginning of this pandemic, many people thought, “Well, this will be a great time to clean out those closets, simplify life and get that “to-do” list completed!” The farther we get into this experience, the more we find that it is harder to get into regular clothes, let alone accomplish that dream list. It is incredibly important to be gentle with yourself and with others. There is so much grief happening right now — grief from birthday parties not had, grief from family and friends no longer visiting, grief from actual death and the inability to connect with those who are grieving — that it is hard to keep up with the ever-changing dynamics and tremendous feelings that flow through us. It is OK not to be “productive” during this period.

While you may have had beautiful images of your children being engaged in their homeschool “passion projects,” and delighting in a midday, colorful lunch where you all connect at the table, it is necessary to manage your expectations. If you need to get four hours of uninterrupted work or meetings completed, it is OK to allow your children to have four hours of screen time. Again, make sure you schedule it. Allow them to know when the screen time will be and then give them ability to expand and run out their energy outside (or inside the house, if necessary).

Lead with Love, Give Grace

Because there are not too many rulebooks on global pandemic, please give yourself and others grace and love. Apologize when you have had that tantrum. Be playful when you would rather be consequential. When you see your children or your co-parent struggling, give them a hug, give them love and lean in with compassion. Most importantly, offer compassion to yourself. Offering compassion to yourself is not giving up, it is giving yourself space to learn from a mistake and do better the next time — a concept, surely, you would want your children to learn.

Humans are incredibly resilient, children especially. They will forgive you when you get it “wrong.” In offering love unconditionally and creating safety, you will model for your children what you so desperately need and deserve: unconditional love and safety. Be gentle with yourself and others.

Kate Pedersen, LCSW, CenterPoint Counseling

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