Helping Your Kids Face Their Uncertainty
Daily insights on life in the face of uncertainty, by psychiatrist and habit change specialist Dr. Jud Brewer
Stress, anxiety, and other emotions are running high for many of us right now. But if you’re a parent with kids at home trying to juggle work, homeschooling, and overall uncertainty, your house may feel like an emotional minefield. Your kids are also trying to make sense of everything, and may not be reacting to life in “normal” ways. And even if you don’t have kids at home, your inner child probably isn’t feeling very safe or secure right now. In one way or another, we’re all on the verge of melting down.
Let me tell you about my good friend Josh, his wife Julie, and their 12-year-old son, Ben. When Ben first found out that his school was closed, he was excited. It felt like vacation. But pretty quickly, Josh and Julie noticed Ben getting angry and starting to withdraw.
Like a lot of uncertain and stressed parents, Josh and Julie first responded to Josh with a typical parenting approach: consequences. After some time passed and the parents reflected a bit more, it became apparent that Ben was just as worried and anxious as his parents.
Children don’t always express emotions in the same way that adults do. Fear and anxiety may come out as anger, combativeness, or withdrawal.
Ben couldn’t see his friends, or go to the park to play basketball. He had no way of understanding or controlling the situation, which made him feel unsafe, and the only way he could regain some sense of control was to react with anger and obstinance. Once they realized this, Josh and Julie validated Ben’s emotions, found opportunities to give him control over his world (like helping select dinners for the family), and added a short mindful breathing exercise to their pre-dinner family time. Together, those practices helped Ben understand more of what was going on, build his sense of safety, and connect him to his family.
Here’s some of the psychological science that explains what’s going on inside of kids when they feel stress, and what you can do as a parent.
Children don’t always express emotions in the same way that adults do. Fear and anxiety may come out as anger, combativeness, or withdrawal. It’s ideal if you can learn to look beyond your child’s initial reaction, ask them what they’re feeling, and help them name the emotions. As an adult, you have a fully developed prefrontal cortex that can think logically about situations and make rational choices. Kids don’t fully form their prefrontal cortex until they are in their twenties. They don’t have the thinking and reasoning to deal with situations like the coronavirus but you can help them build their awareness and understanding of their emotions.
A few useful steps to consider:
1. Validate children’s emotions, especially fear. It is real to them, and telling them “don’t worry” or “it will all work out” without first validating their emotion may seem like it’s helping, but it doesn’t give kids the opportunity to process their emotions in the moment and sets up a habit loop (for them) of dismissing or minimizing emotions. If it’s real to you, it’s real to them, too.
2. Share your emotions with your children. If you’re feeling anxious, first check in with yourself and name the emotions at play so you can see them clearly, and can then let your child know (without panicking, of course!) what it is you’re feeling. This helps to model healthy expressions of anxiety and fear, and ways to respond. Strong emotions don’t have to be scary! We all can learn to be with our emotions without letting them get the best of us.
3. Recognize that children feel even more uncertainty than you do. Sit down and talk with them. Answer their questions. If you don’t know the answer yourself, be honest. It is perfectly okay not to know. As a doctor, it is much better to be honest with my patients when I don’t know their diagnosis than to make something up or pretend that I do know. Kids are especially good at sniffing out when people aren’t being honest.
4. Remember that you have at least a few prior crisis experiences under your belt (the 2008 financial meltdown, the 9/11 attacks, personal challenges). You’ve seen how bad things can get and how eventually things improve. Kids don’t have those touchstones — and they may assume it only gets worse and never gets better. Ground yourself in your prior experiences for the benefit of your children. Remind them that you’ve handled hard things before and that we’ll all get through this.
Share your emotions with your children. If you’re feeling anxious, first check in with yourself and name the emotions at play so you can see them clearly.
5. As a parent, you may feel like you have no control over the situation, but realize that kids have even less control over their environment (no car, little access to news, etc.). Use every opportunity to overcommunicate about the normal details of life (“When Mom finishes work, we’re going to do X”) and provide small opportunities for control (for example, let kids pick what’s for dinner). It helps them feel in control and like they have some way to contribute during a difficult time.
If you don’t have kids yourself, or your kids are grown-up and out of the house, you can still follow these tips for yourself. Perhaps you find yourself feeling more angry or withdrawn? Realize that patterns of emotional responses learned in childhood don’t just go away when we get older — instead, they become habits. So, take a deep breath, or use a short mindfulness practice to ground yourself and become aware of, and recognize, your own internal emotional state. Name it, and remind yourself that it’s okay to feel uncertain or scared right now. That’s a healthy fear response.
I’ll end with a page from the book I’ve been sharing from each day, The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and The Horse.
“Everyone is a bit scared,” said the horse. “But we are less scared together.”
So today, recognize if uncertainty or fear or other emotions are bubbling up for you and your family members. Remember that we’re all in this together. Notice what it’s like to simply know that you are not alone. Practice naming and describing your emotions to your family members or yourself. This can go a long way to help us all move forward.
Onward, together. I’ll have more to share tomorrow. If you’re interested in a video recording of this material, I’ve created one here.