“When will we go back to school?” “Why can’t I go to my friend’s house?” These are common questions children are asking us adults as the school year comes to an end. With the transition to distance learning, uncertainty about how (or if) school will come back in the fall, what child care will look like and what will be open in the summer--uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and anger are just some of the feelings we are helping our children navigate within the midst of this pandemic. The hard part is that we do not know the answers to what will happen, often it is hard to find the words to explain the unknown to our children, and we are navigating stressors that, for many of us, can feel overwhelming and life changing.
Dr. Becky Bailey suggests that what the parent feels impacts the child. Within her book “Conscious Discipline Building Resilient Classrooms”, she writes: “Emotions are contagious. Science has now proven what we already knew to be true: Grumpy people can download grumpiness to others, and peaceful folks can do the same. Mirror neurons in the brain play a key role in this process”. Dr. Bailey discusses the emotional networks in our brains that mirror what we see others feeling and doing. As a result, the best way to help our children is to help ourselves.
First, it is helpful to be gentle with yourself and focus on your own self-regulation when you are feeling stress. Dr. Bailey calls this the skill of Composure and is the “conscious awareness and management of our own thoughts, feelings and actions”. Throughout the day, identify moments when you can briefly pause to take three deep belly breaths. After practicing these skills for yourself, you can pass these skills onto your child. Use the acronym “Be a S.T.A.R.”. Teach your child to place their left hand on their chest and their right hand on their belly and practice Smile, Take a deep breath, And, Relax. Remember to breath in through your nose and out through your mouth three times. When we reflect calm to our children, it can help them find calm.
Second, all emotions and feelings are important. Our relationship with our emotions will dictate the type of responses we offer to children. Take a moment to notice your own feelings and body language. Do you have places in your body that feel stressed? Brainstorm ideas for how to help our body feel better when you feel stress. Then brainstorm ideas for activities you can do with your child like going for walks, drawing, dancing and connecting with their teachers.
Third, it is important to notice where you focus your attention. Amid times of uncertainty, it is very easy to fall into the cycle of anxiety and the fear of the unknown. Chances are that your child is feeling very confused about why the world has changed. Clear developmentally relevant language is important. We could say “I don’t know what the plan is for going back to school. When they create a plan, we can figure it out together. For right now we are helping by staying home, washing our hands and wearing our masks”. Dr. Becky Bailey wrote, “Remember, where we place out attention dictates our values. It also teaches children where to direct their attention and how to hold their values system. When we focus our attention on what is wrong, missing, or not going our way, we are unconsciously teaching children to focus on the same”. Aligning your values with hope, love, and gratefulness will help build a foundation of values for your child for when there are times of uncertainty. You can focus on gratefulness by ending each day sharing three experiences where you felt grateful today. You can begin the day by listing all the people you know who can use your loving energy today then you can draw pictures for them, connect with them on social media or saying out loud “I wish you well”.
Know that as parents and caregivers we are all in this together. Those of us who work with families are thinking of you as well and wishing you well.
Annette Chastain, LCSW, is a Mental Health Consultant, a Certified Conscious Discipline trainer and a partner of the Blue Mountain Early Learning Hub