Parenting in Uncertain Times
Strategies for building your capacity for stress tolerance.
Posted March 23, 2020
Amidst any societal disruption, parents play the lead role in helping children make sense of what they hear in a way that is honest, accurate, and minimizes anxiety or fear. As a nurse and family counselor—and a mother—I know how overwhelming it can be to calm, inform, and advise children and teens without making yourself and everyone else more worried than they already are.
The best way to build capacity for coping with uncertainty is to think of increasing your stress tolerance as a long game, and one that includes focusing on three styles that greatly influence your relationship with your children:
1. The way you respond to your child (or your parenting style)
2. The way your child responds to you (or his behavioral style)
3. Your lifestyle
Under our present stressful circumstances, grappling with how life will change related to this global pandemic, it’s likely that all of these styles are under pressure in your family.
There’s no doubt that your ability to respond to your children will be impacted by your own emotional stress level and economic anxiety. And when children’s routines are upended, and they sense that those around them are worried, they’ll respond in reactive ways to you too. Everyone’s lifestyle has been dramatically altered due to school closings, the cancellation of events, as well as calls for social distancing, and even quarantining in certain communities. In the weeks ahead, you and your children will likely experience even greater anxiety as certain family members remain on the front lines of the pandemic, given their work in health care or in supply chain industries, and as you receive news that people you care about are unwell or have been hospitalized.
All of this is to say that when stress goes up, relationships may falter. Still, there are ways you can face this new reality while also strengthening your family relationships.
Your parenting style has a great deal to do with how you and your child will relate in the days ahead, both positively and negatively. The term social distancing is being discussed a lot. But I prefer to think of the recommendation to limit contact as more focused on physical distancing, because now more than ever you’ll want and need connections to your adult family members and friends—albeit virtually.
Consider setting up get-togethers on a regular basis; this will allow you to put something on the calendar for yourself, giving you something to look forward to. Whether you stay in touch with friends, sisters, parents, or grandparents, to vent or to practice gratitude, everyone is going to need more support, not less, to get through this.
As difficult as it may be, it’s important to take some time each day to ask yourself what you need to manage your stress. Put on your oxygen mask first, so to speak. As you settle into a workable family routine, try to create little opportunities within each day to meet your own needs. If reading calms you, consider adopting a “drop everything and read” period of time during the day for you and your children. Or choose an audiobook every member of the family will enjoy listening to.
Perhaps revisit what experts like me say to parents of newborns. Sleep when they sleep. It might be tempting to watch the news or scroll social media once your children go to bed, but likely that will ramp you up right before you try to get some rest.
If going online allows you a mental break from your worries, then consider taking an online class in the field of your choosing. Many universities and colleges are offering free classes right now. Broadway online is making available previously taped plays and musicals, also free of charge. And there are a number of museums offering virtual tours of their collections. (See links below.)
Just be sure to limit your time online so you can get some rest too. A rested you is a more patient you. And stamina will surely be required to contend with the extended period of time you’ll be spending in close contact with your children.
This unprecedented health crisis is scary for everyone—and for some children more than others. Children who struggle to manage change or handle the unexpected, children who worry, or those who are particularly sensitive or prone to negative moods, will likely have more difficulty managing so much uncertainty. The way to support your children emotionally involves taking your cues from them.
Noted educator Maria Montessori called this guidance: Follow the child. Practically speaking, it means observing your children for stress and anxiety and then noting what you see in simple, age-appropriate, and fact-based ways. Consider saying things like, “You look sad (or worried).” Or, “When I’m worried about something I don’t know a lot about, I like a hug (or to take my mind off my worries by reading a book, exercising, or playing a game).” Or, “What one thing could I do for you right now that would make you feel a little better?”
Building the emotional resilience to face adversity involves tuning into your children’s feelings, recognizing your own, and talking openly about how feelings come and feelings go. It also calls for leaning into what your children need intellectually. Which means it helps to regularly remind them that all questions are welcome.
It’s fine to acknowledge that you may not always have all the answers; still, it’s important to be honest, while also helping your children turn worried thoughts and anxious feelings into positive action. Children, like adults, cope best when they practice gratitude and compassion, when they know how to tap their creativity to turn aspects of a crisis into opportunities for doing good. Consider enlisting your child’s help to build routines for daily life or to do nice things for neighbors—of course, from a distance.
While it may be challenging to provide consistent routines around bedtime, mealtime, and screen time—and this is definitely the time to make some exceptions and have a bit of fun—some adherence to clear expectations goes a long way toward helping your children feel like you have everything under control. Even when you feel like you don’t! Of course, daily schedules need not look anything like ordinary life, but some regular, age-appropriate routines and definite, clear, non-negotiable boundaries will help your children behave well and feel safe.
It’s important to remember that your children will always look to you to learn how to respond to life’s stressful events. As difficult as this time is—and as uncertain as things may be—you have an enormous opportunity to teach your children positive preventative physical and emotional health measures; to offer specific ways to talk about fears and feelings; and to give your children strategies to cope that will last a lifetime.