What we’ve experienced: Collective Trauma, Grief, and Changes in Expectations
All this change and uncertainty, combined with the loss of stability and routine, is tremendously unsetting. That's especially true when you add in fear of getting sick, fear of our kids getting sick, fear of people we love getting sick, and the collective worry of other people being safe or getting us sick. We’ve been physically distancing, which doesn’t allow us to hug or be comforted by people outside our bubble. Many people have been working from home, blurring the lines between our work spaces and home. That adjustment can turn your home into something more complicated than the refuge it may once have been. If you have continued to work outside your home you may have done so with a lot of extra worries. Remote learning has created a totally new way of learning for our kids (another transition). The political unrest and uncertainty, lack of trust in the government, the racial reckoning that’s happening, which can be retraumatizing for BIPOC—these are all collectively impacting us.
We’ve been through many of the different stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Sadness, and Acceptance. (Most recently, they’ve added “finding meaning” as a new, last stage, but even that is hard right now.) There has been a lot to grieve: loved ones, life as we knew it, missed milestones and activities, social support, home/school life, roles outside of the family (sister, co-worker, daughter), changes to school and work life and so much more. Since we are still adjusting to the changes, some of us haven’t even had time to fully grieve.
Changes in Expectations
Changes in our larger life have caused us to have to adjust our expectations. Shifts in school routines, what a playdate looks like, and what vacations you can go on have changed how we view things. All of these things take time and energy to process. Give yourself time to adjust to these different changes.
So what can we do going forward? And what can we expect from our children?
Kids do well if they can. —Ross W. Greene
Kids want to do well. They can be survivors if they have the proper tools. This fall, kids are not going back to the same school situation they left, even if they’re going to the same school. As a parent, you have expectations around what you might WANT them to do and how they should behave. Step back and remembering that the child sitting in front of you is always different and constantly changing (e.g., if they are hungry vs. tired vs. well rested).
It’s hard to be a kid right now. The uncertainty of “back to school,” along with everything else, affects kids in lots of different ways. Some of this uncertainty has manifested in kids’ behavior: Maybe there have been changes in sleeping, regression in potty training, acting out and being defiant. Maybe they have just gotten more quiet and are lacking energy to have fun and play.
What can parents do with that challenging behavior?
Reframe kids’ challenging behavior. Rather than thinking that your kids are “GIVING you a hard time,” think about it instead of them “HAVING a hard time” which is manifesting in their (sometimes negative) behavior. This perspective is a less punitive, more compassionate way to see your children (and other people too).
Then, do the least harm. When you as a parent feel activated… think about what is the next thing you can do in the moment to do the least harm. Along with this, it is important to stay objective and in the moment. Your kids can trigger you and bring up issues that are unrelated to them, including issues that you grew up with. You need to put your baggage away in order to be responsive to what they are going through and separate your child’s behavior from your triggered emotions. Here’s a video that describes more about why it can be helpful to study your own childhood.
Next, decide how much help they need. It’s important to guide our kids but not try to “save” them. Think through whether you need to help or actually let them figure things out themselves, which will help them build their confidence. If you can, think of your behavior as “spotting” them as they do it themselves instead of swooping in and “fixing” it for them.
Focus on the upstream. Prepare for things in a proactive way. Just like you’d plan when you go to the park by bringing snacks and wipes, think through what you need to emotionally prepare your kids for school. What are the things that trigger your child that you can work on now? Can you walk by the school? Read some books? There are lots of ideas on this PSP website page: Tips for the First Day of School - Are You More Nervous than Your Child?
See, Hear, and Value Your Children. Kids want (and need) to feel seen, heard, and valued. They need to feel safe, especially right now. Remember, even without a pandemic, school is an adjustment, and you need to be prepared.
Ask kids how they are feeling about going back to school. Even if it’s online. Even if they are little. Ask questions—and really listen:
- You may be going to school some days but not others. What are some ways we can make it feel more uniform?
- What were the best parts of remote learning?
- Who are you looking forward to seeing when everyone comes back and school starts?
- Why is it important to wear your mask? What will you do if other kids don’t keep their mask on?
- What’s a good morning routine?
- What are some of the things we can do after school to have more fun?
- Where are you with all this?
Your older kids may benefit from talking about their feelings using Plutchik’s Feelings Wheel.
Allow for authenticity. Try to accept what your kids are going through (being grumpy, being over-worried) rather than force them into being what you would expect. It’s also important to be authentic yourself and model how you want them to behave by showing that yourself. If there are issues coming up with tension and stress, you can be honest with them by saying, “I didn’t like the way I just acted. Can we talk about how we can fix things and do better next time?”
Trust that kids are competent. Anger is a valid feeling, and kids can take charge of their life even at an early age. Giving a child a sense of agency in that “spotting” is important. Statements like, “I see that you can do this yourself” will go far in helping them build resilience. Allowing kids to be seen for who they really are rather than having them conform to your idea of an “ideal child” or “good child” is important.
Observing your kids in action. Find out what they are interested in and focused on, and what they like and dislike. Get to know who they are by watching them without interacting. Ask if they would be willing to let you watch them scroll through their social media feed. See if they’ll show you some of the photos on their camera.
Collaborate and let them be heard rather than just dictating. Brainstorm with your child ways you can get things in place for the start of school. What can we do together to keep safe? A reminder, though... collaboration is great, but you are the parent and you need to keep your hands on the steering wheel. Set your limits and boundaries. Kids are not supposed to “obey” you like robots, but you set boundaries and they work within them (rather than around them).
Be together. Try to have at least one meal a day together. Have a breakfast routine or bedtime routine. If your kids are older, consider re-reading some of the kids' books they loved. It can help remind them of a time without so much uncertainty.
Feeling seen, heard, and valued will help your child feel soothed and secure. Setting boundaries and coming up with schedules will help things seem more predictable even in this unpredictable world.
Respond, don’t react. Responding is a mindful, intentional way to interact while reacting is more of a knee-jerk reaction to something that was said or done. Saying, “I’m not sure about that. Let me think about it and get back to you” is a way to make sure that you are thoughtful in your behavior, and your child will appreciate it.
Don’t forget to have fun, be silly, and relax. Unstructured time can be a nice change of pace. Go on a random walk outside where your kids get to determine if you turn right or left or go straight. Set up the expectation that, after school work is done, kids can have some free time to do whatever they want. Then they know that there will be time to relax.
Determine what you can let go and what you need to hold on to. Maybe it’s important that your children do chores (make their bed, unload the dishwasher) or maybe it’s okay to be more lax on that. The start of school is a time you can start providing more structure after what might have been a more loosey-goosey summer.
Many of us are stretched very thin, and we need to recharge. We’ve heard it over and over, but it’s important. Make sure that we are getting enough sleep, eating well, and moving. You don’t make people feel better by criticizing them—and this goes for what we say to ourselves. Practicing self-compassion is also so important right now. These are the tools that will give us the patience and envergy to behave in more mindful ways.
Breathing breaks keep the stress at bay. Your body will calm down with long inhales and exhales. If you were running from a sabertooth tiger, your breathing would be very fast and your body would know you’re in danger. Slowing down your breathing signals to your body that there is no danger here. Children can use YOUR calm to help calm themselves. When things seem overwhelming, focus on the here and now. Journal, blog, make videos of what you’re feeling and how you are coping. Take a shower that is longer than normal and just breathe. You can download a number of mindfulness apps, such as Headspace, for free. Use these on your smartphone for ways to stay calm, cool, and collected.
How do I know if my kids or I need therapy?
Some of us have experienced Intergenerational trauma. Because of your upbringing, your kids' behavior may trigger emotional memories and flashbacks. Ask yourself: Do I need to take a break? Do I need to give myself a time out? If you don’t short-circuit these behaviors, you can both retraumatize yourself and also inflict that trauma on your kids. If you feel out of control when you are with your kids, with lots of regrets after interacting with them, you may need help. You can find resources through the PSP website for reviews of mental health professionals or check out the NYCWell website.
Is it situational moodiness or a clinical issue? Back to school will be a transition, and it can cause regressions as well as make children frustrated, upset, or more quiet than usual. These are normal and not necessarily cause for concern. If after a few weeks your child is still having a lot of trouble, then it may be time to get help. This can look like high levels of anxiety about going to school, fear about leaving the house, extreme worry about schoolwork, behavioral issues at school (hitting, biting, pushing), and more.
Question and Answers
Question: Whether the school ends up going hybrid or remote only…how can we ease their anxieties about starting something new, trying to make new friends (1st and 4th grade)?
Answer: You can do this. They can do this. Hold space for them. Anxiety is okay and expected. What can we do when you start feeling anxiety? Can you do a dry run? Can you go to the school and talk during the walk/drive about this? We KNOW we can overcome, so be validating and encouraging.
Question: How do you prepare your kids to see their teachers with masks on?
Answer: Maybe you can talk to the teacher (or school) about how teachers will be explaining things?
Question: We decided to start the school year remote. Our child is not good with change historically and was terrified when the pandemic started so we thought until we saw if school would work out we would do remote. How do we explain to our child that they’re doing remote school, which many of their friends are not, without undermining their confidence that they can cope with change (which he learned to do in normal times)?
Answer: You might explain, “this is what we think is best for you—we can try something different later.” If you feel your decision is the right one, you need to go with that. Spend time trying to organize after-school activities so that your child has something to look forward to. Play up those future playdates.
Question: Any tips on preparing little ones to not see grandparents once school starts? We’ve been living with extended family for the past six months, and once school gets going, the grandparents won’t be part of the quaranteam any more.
Answer: Don’t sugarcoat it. “We want grandma and grandpa to stay safe, so we are going to stay away right now. We will Zoom with them and we can have them read you a story and perhaps do some socially distanced meetups in a few months.”
Question: As a parent, I have a lot of anxiety about what will happen with school. Should I shield my children from them or explain things to them? If kids are emotional sponges, how do we keep them from soaking in our emotions?
Answer: When you feel super anxious, don’t discuss your anxiety with your kids. However, explaining to them that “sometimes I feel anxious and here’s what I do,” can be helpful. Don’t lie to them, but try to regulate your emotions and anxiety.
Question: How do we connect and see what they like and dislike when they spend time on their phones liking and commenting on things and they don’t want you to be a part of that?
Answer: Check out the resources on screen time below.
Resources on the Park Slope Parents Website
Here are all the resources provided by Dr. Nanika Coor of Brooklyn Parent Therapy:
As seen in media:
As seen in videos:
https://www.thebeyondlimitsway.com/blog (Screen Time Management!)
Your One-Year-Old through Your Ten- to Fourteen-Year-Old series by Louise Bates Ames
Your Self Confident Baby
Raising Human Beings
Say What You Mean
How To Talk So Kids Will Listen
Siblings W/o Rivalry