In his book The Survivor’s Club, author Ben Sherwood says that when faced with a challenge, people unconsciously scan their memories to call to mind whatever they did the last time they encountered something similar, in an attempt to use previously successful strategies to deal with the situation at hand.
The same phenomena gets played out in those rare instances when an airplane crashes. Since few crash survivors have experienced being in a plane that has crashed and is filling up with smoke, people who become immobilized while attempting to recall, “What did I do the last time I was in this situation?” may freeze in place, unable to get themselves out of danger.
Those who quickly come to terms with reality, perhaps having rehearsed what they might do in the unlikely event of a crash, have a much greater chance of survival because they quickly take action to get themselves to safety.
In recent weeks, I’ve thought about this phenomena as I’ve watched how people are adjusting–or not adjusting–to the massive changes to daily life brought about by the Covid-19 crisis.
None of us could have foreseen the sudden closing of our children’s schools, the abrupt loss of income, or the need to sew protection for our faces each time we venture out. We’ve never lived through anything like this, so when our brains scan for, “What did I do the last time I had to suddenly teach my children at home/ scramble for unemployment/ sew a mask so I can go to the grocery store”, we come up short.
With no memories of how we functioned in a crisis like this before, we’re left to adjust, accommodate, invent, and adapt, all in the span of a few days.
But we humans are exceptionally resilient. We have a remarkable capacity to adjust, accommodate, invent, and adapt, even with little warning or preparation when we are nimble and willing to come to terms with the reality in front of us.
Here are a few things parents can to do to find greater calm and stability during the COVID-19 crisis.
• Embrace tantrums and tears. There’s no getting around it; children are likely to have upsets and meltdowns. They miss going to school, are desperate to play freely outside, and may have have grown weary of spending all day with their little brother or big sister. Tantrums are healthy, natural ways for children to release pent up emotions. Allowing our children to fall apart and have a big cry is one of the best ways to help them cope with the countless changes they are facing right now. (And by the way, it’s perfectly fine for you to have your own meltdown or cry; just make sure your kids aren’t around.) See if you can relax in the midst of your children’s storm, recognizing outbursts as one of the most effectives ways for your children to process the many losses they’re having to accept.
• Stay present. Eckhart Tolle speaks beautifully about the importance of observing our mental commentary. Quite often, the thoughts we have about a challenging situation generate anxiety, worry, and hopelessness because we imagine, in great detail, progressively awful days ahead. By grounding ourselves in the present moment–perhaps noticing a bird landing in a tree outside our window, or enjoying the sound of our child humming as he plays–we can anchor ourselves to something more real and true. Yes, we have to make plans to address the practical needs of our family, but we don’t have to add a layer of fear to those activities.
• Let go of what isn’t. If we are going to make adjustments to help us meet the needs of our families and ourselves, we will have to let go of what we thought our lives would look like right now. This requires feeling our sadness and allowing ourselves to grieve what we’ve lost–whether it’s something concrete like a family reunion or a relied upon paycheck, or an emotional experience, like the chance to enjoy the company of elderly parents or celebrate a loved ones wedding. We need to feel our sorrow to release it. Be gentle toward yourself when you’re having a tough time. Drop expectations for getting things done. Let yourself have a good cry. You may find it helpful to join our free Better Together Mondays–a virtual support group for parents around the world. Note: If you are struggling with depression and find yourself unable to cope effectively, please reach out for support. The Disaster Distress Hotline # is 800-985-5990.
• Speak aloud what you’re going through, even if the only one listening is the family dog. Giving voice to difficult emotions can keep them from getting stuck inside us where they may manifest as anxiety, depression, or anger. If you have a trusted friend to talk with after a rough day, reach out and ask for a few minutes to unburden yourself, offering to do the same for them when they need it. But if that isn’t possible, talk about your frustrations with your dog, your goldfish, or a nearby houseplant! Simply expressing our feelings aloud can help lighten our spirit. Give yourself the gift of speaking your truth, whatever it may be. Just make sure not to use your children as your sounding board as they aren’t meant to be our confidantes.
• Be patient with yourself about everything. You may intellectually understand that your child’s rude remark isn’t personal or that your kids’ meltdown isn’t an indication that you’re “failing” at parenting. You may know that you need to grieve and let go of things that are causing your heart to hurt. But simply knowing something isn’t the same as living it. Grieving takes its own time. Turn down the volume on the voice that suggests you need to hurry up and let go, and give space to the painful feelings that may arise as you move through your day. If you start feeling flooded by sadness, excuse yourself for a few minutes (perhaps visiting the bathroom or the car) to have a cry or to offer yourself a loving hug as sorrow finds its way through you to be felt and released.
• When you’re feeling overwhelmed, imagine the mother or father you wish you had right now. Many parents are looking around the room for the grown up. We long to have someone appear who knows how to oversee homeschooling, keep the house cleaned, manage the care of elderly relatives, and take care of work responsibilities–all at the same time! If you feel yourself sinking under the weight of too many “shoulds”, give yourself the luxury of this short visualization:
Picture the most loving mother or father you can imagine, one who lights up when they see you and who embodies patience, acceptance, competence, and love. Imagine stepping into a space of your choosing–it might be a comfortable room from your childhood, or it could be a meadow or mountain stream–and see yourself being greeted with joy by this imaginary parent. Notice your whole being relaxing as you allow yourself to fall into the arms of this loving parent, feeling your shoulders and belly letting go as he or she gently speaks words of reassurance to you while you rest. Anchor yourself in the feeling of care and comfort that you feel, the sense of safety that emanates from their loving presence.
The feeling of ease that is activated through this visualization is always available to you, even if that idealized parent is not “real.” You can give yourself this type of nourishing moment in just a moment or two, solidifying it by touching your heart or stroking your hair the way a loving parent might, while saying, “There, there. We will get through this. It’s hard, but we will get through this. I’ve got you.”
None of us have lived through anything like this before. Even my 98 year old mother says, “I’ve never seen anything like this in the whole of my life”, and she’s lived nearly 100 years! Be very kind to yourself as you navigate through your day, keeping expectations low and giving space for whatever feelings arise. We will get through this, one day at a time.
If you could use additional parenting support, please visit this page for a wide range of resources, including Homeschooling in Isolation, Co-Parenting During Covid-19, and Better Together Mondays.