PENELOPE NORTON, PH.D.
What are parents to do in this season of such high levels of anxiety and distress for our families? Many children were already worried about school shooter drills, hurricanes and our current political landscape before COVID added yet another page to families’ distress. Children and teens feel not only their own distress, but the distress of their parents, peers, and extended families. Returning to school during hurricane, COVID, and political conflict season 2020 continues the challenge of creating security and calm for children in the midst of this chaotic landscape.
First, structure and ritual create security and calm. Within the family, routines that everyone can count on counteract the lack of predictability of the outside world. Families who eat at least one daily meal together have healthier, more secure children. Schedules that include wake up time, meal time, homework time and bedtime offer predictability during these unpredictable times. Bedtime routines, such as reading bed time stories for younger children, encouraging reading at bedtime for older kids and teens, or intentionally saying good night to one another, are particularly important in encouraging both security and sufficient sleep. Rituals such as weekly family game night, family chores, or family spiritual participation strengthen family bonds and offer a buffer against distress. And, adhering to predictable boundaries, rules and limits, even though parents may be tempted to relax standards, adds yet another dose of security for children and teens.
During times of distress, families may feel that there is less time or energy for family recreation. Due to economics, COVID constraints, or the additional burdens of hurricane preparedness or homeschooling, it can seem easier to skip family recreation. However, during stressful times, it is helpful to increase opportunities for fun. These need not be costly trips to theme parks. Family time spent in nature, particularly in areas surrounded by trees or near water have been shown to reduce stress in children and adults. Natural spaces also provide opportunity to focus on the five senses, a simple technique for reducing stress. Recreational exercise such as bicycle riding, swimming or even playing catch can reduce anxiety and create more restful sleep. Laughter from television or movie comedies creates resilience for individuals as well as for family units. In fact, ratios of five positive experiences (fun, affirmation, relaxed connection) for every one negative experience (limit setting, discipline, sharing distress) create thriving families.
Third, gather the family’s support team. Even with COVID, grandparents can read to grandchildren online, extended families can celebrate birthdays and holidays through online connection. Phone or video conversations that provide support and understanding to parents can significantly reduce parenting stress. Relying exclusively on the members of one’s household during stressful times increases the internal pressure on family relationships at a time when everyone is already strained. Aunts or uncles, neighbors, friends and mentors may be able to provide small but stress reducing tasks such as math or reading tutoring, hobby development or fun to give parents and children a break from one another. Recruiting other adults to mentor and connect with teens is particularly helpful, as teens are often more receptive to conversation or advise from non-parent adults. Reaching out early and often to professional resources, such as pediatricians, psychologists, speech and language professionals, ( even online) can resolve small stress points before they become more difficult, and even more stressful to manage. And, of course, children and teens rely on their peers for support as well, needing their own opportunities for connection in whatever means are available (phone, online, socially distanced) to stay healthy and happy. We don’t have to go it alone.
But, with connection, children’s and teens’ fears about differences may emerge. They may be unhappy that their friends are attending school and they are schooling at home, or that they are attending school and their friends are schooling at home. Developing the mindset that there are many right answers helps affirm a particular family’s choices, as well as the choices of other families. Welcoming and encouraging curiosity about differences can reduce fear. Conversations about the ways in which families are unique, such as “Our family always grills chicken on holidays, but they are a vegan family,” or “Our family is into all kinds of sports, and theirs is always making art,” helps solidity the unity and identity of a particular family while reducing fear of those who are different. Every family will handle the current crises in ways that work for them, whether it is political choice, hurricane preparedness, or COVID choices. Every family can have the right answer.
Last, within families, at the dinner tables or in car rides, conversational focus on realistic wants and aspirations are more important than conversations about fears and anxieties. Fear and anxiety may well be present some of the time, but mission focused conversations engender hope. Hope includes elements of creative problem solving …a kind of “what can we do in this situation, how can we find a way to satisfy this want. Hope includes also willpower, celebrating perseverance and grit. Telling family and ancestor stories may include stories of how previous generations got through anxiety provoking times, and how they persevered. Children also delight in their parents’ memories of unique successes, such as how a particular child persevered to learn to ride a bicycle, or cook a simple meal, or even bring up a subject grade. They delight in hearing stories of their parents’ and grandparents’ childhood challenges as well, as not only a source of hope, but also as a source of strength and resilience.
Successfully leading a family through challenging times lays a foundation for future strengths. These examples of providing structure, recreation, team work, openness to differences, and engendering hope are but a few ways for families to thrive in these stormy times. They may be a way to look forward to a time when at a gathering, a family will laugh together about the ways they found to manage 2020.
ABOUT PENELOPE NORTON, PH.D.
Penelope Norton, Ph.D. practices psychology in Ormond Beach. Her practice of over thirty years specializes in psychotherapy with families, children and adults.