So many of us feel deflated now. We expected things to calm down eventually, only to be thrown back into further chaos. We are tired, disappointed, finished coping. And, if we feel this, how should our children feel? At least we can put things into perspective (sort of). We are adults; we are used to disappointment. But the children?
In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Association of Children’s Hospitals declared a “national emergency” for child and adolescent mental health.
“Across the country, we have seen a dramatic increase in emergency room visits for all mental health emergencies, including suspected suicide attempts,” they wrote. And that was before Omicron took over.
So I spoke to Dr. Chase Samsel, medical director of the Boston Children’s Hospital Psychiatry Consult Service, for ideas on how to weather this wave – and how to support our children while we’re quietly (or not so quietly) losing ). inside.
Adopt “good enough” parenting. Very few people are at the top of their game right now. There’s nothing wrong with being temporarily mediocre and performing at the pure baseline.
“The concept of good enough parenting is really key,” he says. “What children need most, no matter how old or young they are, is a supportive, nurturing environment and active coping skills. … Supporting and validating children, as well as empowering them with ‘Active coping, are the two most important things I think parents can do, in addition to meeting their basic needs.
Everything else — trips, events that might be canceled, vacations on hold, play dates that have to be away — are secondary.
Keep things in perspective. So your child has come home from school, can’t play sports for a week, or a plan has been completely upset. It’s incredibly disruptive, but remember this: One American child loses a caregiver for every four COVID deaths.
“I think we often focus on, ‘Oh, well, school and routine are disrupted.’ And listen: This is absolutely a big deal. It’s essential. It’s important. But…there are so many families whose financial means have been significantly disrupted, either because they are sick, they have been made redundant, or it is not safe for them to continue working because they have a child or other family member they are caring for who has a vulnerable health condition at home” , Samsel said.
The most devastating disruptors for children are parental illness and socioeconomic upheaval, as well as the death of a loved one. Botched vacations or aimless iPad sessions will hopefully be absorbed and forgotten over time.
Showing your emotions can inspire children to show theirs too. That said, it’s natural to be upset that this pandemic has raged endlessly. It’s good to express it too. It’s called modeling, and it helps children understand that frustration, anger, fear, and disappointment are normal parts of being human.
“It can be OK to have big emotions. It can be normal to feel insecurities and to feel scared and angry. Emotions aren’t things that we bottle up and keep moving forward,” Samsel says.
Nor should these great emotions be reserved for in-depth discussions. They can happen organically, perhaps driving to school (assuming you have school).
Ask questions that will elicit a meaningful response. We’ve all been there: “How was your day?” “Fine.” End of generic story. Nowadays, try this.
“When we talk with our children, we should ask them specific questions: ‘Tell me about something today that you were really happy about and tell me about something today that was really difficult’ “, suggests Samsel.
Then do the same for yourself: share something that got you excited and something that frustrated you. Normalize emotions.
“Be specific and intentional about those emotions, frustrations, and worries,” he says.
Be honest. Children can naturally be worried about getting sick – and it can be tempting to reassure themselves. Instead, practice compassionate honesty. Your children could still get sick, even if they are vaccinated. They might need to stay home from school.
“In these times, the most important concept about this is: don’t make promises that can’t be kept. Especially during times of uncertainty, there is often an incentive to simply say, ‘It will be fine.’ It won’t happen,” says Samsel.
Instead, you can say, “No matter what, we’ll find a solution.” Samsel often sees children having panic attacks, saying things like, “I never thought this could happen. Parents, meanwhile, rush to brush off any worries with promises.
“We call it a kindness mistake: it’s from a caring place, but if you can’t guarantee it, especially now, don’t say it,” he warns. “It’s much better to be honest and talk about the ways we can still be okay.”
So lean into the worry: “Even if it happens, we’re going to do X, Y and Z” – this disarms the anxiety a bit, or at least even if the child is still anxious, it shows them that we can work through it. It’s not just about getting around the problem,” says Samsel.
This notion of openness and flexibility is an important lesson for children and adults.
“Parents can’t control everything and we have to show our children that sometimes things don’t work out. Sometimes you’re not in control, and that’s okay. It will get better. It might be a bit of a promise, but it’s not a major promise that’s doomed to fail,” he says.
Harness the power of no. The parents are exhausted now. As such, it’s a great time for parents to set boundaries and practice self-respect, both for ourselves and as a teaching tool for children.
“Detach yourself from some things that are not necessary right now. Say “no” to some things you think you should do, but don’t need to do or don’t have to do right now. Bend down, so you can do the things that are most important,” he says.
Get rid of the hook a bit. Get rid of unnecessary obligations. Refuse things that aren’t worth your time.
“We can’t be super moms. We can’t be super dads. We are not unlimited in our potential. We’re not a Marvel superhero character, but we can be pretty good parents who also show our kids that they themselves don’t have to say ‘yes’ to everything and push themselves either,” he said.
Remember that children are resilient. “There is a concept in neurology and psychiatry where we talk about how children have plastic brains. This means that if a child for some terrible reason has a stroke, [they] can actually rehabilitate quite well both physically and psychologically when they’re young,” says Samsel, unlike older people who are more set in their ways.
The same is true during the pandemic. For example, the use of masks in small children can lead to delays in appreciating social cues, but they compensate over time, he says.
“Children are constantly growing. It’s not a line of arrested development,” says Samsel.
For context: He works with children who have cancer or need organ transplants. Some of them are isolated or interrupted for years – longer than the pandemic. Let them be a lesson.
“They have disruptions happening to them…before they’re 12, all the time, and there are so many twists and turns – and it’s almost always when [they] have good enough parents. Doesn’t have to be perfect. They meet the basic needs and [provide] ongoing opportunities for social engagement and play,” he says.
So the next time you’re trying to work while watching your child play on an iPad during daycare’s third straight cancellation, remember, “I think kids bounce back. I think they really do,” says Samsel.
Hopefully adults will too.
Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.