“It’s not what happens but how you handle it that matters.” This is a lesson worth teaching to your children and students in the wake of the unprecedented coronavirus. We, in this day and age, have never experienced a pandemic in this way. There still is much that is unknown. We have no idea when the peak will occur, when, how and if the virus will leave, who will be affected and how. There really isn’t a whole lot we can do about it – and that’s hard, especially for people who like to be in control or people who
suffer from anxiety. What we know is we can store food, we can stay home, we can wash hands, we can avoid touching our faces. That’s about it. But, in what way do we store food? In what way do we stay home? Those are the questions that matter.
In the grocery store the other day, I witnessed an elderly man push in front of others to get ahead in line. He was really the only one I saw who acted in this way and you know what? He probably had good reason. It’s scary to be elderly right now and standing in a long line with others is for sure anxiety provoking. No one said anything to him and to me that was an act of kindness in itself. Others were apologetic when their cart was blocking an aisle. Still others offered a commiserating thought; I heard, “Crazy times.” “Be well.” “Did you get everything you need?” and the checkout employee took it upon herself to wipe down the credit card scanner with antibacterial spray for me.
I’ve heard horror stories of people yanking frozen food out of others’ hands. I’m sure people are panicking and that this is affecting their relationship with their loved ones. We can choose to see this as forcibly being cooped up, or as a sanctioned vacation. Even if you are working from home, everyone understands that there are distractions and childcare needs, perhaps elderly parental needs. But it’s tough. Really tough. The unknown, the being pulled in several different directions at the same time. This is reality right now. Fighting it – will only make it worse and may damage relationships. So what can you do?
I’m most concerned with how parents are handling the stress at home and how teachers are handling their on-line opportunities with students. In each case it is important to start with the notion “It’s not what happens but how you handle it that matters.”
First, if possible, temper your own anxiety. There is so much misinformation out there – whether you’ve encountered fear mongering or the downplaying of needs. Read accurate information. Here is a link to the New England Journal of American Medicine that includes a collection of articles.
Second, don’t be afraid to talk to your children/students frankly. I recently posted a video with three “Asks” for your children to lessen anxiety and help them feel empowered.
- Ask your child/student what he knows. This is important because you don’t know what he is hearing, thinking or what his friends have shared with him. You want to know where he is coming from to help him understand truths and to debunk myths and misunderstandings. If you are having this conversation on-line with a group of students, it gives an opportunity for everyone to hear the truth and debunk the myths.
- Ask your child/student if he has any questions. By opening up this door, you allow your child to know it’s okay for him to ask questions – even if you have indicated your own anxiety, giving him this space to know he can share his concerns, helps him feel connected. For educators, giving this opportunity allows others who may not speak up, to benefit from fears of others. They will feel less alone and normalized
- Ask what he things you can do as a family or class to stay safe. This is empowering – enlisting help gives a sense of responsibility and control. Teachers can take this opportunity to dissuade any lingering thoughts about playdates. You may even brainstorm fun ways to connect like playing chess on a virtual call.
Third, structure up the day with input from your child/student. Parents, take the opportunity first thing in the morning to start talking about types of activities your child should include in their day, for instance: movement, education, help around the house, free-time (outdoor time, screen time and non-screen fun), good deeds. Make a schedule each day with his input. Have the conversation about screen time. Bear in mind, as always there is a balance. You have to be kind to yourself and get what you need to get done as an adult, but if you indulge your child in endless screen time, you will pay for it big time later. Have a frank discussion with your child about what screens can do physiologically to their brain. Dr. Victoria Dunkley’s work is a favorite of mine and you can read her article, “Screentime is Making Our Kids Moody, Crazy and Lazy,” or review her book, Reset Your Child’s Brain. In essence, help your child understand that extended intense screen time (including social media engagement and fast paced cartoons) increases cortisol, the stress hormone. Share with them that screens compromise our ability to focus and that tantrums as they try to transition off of screens, is actually the body’s self-help mechanism attempting to “reboot” their brain. Talk about the three “buckets” of screen time: educational, social and entertainment. Ask them how much time they think they should spend per day on screen time and then what percentage on each bucket. This helps them to metacognitively understand how much time they are spending on screen time, and hopefully shift priorities.
Intersperse fun within the schedule and consider adopting the mantra “you gotta do what you gotta do before you do what you wanna do.” Here is a sample schedule:
- Short craft or activity
- Help around the house (vacuum, empty dishwasher, empty trash, etc)
- Education (online or other)
- Outdoor time and/or exercise
- Snack and game or project
- Education (online or other)
- Good deed (write a grandparent who is home alone, call an elderly relative or friend to say hi)
- Help around the house (walk dog, pull weeds, pick up twigs, dinner prep)
- Free time (screen or other; facetime with friends/relatives)
- Family time (game, movie)
Once you have your schedule, be flexible, things might need to change. If your child is in flow, don’t stop to move onto another activity. Try to intersperse movement, and outside time. Expect that your kids will interrupt you and just take a deep breath. This is a very weird time for them. The more you are available the more they will hear you when you let them know you have to get some of your own stuff done.
For educators; try challenging your students to come up with the most creative, non-screen activities. Maybe each day everyone presents what they did, and everyone gets to vote and then you issue an electronic certificate recognizing their creative non-screen endeav
ors. I truly believe encouraging non-screen activities will enormously help transition your child back when this is over.
Fourth, keep up personal connection. Make sure every few hours you and your child have some sort of in-person connection with each other or other members of your family living in your home. You can also facetime with relatives and friends. This is different than playing an online game together. People need face-to-face connection.
Teachers, make sure there is time during the virtual school day for kids to connect. Maybe some homework can include playing a game (non-online; like checkers or Stratego or chess or battleship or backgammon) via a virtual platform. This will also work on executive functioning skills and communication skills as kids will have to describe where they have moved their pieces.
Fifth, get outside. Hopefully where you are is getting warmer and even if you just go outside for five minutes, it’s restorative.
Educators, again, encourage your students to spend time outdoors. Maybe they keep a calendar and part of homework is spending a minimum of 30 minutes outside every day.
We are in unchartered territory. The advice, “put on your own face mask before putting on your child’s” haschanged. Everyone needs a face mask. We must take care of ourselves, our families and our community. Practicing and teaching kindness, patience, and letting go of control are the tools that will help your situation become a gift rather than a curse. Creative ways of taking care of others will literally help us take care of ourselves and give us the sense of making a positive contribution. Don’t give in to the overwhelming nature of the unknown. Do what you can but give yourself a break. Homelife, school and work will not be the same. Kindness and patience. Kindness and patience. Because in the end, it’s not what is going on, but how you respond that makes all the difference and will gage how easily we will all re-integrate when this is over.