During lockdown, we went from sending our children to school, to becoming their teacher’s overnight. As we continue to navigate this challenging and ever-changing time, here are some insights to help you navigate how you work with your children at home.
The rush and thrill of riding a rollercoaster inevitably thrusts a person to lose all dignity and composure. Without warning, from deep in your gut comes out a shrill shriek of fear or delight. At home, this often happens – an emotional explosion which erupts as fiercely as a volcano – usually resulting in tears, angry words, storming off and finally apologies. This is especially true when emotions are raw during a crisis season.
Just as adults need to work through the rollercoaster of crisis – firstly understanding what it is, where you are in the journey and what you are thinking, feeling and doing – you as an adult and parent can also assist your child to work through their own experience of crisis.
Children experience crisis in their own way as well. Often we can misunderstand their behaviour as defiance, tantrums or disobedience, when in fact it may be an expression of insecurity, overwhelming emotion or dysregulation. Things that cause you as an adult crisis, may not factor in your child’s life – yet the simplest things that we overlook, may cause great distress for your child.
So even though you may be seated next to one another through this roller coaster of crisis, you are likely to engage in a very different experience.
How can you help your child get through a crisis?
- Connection – Love is safety
Just as we need grounding and a moment to pause, so do our children. The best way for a child to feel at ease and safe is in the care of their loved ones.
Moms and dads, hold your child. Spend time playing with your child. Listen to your child. Let them have a moment with you where they know: All might be in chaos, but right now, I am safe! Use these moments of connection to help your child express their feelings. Reassure them that they are heard and validate their feelings. Be empathetic and see the world through their eyes. Communicate what you see in them, so that they are able to recognize what they are going through.
In doing this you give them a ‘snap-shot’ of their experience.
- Consistency – Regain a sense of normalcy
When everything feels out of control, one of the best ways to create a sense of normalcy for a child is to engage with a consistent environment.
What are some of your child’s favorite toys or games – use these to comfort and connect. Maintain the morning and evening routines, as best as possible. Create a basic daily plan that helps you and your child know what can be expected in a day.
Be consistent in your discipline and emotional responses – big freak-outs, rash punishments or pushing things under the rug do not help. Instead put a few guidelines or rules in place, with consequences. When these are overstepped, give the consequences calmly and consistently. Allow your child to experience their anger towards these consequences, then once things have calmed down talk about their choices, their feelings and more appropriate responses. Remember to connect with affection and remind them that they are loved unconditionally, but that specific behaviour is unacceptable.
When things go pear-shaped (because we all lose it sometimes), own your own role in the fall out, apologise and work through the steps of explaining your own feelings, unacceptable responses and how you would do things differently. Allow them to do the same and reconnect in a meaningful way.
- Can dos – Develop coping skills
Help your child figure out what they can do in a situation. After feeling connected and safe, help them to develop the skills and tools they need to take action and regain control of the little that they can.
Give them the opportunity to come up with ideas and manage their own boredom. Let them try new things (within safe boundaries). In your routine, give them the opportunity to decide on certain activities for the day. Chores may be a bore, but it helps them develop real-life skills, and can be fun with some creativity. Go for a walk, in the garden. Create an obstacle course in your house. Play board games or do home science experiments – let them learn through trial and error, losing and learning, and problem solving. Read stories and ask them questions “between the lines”, what/how/why do you think…? Ask them what would make them feel better/safer and help them work practically towards that.
As we all sit together on this rollercoaster ride, let me encourage you to engage in this process as both an individual and as one rider surrounded by many others. Make time daily to be alone and process where you are at. Step back and look at the situation with fresh perspective – a snapshot of your own experience, from the view of others, through the eyes of your little one. See what action you can take today to manage the moment you find yourself in.
Reach out to the people in the seats nearest to you – especially your children, engage one another and come together in this time of fear and insecurity. At some point the roller coaster must come to an end. How we experience the ride and how we disembark will depend on how we handle the journey now. Don’t do it alone. Let’s do this together! Perhaps as we come to the other side of this ride, what started as the ride from hell, turned out to be one hell of a ride!
At Sunday afternoon lunch, we were still light heartedly discussing the issue of COVID-19. Trying to explain to one another how the virus worked in the body, reiterating hygiene practices, practicing odd gestures for greetings, guessing what measures would be announced by our president later that evening, philosophizing over life and death, trying to understand the impact of this virus among an already vulnerable people group, and still finding ways to explain all that was necessary to our children, for their safety without causing fear.
While I was well aware of the pandemic around the world, it doesn’t quite land with the heaviness it warrants until it’s in your back yard. Watching the news from around the world, even seeing posts on social media from friends abroad, watching the count of confirmed cases rise and charted on the map, it was always someone else’s reality and I was a bystander seeing it unfold.
Until the president gave his address.
Suddenly the full weight of the situation came crashing down around me. Travel bans, visas revoked, public gatherings prohibited – even these seem far removed from me personally.
The president discussed the realities of an economic crisis that loomed ahead and would take years to work our way back out again. Then limiting the use of taxi’s, busses and trains, and schools remaining closed until after Easter. Well that was going to affect me personally. And not just me, but dear people close to me who rely on these services to get to and from work. Work that does not pay much, but barely enough to live.
Now what? If one cannot work, one cannot earn, and without earnings one cannot live. If we struggle with such social ills and poverty in our land now, then what would remain after this disaster had passed?
And then the early discussion of the physical effects of the virus, life and death came flooding back – no longer a commentary from the spectators, but a discussion from within the danger zone. If we do not come together, … I cannot describe the dooms-day images that come to mind.
With my heart broken, my fear increasing, my adrenaline rising and the effort to hold back tears and keep steady as I put my boys to bed, I managed to get myself to a place where I could just absorb the reality. The reality that all I had known and all that I had planned and dreamed 2020 would be was likely out of the window.
But there amongst the ashes was an ember of hope – “Thuma mina”. Of course I could not understand the significance of its meaning immediately, but it was clear that it was placed in the speech purposefully. So I searched.
“Send me”, a song by Hugh Masekela, a legendary musician in our country. This is not the first time our president has alluded to this song, and this idea – Send me!
Based on a scriptural reference:
‘And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”’ – Isaiah 6:8
The song expresses the idea of being a part of the solution to the ills of our country through a helping hand and prayer.
In this crisis, called COVID-19, we have the risk of utter chaos and collapse, but at the same time the opportunity for hope and restoration. We can abandon all reason and give into fear, or we can stand together in love, selflessness and graciously act in generosity and for the greater good. We can further separate ourselves or come together (not physically, of course) in solidarity.
Our perspective of a situation determines our approach to it.
What will yours be today?
What does that mean for you practically?
AND OTHER CLUES YOUR CHILD IS STRESSED OUT
“I don’t want to go to school! I’m sick (fake cough). I just want to stay at home.”
Most mornings, at least one of my kids refuse to get out of bed. And with deep breathes, I aim to get through the morning routine without everything falling apart in and around me. Cooperation is the name of the game when you have 3 small boys (currently 5, 4 and 3) to get ready and out of the house before the peak traffic closes off all exits of your neighbourhood rendering you LATE, yet again. And thatphrase immediately tells me, cooperation is out of the window for today. It’s stressful! It’s stressful for me. It’s stressful for my husband. It’s stressful for my kids. And no one is happy by the time we leave the house. On these mornings, my response can be summed up as – this is life, suck it up, we have a job to do now, let’s get going. And when we finally get in the car, I realise how I gave into my base emotions, let absolute chaos reign and apologise for turning into the mom-monster yet again. (Is it just me?)
But every now and then, I can see that this “I don’t want to go to school” is a bit more serious, and a sign that things are just too much to handle right now. On these days, things run a little differently…
We all have stress – in today’s society, I think this is an understatement. We all have A TRUCK LOAD of stress! But at what point does it become a problem? And how do we know we’ve crossed that line? How do we know if our children have crossed that line, and how do we help them?
What is fear / anxiety / stress?
These three emotions are very closely linked, and can often feel like the same thing.
Fear is a reaction to a present threat, with negative emotions and motivation to escape or avoid danger or threat. (That ice cold, heart thumping feeling when an angry strong individual starts walking straight towards you at a pace.)
Anxiety is a reaction to a future threat, again with negative emotions. The future event can be perceived as something important or difficult. (That uneasy feeling and questioning, ‘will I pass the upcoming exams?’)
Stress is a reaction to a demand that one feels one cannot cope with, or threatens to disrupt one’s life in some way. (That panicky feeling when you have too much to do, in too little time – like loads of homework, along with all the extramural activities. Or getting 3 uncooperative little ones ready before being late.)
All three can be good and necessary for survival and moving forward through difficult circumstances. For example, avoiding confrontations with stronger people, can keep you from physical harm. A little nervousness about an exam or sport event, can encourage you to study or practice harder, and develop your skill. A challenging task can cause you to push yourself to new heights.
The problem is when they become overwhelming and lead to further disruption, or dysfunction (this is where we may to enter into psychological disorders). For example, avoiding all sports or parties or school events because I’m afraid of being attacked. Not being able to concentrate because you believe you will fail the exam no matter how hard you try, till eventually you don’t bother at all. Not being able to sleep because you have too much to do, and your adrenaline is pumping that you can’t shut off at night, and then can’t stay awake in class.
In short, there is definitely a problem when:
- fear remains after threat has disappeared or fear is bigger than the situation warrants
- when worrying about something so much that one can’t even face normal daily tasks
- feeling one cannot cope with daily life and withdrawing from all activity
- becoming physically ill because the body’s defences are depleted from continuous stress.
What are the clues that my child has a problem?
If some stress, fear or anxiety is good, then allowing children to experience it is necessary. We often want to protect our children from what is negative – but a healthy dose is necessary for learning, growth and future success. But, knowing when our children are heading towards something that is harmful, allows us to intervene before it becomes devastating. So how do you know when your child (or yourself) might be headed for the unhealthy version of stress, anxiety or fear? Children express themselves through behavior. If we spend time with our children, and know them well, we will be able to pick up on their behaviours which are out of the ordinary. When children don’t understand what is going on inside of themselves, or they know something is wrong but don’t have the words, they act out. Stress, anxiety and fear may show themselves in the following ways:
- Changes in eating and sleeping habits (too much/too little, nightmares, fears about sleeping, waking odd hours, not falling asleep)
- Physical complaints (stomach aches, headaches, constant illness)
- Change in mood and behavior (demotivated, restless, forgetful, irritable, fighting, bullying, avoiding places/people, clinginess, tantrums, disobedience, oppositional, self-injury, alcohol/drugs)
- Change in school performance (drop in marks, disruptive, impulsive, inattentive, dependent on teacher, incomplete work)
When you notice a significant change in your child, over a period of time, start to ask questions.
What causes of stress/ fear/anxiety?
The causes of stress or fear or anxiety are numerous. In fact, anything can cause a negative emotion. A stressor can happen once, or it can happen over, and over. It can be big and it can be small. Some stressors include:
- Universally threatening events – things generally considered dangerous – crime, bullying, including cyber-, natural disaster, gangsterism, violence in schools
- Major life events – anything that causes disruption – divorce, moving house, changing school, friends leaving, choosing subjects, examinations, parent’s absence, displacement, change of caregivers
- Daily hassles – the small everyday things, that can build up and become taxing – homework, sports, relationships, friendships, traffic, aftercare, change in routine, social media, technology, transport, rushing to get ready
- Demands of life – high expectations to excel, to have certain possessions, popularity, expectations of customs and culture
- Lack of resources – unemployment and poverty, large classes, lack of academic support, lack of parental involvement, personal disconnection due to technology and busyness
What can be done to help a stressed child?
In as much as an event can cause stress, stress is is also caused by the way we think about and interpret events, how we are able to handle our emotions, as well as our temperament and physical response to stress (hormones, brain structure, etc). If we think about children, the younger they are, the more at risk they are – immature brain structure, unable to understand or manage emotions yet, unable to cognitively process events. So as adults, our role is to bring external resources around our children, to reduce the stress they are exposed to, as well as to equip them with coping skills to be able to face stressors and manage them well. Some things we can do as parents, teachers, or whatever role you may have in a child’s life to help include:
- In the moment – stop and breath (this helps the body calm down and process stress physically).
- Talk through daily problems (what they are feeling, why, what can they do, what do they need help with) – find solutions together
- Create time for fun, relaxation and gratitude – this allows the body to produce ‘happy hormones’ and redirect mental focus onto the good.
- Parenting/teaching towards empowering children – develop their strengths and learn how to problem-solve.
- Spend quality time with your child and create a structured and stable environment – children need a safe space, where they know what to expect and need to feel loved and accepted as they are.
- Learn to manage your own stress well, and be an example of how to work through challenges and focus on what is good.
- Make necessary changes – when you come to the place where you or your child are doing what you can to cope, you may need to consider getting away from the stressor.
- When you notice stress/anxiety/fear is becoming overwhelming and interfering with everyday life, ask for help. Speak to someone who can assist you and your child in recongising the causes, understanding the feelings and developing coping skills.
So back to those mornings where not wanting to go to school is a clue that life is just too tough right now… in the midst of the chaos, we stop. We breathe deeper. We risk being late. We ask questions. We hear what the problem is, talk through solutions and end with connection and reassurance. For the most part, we’ve successfully managed to overcome these challenges then and there – other times, we’ve had to make some changes to our lifestyle or have had some tough conversations. Being aware of the clues means we can step in and assist our children before it becomes unmanageable. So be mindful, be present and be aware of what your children are communicating to you. And as you help them navigate the little stressors, you help them develop skills for the long term.