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COVID-19 is affecting everybody. Everyday. Beyond fears for the survival of loved ones, concern for especially vulnerable populations, as well as heartfelt gratitude for the healthcare workers, I think about the profound impact on families.
Those with young kids who are lucky enough to migrate to online work now have their work tripled — breadwinner, homeschool teacher, and child care provider. Children thrive on routine and predictability, as well as have an innate ability to sense stress. Their response can be to resist basic directions, annoy a sibling, or let out all of their stress and confusion in full-scale meltdowns. Frequently.
Those with teenagers who are developmentally wired to individuate, explore, and connect with peers are suddenly stuck under the same roof with an angry or sullen one (or more) of them. Processing the loss of teenage milestones such as prom, college campus visits, and potentially even graduation can be at the center of their world right now, which may seem callous compared to the rising numbers of people dying on a daily basis.
These are challenging times for parents. Given the unprecedented level of financial, emotional, physical, and even existential stress all at once, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all of the things we cannot control. However, focusing on the things we can control can help dial down the stress and allow us to take in the unique opportunities that Shelter in Place can offer. To do this, it’s helpful to remember to put on our masks first.
Breathe. Hold. Release. Repeat. By activating your parasympathetic nervous system (the calming part of your nervous system), you naturally regulate yourself, which is a gift to all those around you who will regulate in response. Take a bath, light a candle, hold a pet, listen to calming music, find what works for you.
Take care of yourself. Attempt to nourish your mind, body, and spirit every day. The structure of doing so can be calming and help focus you on the things you can control. Strengthen and calm your mind: commit to learning something new, declutter part of the house, avoid bingeing on the news. Feed your body: stretch, move, find a rhythm, and sink into moments of calm. Cultivate your spirit: deepen the connection with yourself (be kind, do art, meditate) and others (video conferencing is the new happy hour, write letters to seniors, make masks for doctors). Explore new rituals to start and end the day that is filling rather than depleting (light a candle, Five Minute Journal, 20-second hug).
Develop a mindfulness practice. Eliminating commutes, after school activities, and all of the other frenzy from our lives leaves us with the bare essentials, the stuff that grounds us. Home-cooked meals, family dinners, walks, seeing neighbors, starting a garden, being in nature, connecting with loved ones. Take it in. Be in the moment. Celebrate your experience right now and find gratitude in the little things.
Have compassion, especially for yourself. These are unprecedented times. There is not a manual for parenting, let alone parenting in a pandemic. Be gentle with yourself, ease up on your expectations, let alone those of your kids. Dial-up the loving energy and tell the self-critic to take a hike. Try a loving-kindness meditation and find ways to celebrate mistakes for the lessons they impart. And when the enormity of it all hits, don’t fight the need to cry, take a nap or just retreat for a while.
Prioritizing your own well-being will allow you to be a more grounded and patient parent, just what your kids need in this challenging time. Your regulating presence helps keep them from escalating to fight, flight, or freeze responses and enables them to stay in their “window of tolerance,” which is the ideal state for connecting, playing, and learning. Also, you are modeling how to handle stress, a gift that will keep on giving throughout their lives.
After securing your own mask, your children might want to try one on as well. They may enjoy brainstorming their list of ways to nourish their mind, body, and spirit. Cook a new food together, try a kid’s meditation, family dance party, devise an online bingo party with distant family, “swim” with the sharks, try animal yoga postures, “visit” a museum. Teenagers especially are looking for breaks from screens as they burn out of online class and the single-minded nature of social media right now. They might welcome a family game night, lead the family in a pushup contest, make friendship bracelets, start a new hobby, teach the dog a new trick.
We are all in this together. Try on your mask, see how it feels. It might encourage others to do so as well.