Several weeks ago, I wrote a piece exploring the idea that rewards might be a tool of abuse and, therefore, something parents would be wise to avoid. In the aftermath, I was asked “Isn’t Smiling a Reward?” in the context of pushback from a reader who suggested that there is no way to avoid rewards in parenting. I will grant that the issue is complicated. Of course it is. We’re dealing with human brains! So, I dug a little deeper to better understand if and how rewards might be utilized within the context of peaceful parenting.
The first thing I know innately is that we are social beings. We seek to engage with others of our species as a primitive drive. We use facial expressions and body language to communicate whether other humans are in our circle or not. So, it stands to reason that we would take pleasure from expressions that indicate our inclusion into our preferred social group. With that idea in mind, I took to the science.
Here’s what I learned. Our brains have a reward center that uses the languages of dopamine and serotonin, two crucial neurotransmitters, to translate our experiences into something our minds can grasp physically. Brainfacts.org explains, “Dopamine-producing neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) communicate with neurons in the nucleus accumbens in order to evaluate rewards and motivate us to obtain them.” In simple terms, the nucleus accumbens is a structure in the basal forebrain that scientists believe translates external stimuli into understandable gains, which allows us instinctively to recognize which behaviors are more likely to attain rewards and which ones are not. Check out this quick explanation:
We do not have to think to make the reward center of our brain operate. It is a very basic and very old system that operates behind the scenes. We may not even realize that our experiences are subtly altering our behavior. (And, this is why behaviorism is so effective, albeit harmful, for humans.)
In this sense, yes, a parent smiling at a child does activate the reward center in the brain; therefore, yes, smiling is a reward in the same way eating is a reward and sleeping is a reward and street drugs are a reward and so on. The term “reward” in this context means a reinforcer that encourages a person to return to the same behavior over and over again. However, when we talk about a “reward” in the context of peaceful parenting, what we mean is reinforcer that artificially manipulates a child into behaving in a way we prefer. For instance, providing candy for using the potty or saying “good job” to a child who has cleaned his room. These rewards offer temporary elation and encourage our kids to both crave our attention and unthinkingly submit to our authority.
Peaceful parents do not offer rewards in an effort to mold behavior. Instead of extrinsic (or external) motivation, we prioritize intrinsic (or internal) motivation. We know that extrinsic rewards are demotivating and that children will require more and more payoff to accomplish the same tasks the farther along we go. We don’t bribe our children with candy. If we give them candy, it is not a perk for connecting with interoceptive signals. It is an opportunity to sit around the table as a family and practice eating intuitively. We don’t pay our kids to do chores. If we provide an allowance, it is not an exchange for a job well done. It is an opportunity to learn financial responsibility.
And, we know this is the healthiest way to interact with our children, because science confirms it. A 2009 study found that people with low self esteem who engaged in positive self-statements such as “I am a lovable person” ended up immediately descending into self-deprecation when the self-praise conflicted with their concept of self. Empty praise backfires.
Alternatively, a 2016 study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience looked at the effects of self-affirmation, which involves dwelling on values rather than pointing out personal qualities. Participants were asked to “Please think about an experience involving [VALUE].” That exercise was then followed by visualization and thinking about the experience they’d had. The result was an increase in positive self-worth, which was even stronger when participants considered future events rather than past ones.
Turns out that self-affirmation improves function in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and posterior cingulate (PCC), two areas the deal with self-referential processing (i.e. the parts of the brain that allow us to engage in mindfulness). These increases made the participants more resilient against any negative information that came later. This is why it is always more effective for children when we talk about values and efforts versus toward a future vision than when we talk about personal qualities and snapshot accomplishments. Both affirmations and praise activate our brain’s reward center, but only one insulates us against negative self-worth.
When we smile at our children out of sheer joy at their existence, it is rewarding to their brains, but it is not an effort to coercively manage their behavior. So, please, smile at your kids, hug them, love on them, and affirm them. In doing so, you will build up their self-esteem in a way that can make it unshakeable.
Something I hear a lot from y’all is that you don’t really feel qualified to call yourself a peaceful parent. Why? Because sometimes you snap and yell or threaten or punish. You think that faltering in your efforts means you aren’t worthy of the moniker, and you think you’re ruining your children. Have I got that right?
If that’s what you think, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. By those parameters, I’m not a peaceful parent either. I mean, have y’all met my temper?! I can go from whispering affirmations to hollering in ten seconds flat. It’s a stress-relief pathway I’m working to deconstruct because it is helping no one. Here’s what you’ve got to understand. There’s peaceful parenting, the concept… the state we are all seeking to achieve. Then there are peaceful PARENTS… human beings who are striving to break cycles and heal wounds. And, well, human beings are a muddle of past traumas, subconscious reactions, and patchy worldviews. We are also thinking, compassionate, connected creatures. We can be all of these things at the same time and still be worthy and wonderful. The trick is to exist in a constant state of examination. Why did I react that way? How could I have done things better? What must happen to restore this relationship?
Of course, it’s not ok to hurt people. I’m not excusing the harm we inflict on the people closest to us, but I do want y’all to consider a different perspective. To see yourself in a different light. If there’s one guarantee in parenting, it’s that we’re going to mess up. Our kids are going to have plenty of stories to tell about what we did wrong. And, if we continue on this peaceful parenting walk, our kids will also be self-assured, secure, and brave. They will see the way we respond to our own flawed behavior and it will inform their future choices.
Parenthood ebbs and flows. One moment, our hearts expand until we feel we can’t bear it. We shower our children with affection and easily navigate the challenges. Then something changes. We feel more distant. They start to annoy us. And, we feel we might explode from the frustration. And, somewhere in between, there are moments when we coast along with our kids in a neutral coexistence. That’s normal for intimate relationships.
Dana Kerford, Friendship Expert and Founder of URSTRONG, seeks to enhance the social-emotional wellbeing of children through friendship skills, but what she’s landed on is a concept that is applicable to all human relationships that involve any sort of intimacy. Her Friend-O-Cycle illustrates the way we draw close and drift apart over the course of a friendship. We can be going along just fine and suddenly a metaphorical fire erupts. Maybe it’s a comment we received negatively. Maybe it’s a perceived snub we didn’t understand. Whatever has happened, the fire itself shouldn’t really even be our focus. Rather, we should be preparing to put the fire out in a healthy way. Kerford recommends confronting the issue directly, talking it out, and then moving on.
Of course, when it comes to parent-child relationships, the process is more complicated than it would be between two young friends. And, so, we keep trying. We search past our egos and find anchor points upon which to reconnect with our children. We bond and we love, all the while recognizing that we’re going to do the same thing over and over and over, because this is what it means to be human. At no point along this journey are you unqualified to call yourself a peaceful parent. Keep going.
Several days ago, I shared a post from Dr. Rebecca Kennedy, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. I found there was quite a bit of discomfort about what she said among parents. And, a couple of my friends even private messaged me to clarify for themselves what the meme meant for them and their kids. Before you read on, I want you to be thinking about your own emotional awareness and see if what she says was also true of your childhood.
I saw clearly what she was talking about because I experienced it as a child and vowed never to do it to my own children. As someone who has had to heal from emotional manipulation both as a child and an adult, let me say this first:
OTHER PEOPLE ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR EMOTIONS
So many of us don’t understand this, because we’ve been conditioned from childhood to believe that our impact on other people matters more than our ability to recognize and adjust what is happening inside of us. BOTH of these things are important and children understand neither until we show them. There’s an entire industry around “emotional intelligence” and re-teaching adults how to look into themselves to better understand how to relate to others. We wouldn’t need to be trained in emotional intelligence if we learned about it organically as children.
Everything we do here at Peace I Give is centered on the idea that behavior is communication and that children need our support more than they need our chastisement. I recently wrote a how-to on emotion coaching that may be of some use to those of you who are reading this and feeling uncertain about how to address behaviors that impact you negatively. I am not saying it’s ok for children to do hurtful things to us. I’m saying that, as parents, our first step has to be to help them understand why they are lashing out and resolve the root issue. The behavior is merely a symptom.
Within our healthy adult relationships, it’s good to talk with each other in times of peace about our feelings. I can tell my husband that, when he behaves in a certain way, it triggers feelings of sadness or anger in me without being concerned that he will take on the responsibility of being my therapist. He understands the impact of his behavior and can choose to make a change once he knows something he did was not appreciated. Know what else I do that is not healthy? Sometimes, in my frustration, I say things like “You obviously don’t care what I think” and “Do you even love me?” This is emotional manipulation and I daresay most of us do it from time to time when we are not in a good place psychologically. It comes from emotional immaturity, which I still struggle with as a fully grown adult because healthy emotional responses weren’t modeled for me consistently as a child. I am in the process now of reparenting myself.
Just like adults, children can understand their impact on other people when we have conversations with them in times of peace. However, that’s not usually what happens. Usually, we react to our children’s behavior in the heat of the moment, attaching our emotions to their behavior by telling them how they made us feel. They may change their behavior as a result, but not to improve as people. Any change that follows is meant to avoid upsetting others and that breeds codependency. With children, we need to address the behavior and name the emotion in order to build the emotional awareness they so desperately need for positive mental health.
When we point to our emotions in addressing a child’s behavior, it is a form of control. If our kids are lashing out, something is going wrong and our first step has to be to help them figure it out. Once that connection is made, we can circle back around as needed to let them know what their impact was without creating a situation where they have to console us. If we want to teach our children empathy, we have to SHOW them empathy first.
Kids can say some really hurtful things to us like “I don’t like you” and “You embarrass me,” which can trigger lots of difficult emotions in us. It’s important to stop and understand that something is happening inside our child that is uncomfortable and may be difficult to express. A friend of mine uses a phrase that might help in these situations. She extends a judgment free invitation to “say more.” Just those two words and then she listens. You could try that next time your child says something that hurts you hard as you engage in emotion coaching to help your child process what it is they’re feeling.
I’ll close with another video. In it, Dr. Kennedy dives deeper into the message behind her earlier meme. She answers several questions, including ones you likely have. Give it a thorough listen and see if anything hits home:
We hear it from moms all the time, “don’t judge me!” So, let’s talk about judgment. Do we really not want judgment to exist? Do we not want it to exist for us?
When we say, “don’t judge me,” what we really mean is “don’t make me feel uncomfortable for my beliefs and my behavior (whether or not I’m doing harm).” We don’t actually want to do away with judgment. After all, it’s why humans exist today. At its core, judgment is a crucial gauge for self-preservation. We look at another person and assess whether or not they are a threat. Is the person wielding a knife and chasing us? That person gets a judgment of “dangerous.” If a person murders a little child, they too get a judgment of “dangerous.” And, that’s not a bad thing. It’s what keeps our society from imploding. We need judgment. See, we really have no problem with judgment when our collective perception of the threat is high enough, but we are often at odds over the threat level inherent in parenting decisions that have longer-terms outcomes.
That’s why we find ourselves taking sides when our basic threat assessment instinct translates into more complex ideas. Should we put our babies down to sleep on their stomachs? Should we put cereal into milk to get a baby to sleep through the night? We know the empirical risk (a higher rate of death for stomach sleepers and cereal drinkers) and we know the science (source and source). So, what do we do with that information? Herein lies the rub. Many parents are willing to make more rational, less risky decisions when they receive information in a neutral manner, especially when they discover it themselves through education. So, the problem isn’t being corrected. The problem is being embarrassed and/or not knowing what else to do. That’s really what leads us to avoid being judged. But we can learn and grow when we listen and lean into the discomfort.
Now, if your goal is drama and shaming, none of what I’m about to say applies to you. There are groups online, like on Facebook, that were created with drama in mind. They are completely uncensored and you subject yourself to roasting when you join, but it’s completely by choice and there are mutual understandings upon entering these groups. And, if you are a member of a marginalized group who needs to express strong emotions, do that. You are not personally responsible for educating anyone, though, when you do, the message is incredibly powerful.
But, if your goal is to let someone know that something they’re doing as a parent is potentially dangerous and encourage a change of heart, try these tips for delivering that uncomfortable, negative feedback:
Separate the Thought/Behavior from the Person. Let’s go ahead and do away with the entire concept of a “shit parent,” mmkay?
Do Not Condemn. While judgment is evaluating where a person stands with respect to your value system, condemnation is forming a negative, often self-righteous, opinion of the person based on your judgment. We are all works in progress and we all have areas of growth. Avoiding condemnation keeps us oriented toward understanding and care.
Adjust Your Attitude. Rather than looking at another person as an ignorant buffoon, see who they really are: someone doing the best they can with the information and resources at their disposal.
Pick Your Moment. This one’s pretty tough, especially for those of us who have some trouble reading social context. But, to the best of your ability, try to offer constructive criticism when a person is not down or on the defensive. No matter how gently you word your remarks to a person who is being harshly criticized, you run the risk of being lump into the dog pile. There’s no harm in waiting for another opportunity.
Be Empathetic. If you don’t understand why a person chooses risky behaviors, find out. But, don’t ask questions simply to pounce. Ask questions to get to know the other person. Also, think about your strategy. Posting a furious message online to someone could elicit thoughtfulness, but most likely won’t. Think about your end goal.
Obtain Consent. Whenever possible, you can prepare the other person by asking “Do you have the energy for some feedback from me?”
Be Direct. It can be hard to tell someone outright how we feel, so there can be a tendency to use compliments to soften the blow. However, they can be received as dishonest. Just get to the point. “I wasn’t sure how to say this, so I’ll just say it…” or “I noticed something I wanted to mention to you…” or “I don’t know if you knew this…”
Affirm the Person. I know I just said don’t compliment and I meant it. Compliments are positive judgments about people. “You look nice today!” Affirmations are expressions of respect. “I know you’re the type of mom who would do anything for you kids, so I wanted to mention something to you…”
Be Prepared to Find Out You’re Wrong. This process goes both ways. We don’t know everything about everything. We see things from a particular perspective that is informed by our knowledge and experience. However, we could well be wrong. For instance, if you throw studies at me about how detrimental screen time is, I’ll probably turn right around and tell you how beneficial video games can be. We can miss nuance when we’re unwilling to listen and, in doing so, we miss opportunities for learning.
Accept That You May Not Be the Right Person for the Job. Different people respond to different things. Have you ever been in a conversation, said something, and then someone else says the same thing in a different way and folks just get it? I’ve been there often. In many cases, I’m not speaking a language the other person needs in order to understand.
Back Off. If you’re not getting through, leave it alone. You have done what you can do and trying to beat the person down with your knowledge will lead only to a broken relationship.
Of course, all of this is based on the strength of your relationship. The closer you are, the harder it is to give negative feedback but the more your words will matter. I have a dear friend who has a very traditional view of parenting. When I first got into Peaceful Parenting (and admittedly couldn’t stop talking about it on social media) this friend was about done with me. In the beginning, we had minor spats about things. Over time, it became something of an inside joke between the two of us that we were so different. But, out of our relationship, I came to better understand the challenges of parenting while Black and she came to appreciate the dangers of spanking. We’re still not on the same page where parenting is concerned, and even if that never happens, we care about each other.
It has always been difficult for me to recognize how others are perceiving me. It’s not that I’m not empathetic. I have deep wells of empathy that leave me washed over with emotion when I let myself feel too much. But, that interpersonal, cognitive empathy continues to elude me to this day. It takes a lot of effort to grasp what’s expected and what people need from me. So, I offer this advice knowing from trial and error how effective it can be. People just want to be seen and cared about. I think we can all do that for each other.
By now, the COVID-19 crisis has touched us all in some way. In the U.S., we’ve inched into the top spot globally for confirmed infections and, I don’t know about you, but I find myself watching the trackers and praying that those “serious” cases resolve into the “recovered” column instead of the “deceased” column. People keep asking when this will be over, but that’s an impossible question to answer. Everything is different now and will never be the same again.
This is a scary time for all of us, adults and children alike. I’m not doomsdaying y’all. Not at all. There is hope and joy both now and on the other side of COVID-19. It just looks different than anything we’ve known in our lifetimes. We’ve never experienced anything like this before and we’ve got to give ourselves grace. You’re not alone. You are seen.
May I ask you about your COVID-19 experience?
Have you yelled at, spanked, or otherwise dealt harshly with your kids?
Have you cried because you’re completely overwhelmed and you can’t see the end?
Have you felt your mental health slipping and/or are you on a medication that no longer feels like it’s working?
Have you backed off limits that you never meant to release and now feel your kids are overrunning your boundaries?
Have you snapped at other people because the situation with your kids is sending you over the edge?
Have you had thoughts about your kids or being a parent that secretly embarrassed you or made you feel ashamed?
Have you voiced any of those thoughts in front of your kids?
Have you become super strict or super lax or some confusing combination of the two?
Have you, at any point during the COVID-19 crisis, felt like a bad or failing parent?
If you answered yes to any of those questions and you’re feeling bad about yourself, I’m here to tell you that you are loved and worthy regardless.
I’ve got some ideas I hope will help and support you, but I truly do want you to give yourself grace. If something doesn’t resonate, please move on and release it. I’m hoping to refresh you, not bog you down more. And, I’ll be very honest. I’m feeling completely inadequate right now in terms of helping y’all when I’m right in the midst of this mess myself. We’re in this together, friends.
This post is separated into two big sections which you can jump to or read straight through. I know we’re all a bit short on time, given the circumstances, so take what you need.
It’s ok not to be ok. It’s ok not to have it together. It’s ok not to feel like your normal self. It’s ok to need more support than usual.
If you’re feeling more tired and unmotivated than usual even though the outside world seems to be slowing down, know that you are under an incredible level of constant stress. There will be moments of happiness, of course, but that overwhelming feeling of just not being able to manage runs like a dark current underneath everything you’re trying to do. It’s all real. Nobody was prepared for how much time and effort it would take to get through the pandemic. We have no experience on which to base our thoughts going into this.
In this incredibly vulnerable experience, you may feel your life resetting. Let it. Some good may be taking place in the background. Even as you worry for your kids, they are experiencing a desperately needed course correction. You are gaining insight into the things in the background that have been draining you. And, you are experiencing what people have experienced throughout time and catastrophe: a readjustment of values. It’s a necessary part of the human condition. As a result, you are bound to be exhausted and jittery and done. None of this is easy and you can’t just relax the days away. No, there’s still much to do but, please, take care of yourselves as you go.
To the essential workers out there, you are profoundly appreciated. We see you on the front lines. We know you can’t slow down and we pray that you remain strong. Bless you all!
You ARE Being Crushed Right Now
Don’t let anyone tell you how you feel or how your family has been affected. What you’re experiencing is absolutely real. I want to acknowledge that at the top and validate your suffering. We’re all struggling, some so much more than others. Some were struggling intensely before this crisis hit and, now… it’s utterly disastrous. There may be plenty of love to go around, but not quite enough resources or energy, so no one (including you) is getting everything they need.
In particular, if you’re a career parent, please understand, you may be feeling like some sort of combined Stay-at-Home/Work-at-Home/Teacher parent. But, you’re not. You are something way beyond. Something that defies definition. You aren’t meant to handle everything all at once like this plus all the emotional turmoil of a global crisis. I admire y’all so much.
I’ve seen some shaming messages floating around social media about how domestically productive we should be right now. Ignore all of it. Who could have anticipated this intense psychological burden, the loss of familiarity, or the feelings of walls closing in on us? Now’s the time to celebrate what we can do and brush off what we can’t.
A special note to my Asian American friends. Your experience in this crisis is different from that of others. Your heightened stress and fear are real and valid. Check out this piece from therapists who have been supporting Asian clients for some ideas on how to manage. If you need to take someone along with you when you go out, DO IT. Please, be careful out there.
Get Your Basics Covered
Prioritize filling your belly, bathing your body, and getting rest. It’s so easy to put our needs to the side when we’re so focused on our children. But, we can’t maintain this workload without making sure our basic needs are met.
If you’ve lost income and are concerned about making sure your family is protected and fed, do what you must and make no excuses for it. Here’s where to go get help:
This situation is directly challenging the American values of consumerism and capitalism. It’s revealing bleak disparities between the haves and have nots. And, it’s making us seriously consider our needs versus our wants. These are extraordinary times. We are face to face with a pivotal moment in history, and it’s painful.
There’s so much worry in the world as it is. Try not to get caught up in the fervor and hypotheses around COVID-19 if they negatively impact your mental health in any way. I encourage you to cut out the areas of social media that cause you distress, at least temporarily. Focus, instead, on what you can do and make that your goal.
Take Inventory of Your Stressors
And, put them in their proper place for the time being. A friend recently posted about no longer being able to hide from fears and stressors, because of the conditions under which we’re currently living. From her own experience, she writes,
Maybe being alone is uncomfortable for you and you’ve always avoided that feeling by socializing with others.
Maybe there are inequities in your domestic partnership that you normally brush under the rug but that aren’t sustainable now.
Maybe there have always been boundary issues with a person in your life (like a parent) that you can normally tolerate but that’s becoming increasingly untenable.
Maybe the ways you normally cope with an [eating disorder] aren’t available to you right now and you need to find new, more evolved methods.
Maybe slowing down is really difficult for you because momentum and adrenaline are how you’re able to get through the day and feel like you did enough.
As you encounter unavoidable, mental health-killing circumstances, take a few minutes here and there to write out what’s happening so that you can deal with these issues when you’re not in the middle a crisis situation. If there is any silver lining to this terrible cloud, it’s that we’re being brought face to face with all the things we’ve been running from. So, fortify your boundaries as you need and prioritize yourself. There will be time to tackle all of these things in the future. Now is the time to pare down and deal with what’s right in front of you.
If you know someone who is in danger due to the spike in domestic violence, the national hotline number is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). And, the child abuse hotline is 1-800-4ACHILD (422-4453).
Lower Your Expectations
No matter how prepared any of us might have thought we were for a major disaster like COVID-19, no one was actually prepared and nothing that’s happening is normal. If you’ve been beating yourself up because you haven’t been able to keep your house clean or because your children are spending too much time indoors on screens, stop. Stop right now. Do whatever must be done and let the rest go. If it would improve your mental health, consider planning out how you can accomplish the things you want to do, keeping in mind that your plan can include getting things done after the crisis is over. You don’t need to be everything and do everything right now just because the country is at an apparent standstill. If your mental health is off, and you can’t handle any more than you’re already doing, it’s ok. Ask for help where you can and let the rest go.
By the same token, do what you need to do in order to feel more in control. You may need more structure and routine or you may need less. Don’t feel guilty for scrolling right past all the advice for how to better organize your time or pandemic school… er “homeschool” your kids (Sidebar: No one is really homeschooling right now. Homeschool is an academic and social venture. What we’re doing is something much more strained.) Do whatever it is you have to do in order to get by.
Find An Escape
“Silly” self-care ideas like bubble baths and long walks may actually be exactly what you need. And, for the record, they aren’t silly. You may be craving a long, hot shower. Take one after your kids go to sleep. Do it and don’t worry about anything else for a few moments. Just focus on yourself. The shower is a great place for a good cry if you need that emotional release. After all, tears can be healing. The same goes for taking a walk, meditating in nature, reading a book, taking a short drive, baking some cookies, and so on. Whatever small things you can do each day to stop hyperfocusing on what’s bothering you even if just for a few minutes can be the refresh that you need.
YouTube is rich with hundreds of thousands of hours of practices that can help improve your ability to manage your stress and anxiety levels. Here are just a handful of those videos:
This escape could also come in the form of therapy. So many therapists are doing telesessions right now. It’s entirely worth the effort to get real help from a real person. And, realistically, your therapist can do a whole lot more for you than I can in this little blog post.
Our children all know something’s up by now. Some seem mostly oblivious. Some seem curious. And, some seem concerned. These are all natural responses to such big changes. As parents, we can help our kids navigate this challenging time with some kid-friendly psychology in mind.
If you have about an hour to listen to a talk, I strongly recommend checking this one out. Otherwise, read on!
Turn Your Attention to Healing
You’re going to mess up with your kids right now. I can’t imagine a way we wouldn’t while our brains are swimming in a sea of stress. So, apologize. Often. Let your children know you will make mistakes and they will make mistakes and you can love each other through it anyway. Voice it. Tell them how important they are to you and how glad you are that they’re in your life. Tell them how much their presence lifts your spirits and that you’re grateful to have an amazing family like yours. Try to find moments to build them up because, in doing so, you will build your relationship and provide them with the connection they’re craving right now. And, perhaps, you’ll even soothe some of those big emotions that are responsible for the blow-ups you and your children are experiencing. There’s no downside to telling a child how much they’re loved. And, please remember, children are resilient and traumatic stress is not a given. So, if you’ve been worried that you’re “ruining” your kids during this difficult time, let those concerns go and look for ways to connect and restore. Heal together.
Hear What Kids Are Saying
Don’t be afraid to talk with your child. Listen to what they’re saying. Sometimes we can project our own fears onto our kids and misinterpret what they mean. Right now, we need to be listening carefully to what our kids are actually saying and asking us. When they ask questions, answer only the question that’s been asked. Listen and get at what fears underlie the things they say.
A friend recently told me about how her children were talking about their own illnesses from a few months ago. This is called generalizing which is when humans take a new piece of information and apply it more broadly to enhance understanding. If children don’t have a great deal of experience with sickness, they may try to recall the last time they or a loved one fell ill. Don’t be alarmed if your child does this. They’re likely trying to fully grasp what’s happening and you can use it to help them by letting them know that, yes, they were sick so they know what it’s like not to feel well.
Hear What They’re Not Saying
Children’s anxiety tends to manifest in ways that do not involve them saying frankly, “I am anxious.” Here are some of the things to watch for that could signal anxiety if they seem new or especially enhanced right now:
Appearing afraid in everyday situations where they didn’t before
Refusing to communicate
Refusing to eat or becoming neurotic about food
Stomachaches, headaches, and/or elevated pulse
Unusual irritability or lashing out
Increased question asking
If you aren’t a mental health professional, don’t worry. You can help counter some of your child’s anxiety at home. And, if it gets to be too much and you’re concerned for your child, many therapists are doing televisits, so you don’t have to leave your home to get help.
If you’re not already in a new routine, try getting your family on a schedule. For some families, an hour by hour schedule helps keep a good rhythm going. For others, the thought of a strict schedule shuts you down. Don’t panic! General guidelines for when the family will wake, eat, and do everything else in between would be perfectly ok. The goal is to develop a cadence to this new life we’re living temporarily. It’s important to maintain boundaries and expectations, and it’s also important to be flexible and understanding.
As for school, I absolutely encourage you to make sure your kids are keeping up with expectations especially out of respect for the work your children’s teachers are doing in the background, but I can’t stress enough that other things are also important. While the world is on pause, you may have a greater opportunity to connect with your kids (and other members of your family) in a way that you’ve literally never had before.
Get Them Connected and Proactive
I’ve seen some wonderful memes recently that remind us that we’re not socially isolated but rather physically isolated. Try to find ways to get your kids connected to trusted adults and their peers. Phone calls and video chats are great. Gaming that involves interacting with other players is another option. Your kids may have some ideas you haven’t even thought of, so ask!
And, remind them that they can help defeat this viral foe. We’ve likely all seen those memes about handwashing to various songs. They’re funny AND TRUE. Teaching kids about hygiene (handwashing, sneezing into the elbow, sanitizing doorknobs, and the like) is a great way to give them something concrete to do in response to feelings of helplessness.
Choose Family-Based Solutions
If your kids are at each other’s throats and angry with you at the same time, call upon the strength of your family to make a way. I was speaking with a friend who has really been struggling to meet her children’s needs. They all seem to need her at once and they’re taking out their pent up anxiety on each other in the form of aggression. She feels outnumbered.
We talked about this situation offering a chance to teach the kids about graciousness and empathy, not just for her as their mother, but also for each other. I suggested working with the kids to come up with a code phrase, like “Activate Empathy!” which would be a signal for everyone to either look around for someone to help or to stop where they are and ask their mother how they can help. Whatever works for the family.
Be Honest and Age Appropriate (But Don’t Reveal More Than Needed)
Make sure you know where your kids are getting their information about COVID-19. If they are becoming consumed with the news, try to find ways to reduce their information intake. For some kids, it may decrease anxiety to keep an eye on things. In such a case, you can work out how that’s going to look and what they should do if something scares them.
If you’re struggling to find the words to respond to your children’s concerns about COVID-19, start by trying to ascertain what your child already knows. From there, encourage your child to ask questions. Check out this video from the Child Mind Institute:
Work Toward Empathetic Reframing
If you’ve been practicing Peaceful Parenting techniques, you’ve likely had some exposure to offering empathetic reassurance without making promises you can’t guarantee. If not, click here to read a brief overview of how to provide reassurance in a healthy way. It may feel easiest to tell our kids they have nothing to worry about, but the reality is that they do. We all do. And we can do something about it! When your child gives you their version of a doomsday scenario or asks a difficult questions, reframe and de-escalate. For a fantastic explanation of this concept, check out this message from Dr. Tina Payne Bryson.
With her message in mind, let’s try fielding a few questions. Remember, there are no perfect responses. Just answers couched in our best effort to give our kids feelings of safety rather than fear.
For Younger Children: First ask, “What do you think is happening?” and see where your child stands. If you can use the information they are able to articulate, you’re well on your way to helping them understand. If you need a quick script, try this. “There’s a teeny, tiny little germ that’s making people sick with a cough, so everyone is staying at home to be safe and not get sick.”
For Older Children: If your child is ready for more information, I recommend choosing an existing child-friendly video to explain what COVID-19 is. Brain Pop has a section on their website that presents information about COVID-19 in the form of a school lesson, complete with vocabulary and a quiz plus other cool features. Allowing an older child to view this information in a simulated school assignment may provide some distance so it’s not as scary.
When will this be over?
For Younger Children: It won’t last forever! We’re going to do our part to be safe, so we can get back to normal very soon.
For Older Children: By keeping ourselves clean and giving people six feet of space from us whenever we go out, we’ll be able to conquer the sickness and this will be over very soon.
Is school closed forever? Are all the teachers sick?
For Younger Children: School isn’t closed forever and your teachers aren’t all sick. We’re staying home so we can keep ourselves safe and help doctors and nurses do their jobs.
For Older Children: The people who run the school have closed the building to make sure students stay safe right now. Some teachers might be sick, but not all. For now, we’re going to keep doing schoolwork assigned by your teacher to make sure you know everything you’re supposed to know.
Can I go to the park?
For Younger Children: Response: (Depending on your area’s social distancing requirements…) Sure, we can go to the park and walk around! The playground is closed, though, so let’s go see if we can find some ladybugs.
For Older Children: (Depending on your area’s social distancing requirements…) Yes, walking around outside is ok. You’ll see some areas sectioned off, since the city wanted to keep everyone safe from sharing germs on the equipment.
Why can’t I see my friends?
For Younger Children: I know you miss your friends a lot and you want to play with them. Just like us, your friends are safe at home for a while. How about we find a friend to video chat with?
For Older Children: I know it’s hard to be apart from the people who make you feel your best. In order to keep everyone as safe and healthy as possible, it’s important for us all to stay home for a while. How about reaching out to them?
If I hug you, will you get sick?
For Younger Children: Come get a hug! One of the reasons we’re sticking to ourselves right now is so that we can talk and cuddle as much as we want to.
For Older Children: You can have a hug any time you need! One of the benefits of staying home and practicing social distancing is that we protect ourselves from the virus, so we can stick together.
Is everyone going to die?
For Younger Children: Absolutely not. Everyone is not going to die. We’re helping everyone keep safe by staying home. Can you think of someone you love very much to call and talk to?
For Older Children: Absolutely not. Our entire country is taking steps to protect as many people as possible. Would you like to make some calls with me? I’m going to check in on family.
The goal here is not to lie or overflate any promise of safety, but to reduce fear by focusing on what we can do to be safer.
Some awesome folks have done a lot of the necessary footwork to help kids understand sickness and COVID-19. Check out these episodes for a positive spin on how to tackle this coronavirus, one kid at a time.