On a recent evening, I was sitting on the couch with my 4-year-old daughter, Delilah, looking through her artwork from pre-school. Suddenly, she looked up at me with the saddest, most grief-stricken face I’ve ever seen her make. “I want my birthday hat,” she told me. “I wish my birthday hat didn’t break.”
Several weeks earlier, Delilah’s pre-school teacher had made a hat for her birthday, but it had since gone through many rounds of games. Now, it was reduced to a pile of shredded paper.
“Should we make a new one together?” I offered.
She shook her head sadly, as if I would never understand, then proceeded to wail for what felt like a lifetime. There were moments of calm, but they were quickly followed by renewed bouts of grief.
After a few minutes sitting next to her, occasionally rubbing her back, I heard a voice in the back of my head begin to prod me. “It’s a paper hat! You never cared about it before! What is wrong with you?”
I took a deep breath and didn’t react, but as Delilah continued to sob, the voice became more aggressive. “Just distract her already!” “This is enough!” “She needs to stop!”
I acknowledged the voice, recognizing it as that of the little girl I once was, who had never been permitted to cry for very long. “You deserved to cry, too,” I told this part of myself.
While Delilah continued to cry, my younger son Gabi climbed up on my lap. I read to him softly, while remaining close to her. After 17 minutes – yes, I counted — she suddenly stopped crying, looked up at me with a smile, and asked, ”Can we make another hat soon, Mommy?”
It was never about the hat. Prior to that moment, she hadn’t expressed any particular feeling about it. But after a week stuck inside with no school, no friends, and no idea when her life would get back to normal again, she was feeling scared and overwhelmed. The hat was a convenient scapegoat.
It might seem unbearable to listen to your child cry for that long. It is hard at first, but if you focus on soothing the part of you that feels triggered, and experience the meltdown as a necessary release, I promise it’s possible. And, in my experience, it’s usually followed by an almost magical shift in energy.
As the Coronavirus continues to spread, the isolation, uncertainty, and competing demands can feel overwhelming, exhausting, and anxiety-provoking. Children may not fully understand what’s going on, but they do absorb our stress. As parents, we need to take care of ourselves – especially the most vulnerable, overwhelmed parts, so we can be the calm, stable presence our children so need. What follows are seven strategies aimed at helping parents better manage the rough winds of their children’s emotions right now, on top of their own:
1. Fill your own reservoir. This has become a cliché, and an especially annoying one when you are trying to balance work and kids while stuck in an enclosed space. Time for yourself is more limited now, but filling your own tank has never been more important. Self-care isn’t selfishness – it’s a critical component of good parenting. Prioritize your sleep. Take breaks to sing out the window or have a pillow fight with your child. Run up and down stairs. Take a virtual yoga or fitness class, if possible, or go for a walk or a run outside. And don’t feel guilty about it.
2. Relax your standards. It doesn’t make sense to hold yourself to ordinary expectations in extraordinary times. Your children won’t be permanently scarred by having more screen time than usual right now, or by not having days full of structured lessons, or by staying in their pajamas all day. The most important thing you can do right now is to communicate safety, calm and consistency.
3. Set aside 15 minutes for special time with each child, each day. Make a point about the designated time, stick to it, and offer them your full attention. Let children choose what they want to do, or do some form of physical play, like pillow fights or chases. The added benefit there is that a stubbed toe or banged knee can be an excuse for emotional release. The quality of time you spend is more important than the quantity. You may be surprised by how comforted and filled up your child is even after small amount of engaged time together.
4. Calm your own body first. Your primary responsibility is to remain as calm as possible in every interaction with your children. When you notice yourself getting frustrated, impatient, or anxious, slow down and take three deep breaths. If you still feel activated, continue breathing until you notice your body relaxing. Calming your body helps to bring your more adult self back online, so you can think more rationally, feel more empathy, and make better choices.
5. Be intentional about the limits you set. Sometimes, we set limits out of habit, without thinking, or because they were set for us. Other times, we hold off on setting a limit to avoid a tantrum. If your child is making a request that pushes against your comfort zone, but that you don’t have a good reason to deny, it could be a good opportunity to stretch your stress tolerance. If the behavior or request feels truly unreasonable, setting the limit before you get upset allows you to approach it calmly and with empathy. If you permit unacceptable behaviors to persist or fulfill requests simply to avoid a tantrum, you are actually, gathering kindling for a harsher reaction later. Establishing limits consciously, clearly, and gently – and sticking to them – will make your children feel more secure and contained, and lead to more harmony overall.
6. Welcome tantrums and meltdowns. Children have an easy-release valve for negative emotions, which we do not permit ourselves as adults. Think of meltdowns as the child’s way of discharging accumulated stress. If you allow your kids to fully experience their emotions and stay close while they do, they will move through them, and learn that they don’t need to be afraid of strong feelings. As with Delilah did, they’ll often emerge from an uninterrupted tantrum or meltdown with a renewed sense of calm and well-being.
7. Don’t be afraid to apologize. We are all human and we all sometimes fall short of our own standards, especially in stressful times. When you make a mistake, or go overboard, the most important thing is to simply own it. Judging or berating yourself only fuels a continued cycle of negative emotions and bad behavior, while rationalizing or justifying may make you feel better, but it won’t help your child. Instead, quickly acknowledge your mistake so your child isn’t left feeling confused, anxious or ashamed. And then, gently, move on.