Anxiety is a low level of fear that bubbles under the surface of our daily lives. During times of uncertainty, our low levels increase because uncertainty doesn’t feel safe. Humans like a predictable order to events: a beginning, middle, and end. Covid-19 undermines the order. We don’t have a clear end. We don’t have a precident to follow, so we’re making this up as we go along. As parents, our children feel our uncertainty and their feelings of security are compromised. Children thrive on predictability and routine in order to feel safe and empowered in their environment. Currently, it’s an unfair expectation for parents to have the answers. We don’t. We can’t create certainty on a macro level. So we need to go inward and create feelings of safety and security on a micro level: first inside ourselves. Secondly, inside our homes to the best of our ability. Create safety inside ourselves.
Children use parents as an “gauge” for how they should act and feel. This is an instinctual and neurobiological phenomenon called co-regulation. Our child’s body syncs with our body. If we are calm and relaxed, they have an easier time regulating to a calm state. If we are nervous, anxious, upset, they will likely stay in an emotional or survival state with us. This is your permission to focus on yourself and figure out what YOU need first. When you figure out what YOU need to feel safe and calm, it will directly impact your child’s feeling safety for the better.
Start by getting curious. We’ve been doing this for a month.
We can use the previous month to identify: What was helpful? What was unhelpful? What do I need more of? What of I need less of? How can I realistically create more of the helpful things and less of the unhelpful things? This may mean lowering expectations, opening conversations with family members, making a plan/schedule or radical and creative self-care. After we acknowledge our personal needs, we can look inside our house to find how we can create predictability. I recommend starting with routines. Routines are flexible rhythms that have “anchor points”. Anchor points are mealtimes, sleep time, and anything that happens at a certain time every day. For example, an anchor point in our house right now is my boys’ virtual circle time. I build all of the the other activities around meals, sleep, and circle times. Routines do not have to be rigid schedules. Give yourself permission to create a responsive rhythm. The “rhythm” creates predictability that feels safe. “Responsive” meets family members where they are that day: super productive, mellow and calm, sad and snuggly. Read the room and adapt. Turn the responsive rhythm into a visual routine for the family. You can use clipart, pictures, hand-drawn pictures to order the daily activities. This is your child’s “to-do” list, so when they start to feel overwhelmed or confused, they have a place to go to organize their thoughts. Just like we return to our “to do list” or calendar to help us prioritize and clarify our days. Lastly, make space. Make space for your feelings and your children’s feelings. Children don’t have the gift of years of background experience or the ability to take perspective. Their whole world - friends, school, teachers, baby sitters, activities, disappeared in a day. Like us, they experience waves of grief, overwhelm, and confusion. Unlike us, they don’t have the experience to process these emotions so they do this through big behavior and play. We’re more able to make space for others’ feelings when we make space for our own. Make space by starting internally before moving externally.