Coping with COVID – for parents (and anyone really)
Educational psychologist, Naomi Holdt recently offered a free webinar on "Parenting through the Pandemic"; I attended for some inspiration that might serve the parents in my network, and anyone struggling to cope with the uncertainty of this time. Naomi is well known in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands (South Africa) and further afield for her info-packed talks for teachers and parents on building resilience in children. Her flagship training is her 6-week online "Bullet Proof Parenting" course. (I have included a link at the end of this post).
Naomi offered so many useful tools and tips for parents, and everyone trying to cope with this pandemic, it was hard to distil! First some facts:
Pre-pandemic children experience higher stress than those who experienced the WW-II bomb raids. Reason? Because parents today don't spend as much time with their children as they used to, especially playtime.
In Naomi's experience, both teens and children's anxiety are increasing over this time.
Maintaining healthy relationships is the single most important factor in helping us all cope. For children and teens, the most important relationship is the bond they have with their parents.
So what can you do you help your kids (and yourself) cope?
First things first: lower your expectations or yourself and others
Nothing is normal about what we are experiencing. Not only is the threat universal, but it's invisible. And it's challenging our most primal instincts. Mammals gather together when under threat. There is comfort and safety in togetherness. Right now, we're in what Naomi referred to as "The Perfect Emotional Storm", a concept coined by Gordan Neufelt: "The perfect emotional storm is not when togetherness is threatened, but when togetherness IS the threat".
Knowing this, we can take the first important step: lowering our expectations. Expect a certain amount of regression in yourself and your children. You do not have to be the perfect parent, employee or friend. What do we expect of wartime families? Survival. We're in a not too dissimilar situation, so lower your expectations of yourself (and your partner and children), breathe, and just put one foot in front of the other.
Scan for primal emotions, and play
When under threat, like many of us are feeling right now, our primal brains take over. Emotions like fear, anxiety, anger and irritability run rampant. Notice when it's happening, and do whatever you can to rein them in, and communicate them calmly. Why? Because what you need most right now is connection, and rampant rage released on your loved ones doesn't do well to keep those connections strong, especially the connection with your children who need this more than anything. To help find an avenue for primal emotions, Naomi recommends lots of play! Try to find things to do that both you and your children can enjoy, maybe its baking or gardening or crafting, doesn't matter, as long as it feels like fun for all involved.
Allow yourself to feel the sadness of it all. Naomi couldn't emphasise this enough; "The thing about sadness is that we underestimate its importance. We need sadness in order to move forward. It's that point of no return when we realise that we cannot change or solve a situation. Until we feel this, we cannot move forward; allowing the sadness causes the [primal] emotion to shift". I see now that the beauty of sadness is that it is a form of acceptance. Until you are sad, you are resisting. In a child, this might take the form of allowing them to have a writhing, screaming meltdown, and then when they shift into sobs of sadness, gathering them up for a hug. Parents of teenagers can support this same emotional shift through doing their best to listen and understand their child's unique experience.
Safety in "sames"
I am going to write more on this in future posts as its been a big learning for me over this time. Particularly in my home. But for kids, Naomi says routine – but not rigidity - is key. With so much out of our control, we need to identify what IS in our control and focus our attention on that. Naomi recommends talking about this with your children (asking them what has changed, and what hasn't) so that they can recognise that they still have the most important thing – you! And that hasn't changed. If you usually have Friday pizza nights, keep them going, if you walk your dogs together every Saturday, keep doing that, the continued routines provide predictability and safety.
Turning disempowerment into empowerment
Empower your children by letting them be part of the solution. Tell them they are superheroes, saving the world by wearing their masks. Talk to them about what they want to contribute to society at this time. It could be donating blankets to the SPCA, painting rocks with uplifting messages on them for neighbours, or teaching you something they learned in school… anything that makes them feel they are contributing to improving the situation for others. Naomi says you can also help them to make sense of the story by telling theirs, drawing pictures, making little videos, or if they are older, writing their experiences down into a story to help them express their own personal journey.
In a nutshell, take care of yourself and your relationships with your kids and closest, allow yourself to feel sad, reduce your expectations, control what you can, let go of the rest, and empower your kids to do the same.