I just want someone to tell me that everything is going to be okay,” the mother of one of my students said.
Children have lived through a pandemic that has now spanned almost two years, as well as disruptions to learning, sustained separations from family and friends, and a mental health crisis so extreme that the American Academy of Pediatrics is calling it a national emergency. It’s no wonder caregivers are stressed.
As a school counselor, I am acutely aware that parents crave the same reassurance I’m finding their children in need of this school year, and I try to offer comfort without being disingenuous.
“That’s a dilemma, isn’t it? What is okay?” says Madeline Levine, author of “Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World.” “I think the answer is close to what we tell kids: All of us who serve are doing everything we can to keep people safe, and we’re hopeful this will help things return to a more settled state.” Reassuring our children right now is no small task, especially because parents’ and kids’ well-being are inextricably intertwined. But parents are not powerless. Here are six ways caregivers can help themselves — and their children — find a way back to feeling okay.
“The goal is to build a child’s ability to tolerate discomfort and know that, while we can’t control all that happens, we can do something about much of our lives,” says psychologist Mary Karapetian Alvord, author of “Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens.”
Parents can talk about their child’s personal growth and say, “ ‘I’ve been thinking how great it was that you found ways to stay connected to your friends,’ ” says Seth Pollak, a professor in the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “A child may not have the meta-awareness to reflect in that way, but you can help them develop a self-concept of, ‘I’m a person who handles things.’ ”
Use the sentence starter, “I know I can do hard things, because . . . ,” then ask them to fill in the blank, says psychologist Jonathan Dalton, director of the Center for Anxiety & Behavioral Change in Rockville, Md. Comfort and growth are almost always incompatible, he adds, but “the more ways we can complete that sentence, the more confident we feel about our ability to cope effectively with stressors.”
When we appraise events as threatening or harmful, we feel less in control, but when we feel as if our efforts matter, we’re more likely to persist, says Ryan DeLapp, a child psychologist with the Montefiore Health System in New York.
Pollak conducted research involving young children who experienced trauma and found that kids who lived through severe adversity didn’t fare as well in young adulthood as children who had “more normative” lives — but there were surprises, too. “One child who lived in multiple foster homes was on full scholarship at an Ivy League university,” he says. “If you want to explain the different outcomes in people, it may be differences in how people are construing their experiences.”
Reappraising can be helpful, but avoid blanket optimism, particularly if a child is in the “pit of despair,” says psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age.” “Broad-brush positivity will only make them feel more isolated.”
No 'right' way to feel
“We’re just beginning to go through the grieving process,” Dalton says, and returning to some semblance of normalcy can make losses feel more salient. He once worked with a teen who was too anxious to attend school for a year, but she didn’t really grieve until she successfully returned. “She said, ‘Now I realize how much I lost.’ ”
Many people are feeling disoriented, Dalton says. “Kids have grown chronologically and physically, but they haven’t had experiences that mark the passage of time.” His son, now in eighth grade, feels as if he fast-forwarded through seventh grade. “He’s not aware of how much his own body has changed and has to remind himself not to knock over smaller sixth-graders when they play.”
Give yourself that same leeway. As Marc Brackett, author of “Permission to Feel” and founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, points out: “When we get granular about feelings and what’s causing them, that’s the pathway to identifying helpful strategies.”
Give and get help
Never worry alone. Instead, look for “lighthouses,” says Steve Pemberton, a corporate executive and author of “The Lighthouse Effect.” “Lighthouses, like the most impactful people in our lives, serve no purpose other than to be of service to someone else, especially in times of uncertainty or storm.”
Pemberton credits three “human lighthouses” for his own ability to thrive, despite him having grown up in an abusive foster home and struggling with his identity. “I didn’t know if I was Black or White, I didn’t know who my father or mother were, and I had this raw intellect that made me a target of bullying,” he says. One of his lighthouses was a seventh-grade school counselor who told him he was college material, another was a high school teacher who welcomed him into his home, and a third was a neighbor who brought him books throughout his childhood, which provided him with a vision of a different future.
It’s easier to summon the courage to ask for help if you’ve helped others, because you understand how rewarding it is to give. “What is it that gives someone the strength to reach out to another human being for support?” asks Kenneth Ginsburg, adolescent medicine specialist, co-founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, and author of “Building Resilience in Children and Teens.” “A starting point is feeling like there’s no pity on the other end.”
Recognize and tamp down stress
“Only when parents realize that their stress is trickling down to their children with disastrous outcomes will they see the need to take a breath,” says educational psychologist Michele Borba, author of “Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine.”
However, as critical as stress management is to producing good outcomes for children, it ranks at the bottom of the skills parents possess, Borba says. “Who is teaching parents how to say, ‘We’ll be okay,’ with calm assurance?”
It’s easier to stay calm if you’re able to separate the big stuff from the small stuff, says Tina Payne Bryson, a psychotherapist and co-author of “The Whole-Brain Child.” “Many parents think everything is the big stuff. It’s . . . the parent’s anxiety and reactivity that can have a significant negative impact on the child.”
Failing to complete a math curriculum is one example of something that’s “little stuff.” “From a child development perspective, I don’t know how useful it is to say, ‘Your entire academic trajectory is screwed right now,’ ” Pollak says.
“Don’t go into catastrophic thinking and imagine they’ll be living in a van down by the river in 20 years,” adds Katherine Reynolds Lewis, author of “The Good News About Bad Behavior.” Normalize that everyone is having trouble, and consider how you can best support their needs. “Experiment and try new resources until you discover what helps.”
Seek professional help for the big stuff, however, such as “mental health issues and despair, depression and anxiety and suicidality, and the deep isolation and pain some kids are in, where we can’t say if they’ll be okay,” Bryson says.
Build in breaks from worrying
“We can acknowledge and talk about the bad things going on in the world and give our kids a much-needed break from thinking about the bad stuff 24/7,” says Audrey Monke, a camp director and author of “Happy Campers: 9 Summer Camp Secrets for Raising Kids Who Become Thriving Adults.”
Caregivers can create moments of fun at home each day, she says. “Share your highs and lows over dinner. Turn on music while doing the dishes together. Watch a funny TV show or movie. Leave your phones at home and go outside for a walk or bike ride. Start a gratitude bulletin board or journal.”
Be a buffer, not a fixer
Parents can’t take away a child’s pain, but they can “buffer” them. Pollak compares buffering to a parent holding their baby during an immunization. “The baby cries less when they’re held than when they lay down on the exam table. It still hurts, but the baby experiences it as less traumatic,” he says.
As they get older, “we have to trust that our kids can take care of themselves well enough and that others are looking out for them,” says Ned Johnson, co-author of “What Do You Say? How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home.”
Parents who try to protect their children from every possible threat are more stressed, and kids who perceive their parents as more stressed are less likely to go to them with their problems, he says. That cycle benefits no one.
Focus instead on being a consistent, caring, authentic caregiver, and surround yourself with people who nurture you, too. “All kids need to thrive is one adult who believes in them, loves them unconditionally and who models healthy ways to cope with adversity,” Lewis says. “That means we share our own struggles, worries and uncertainty with our children, within reason. We want to be honest without dumping the whole depth of our anxieties on them.”
The truth is that we’re going to continue to wrestle with uncertainty, and no one can promise that everything is going to be okay. Nevertheless, we can embrace the mantra that Lewis frequently shares with caregivers: “This is hard, and we can make it through together.”