By Cari McKnight, MSW, LCSW
As parents, one of our most basic instincts is to try to protect our children, and to help pave the way for them. Living through the Covid-19 pandemic has certainly thrown an interesting curveball to parents in that regard. Sure, there have always been minor frustrations and things that haven’t gone the way that we or our children wanted them to go, but these days we are seeing major interruptions on a very large scale. We’ve seen the heartbreak of high school seniors unable to play their final season or perform their final theatre performances. We’ve seen the challenge of kindergarteners having to start their school experience virtually. We’ve seen middle schoolers’ social lives severely disrupted, college scholarship opportunities lost, and major milestones missed. We’ve seen children lose loved ones to this pandemic. The list of impacts on our children goes on and on. For many of us, this is the first time we are simply unable to fix things and make their world as we want it to be.
So what are we as parents supposed to do? We want to make it right, we want to give them what they have lost. However, much of the time, today, we simply cannot make it so. Truth be told, there will be many times when we will be unable to fix things for our kids – pandemic or not – and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Actually, in some sense, there are tremendous opportunities for growth and development when we teach our children independence and give them the tools to work through hard situations for themselves.
While it is important to make sure that we help keep our children out of harm’s way, in today’s parenting culture it can be very easy to find ourselves trying to fix everything for our children. This over-parenting can rob them of precious lessons; in order to teach our children how to do hard things, we need to let them go through hard times. So perhaps, instead of trying to clear the path for our children, our energies are better directed toward teaching them tools to cope when things don’t go the way they’d like them to go. These disappointments will happen over and over again in their lifetimes, so we need to help them learn to manage disappointing and frustrating situations.
What are some ways that we can stop fixing and start building grit and resilience in our children?
One of the most basic things we can do is to allow our kids to have their emotions about their frustrations and losses. It is absolutely normal for them to feel upset about the many losses and disappointments that they have endured. Even if we think that others have it worse and that our children need to “just deal with it,” their emotions are very real. We need to allow them to grieve, and to be sad or angry.
Sometimes as parents, we are hesitant to let our kids be sad or upset because we don’t want them to get stuck in a negative mindset or wallow in their tears or anger. We want them to focus on being grateful for what they do have. However, until they are allowed fully to feel and acknowledge those emotions, to know that it is safe to do so, and to know that they are heard, it is difficult for them to move forward. Often, if children don’t feel heard, they keep feeling the need to act out or be more dramatic to feel finally heard. When people feel heard and understood, they feel validated. When they feel validated, they are empowered. And when they feel empowered, they gain the strength to handle things better on their own. They can face their own pain, and carry on in the face of that pain.
Once we have acknowledged and validated the complex feelings that they are experiencing, then we can shift the focus and help them learn to find ways to take in the good that is happening in their lives. Even when things go wrong, there are always good things in our lives that we can notice. Our natural tendency is to hold onto the negative things that happen and obsess about those things, playing them over and over in our minds. If we can make a conscious effort to learn to do the same when positive things happen, it can be a game changer. For example, if we can observe how we feel after enjoying something very simple – after a delicious meal, a fun socially distanced interaction, or hearing kind words from a loved one – we can emphasize and deeply ingrain those good feelings. We can replay those moments and download them into our psyche, which helps us hold onto them and increase our sense of well-being. We can do this, and we can help our children learn to do these things if we show them how and guide them.
Another key step is to simply recognize that we have the power to help our kids decide how to react to things that happen to them. We, as parents, are the single biggest influence on how this pandemic will affect our kids, and quite frankly, how many life circumstances will affect them. Our children are watching our reactions to everything – from our interactions with others in the grocery store, to the way we discuss things with our friends, to the comments we make about the school’s decisions. It is so important to model healthy responses to challenges. In simply doing this, we are teaching resilience.
When certain situations seem hopeless, we can teach our kids to think outside of the box. During this pandemic, many of us have had to give up many of our “normal” ways of doing things. However, this does not mean that we have to give up those interests entirely. We can be creative and find ways to do versions of the activities that we are missing right now. Examples of this could be helping our children plan Zoom birthday parties or encouraging them to set up outdoor socially distanced meet ups with friends. We can help them see that just because we have always done things a certain way doesn’t mean we can’t do it differently and still have a rewarding experience.
In the face of adversity, we can also offer coping techniques that our children may not yet have mastered. For example, instead of allowing them to cope by eating their emotions or numbing out on electronics, introduce them to some new coping tools. We can model and suggest some new ways for them to feel better when they get down or disappointed. Some ideas of alternative coping skills are going out for a walk, Face Timing a friend, playing a family board game, practicing yoga, going outside to shoot hoops, using the Calm app to learn mindfulness, or journaling. If we show our children that these strategies can be fun and helpful, they may learn to utilize these healthy methods for themselves.
When we feel overwhelmed, it is critical to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers. Never before have there been so many unknowns, and as parents, that can be scary. However, it is important to be honest, and learn to say that we don’t know what will happen next or why things didn’t go their way. In order to do this, we need to try to work through our own discomfort with uncertainty. Whether we realize it or not, kids pick up on our emotions. If we feel anxious, they tend to absorb that. If, instead, we try to tackle our own difficult emotions that are being brought to the surface and work to accept and embrace the uncertainty around us, this can be such a gift to our kids. If we work through that for ourselves, or if necessary, with the help of a therapist, we are much better equipped to be present and straightforward with our children.
This pandemic has been incredibly hard on so many of us, for numerous different reasons. As parents, we need to give ourselves plenty of compassion and grace, especially now. This is a time where we are being faced with impossibly difficult choices and don’t know what is right or wrong. Should I have my child do virtual or in-person school? Should I allow play dates and sleepovers? Should I let my child go to basketball practice? We need to be able to trust that we are doing the best we can on the things that are within our control, and then allow our children to learn the lessons that are so abundant in the things that are not currently within control.
Despite the overwhelming challenges that this past year has brought, there are some glimmers of positivity that we can glean from this time. Maybe, in the end, we will look back at this and see that it was an opportunity for us to grow as parents and to instill some lifelong skills in our youth. This pandemic has changed the world, and each of us…but perhaps in some good ways. If we can teach our children how to grieve, push through, and persevere, it might just be one of the best gifts we will ever give to them.
Cari McKnight, MSW, LCSW received her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Iowa and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She specializes in private therapy for adults, adolescents, couples, and families dealing with relationship/interpersonal difficulties. She also provides mental health therapy for issues such as depression, anxiety, grief, and trauma, among many others. Cari utilizes a variety of therapeutic techniques, but finds tremendous value in doing emotion-focused work so that authentic growth and lasting change can occur. In addition, Cari offers presentations and seminars to schools and other organizations on a variety of topics. She has extensive experience in mental health treatment and is passionate about helping others create balance and happiness in their lives.