“He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
by RAHNELLA ADSIT
Being a father or a mother is challenging in the best of times, but it can be extremely difficult to navigate during a global crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. That roll of toilet paper you should have bought earlier… each of us could probably fill a roll with the list of all our worries! As a parent, we struggle at finding balance between protecting our children’s innocence and having to explain this new world to them. As much as we wish, the reality is we can’t always stop bad things from happening in our children’s lives. But we can help our children learn to cope with their anxiety, and develop strength and resilience so that they can meet the challenges ahead.
My parents modeled this to us as we were growing up. My dad was an aeronautical engineer and his career led us to 26 moves on three continents by the time I was 21 years old. My earliest memory is when we were living in Germany. It was 1961 and I was 6 years old. Cold War tensions in Berlin were running high. We were the only Americans living in a German neighborhood, about 170 miles east of Berlin. On August 13th, East German soldiers strung up barbed wire sealing off the passage connecting East and West Berlin, eventually building the Berlin Wall. Those tensions bubbled over into our neighborhood. One day our neighbors surrounded our house and started shouting “go home Yankees” and other epithets, and then they began hurling plates at the outside walls of our house. My father wasn’t home and we were scared. My dear mother, to comfort my brothers and me, told us that our neighbors were just welcoming us to the neighborhood. Then she had us crawl up onto the widow seat, wave at all our neighbors and shout out “danka schön, danka schön” (“thank you kindly”) in response. This may have been the first time, but it was not the last time we faced precarious situations as a family.
My parents taught us this: when we are in a dangerous situation, we needed to face our fears. We were to do this by carefully assessing the situation and evaluating our options. They talked about the importance of being aware of our surroundings. They taught us the value of listening to our instincts because sometimes they were more accurate than the information that we had in our heads. They taught us to embrace the hardships because they had things to teach us, and to accept those things we couldn’t change or control. Basically, our parents taught us to see challenges in our lives as opportunities to grow. These lessons continue to bear fruit in me as an adult, as I have had numerous occasions over the years to work in various war-torn countries around the world .
The ripple effect from the outbreak of this new virus has created a lot of fear and anxiety for all of us, but there are several things we can do to help our children face their fears and grow into adults who live their lives with courage. Here are 5 ways to help your children:
First, Take Care of Yourself. Your children are depending on you. It’s natural as a parent to put yourself on the bottom of the priority list, but it’s not the best thing to do for your family, especially in a critical situation. Remember what happens when you board a plane? The flight attendant goes over the safety procedures. One of them includes putting on your oxygen mask. What do they say? “Place the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping small children or others who may need your assistance.” Be aware of your stress levels and your feelings, and find ways to manage them. Your anxiety can be contagious. Get the most credible information you can regarding COVID-19. Find other adults to support you; do not use your children as your sounding board or confidants.
Establish a Weekly Family Huddle – This is a time set aside to share the latest updates on the pandemic, making sure it is age-appropriate. Keep it to the basics and reassure your children that people who contract COVID-19 will get sick, but most will recover. It’s a great opportunity to find out what they have heard, to talk about their feelings and review what you all need to do to reduce the risk of getting sick. To help allay everyone’s fears I suggest you develop a Family Action Plan and review it each week. This should include:
- Physical Activities which can promote health and decrease everyone’s anxiety. Try to eat right, step outside to get a breath of fresh air, stay hydrated, and exercise by walking around the block, dancing or using an exercise video.
- Mental Activities which will help keep your minds occupied. It is important to stick to a schedule, because during stressful times your child especially needs the safety and security that comes from a regular routine. Plan family activities, play games, read books together. Schedule time for school work. Limit TV time.
- Soul Activities, this can incorporate art or music. This touches the creative side of your brains and can bring beauty into your world and provide healthy ways to express one’s feelings.
- Relational Activities can mean sharing the burden by divvying up household chores. It could mean staying on top of family conflicts or developing clear protocols on how to safely connect with family & friends.
- Spiritual Activities can bring all of you comfort and strength. Help your family to work through spiritual concerns and needs. Pray together, read the scriptures, have a daily age appropriate devotional. Practice grace and forgiveness.
Develop a Family Emergency Plan – This is the time to visit the land of “what ifs.” I would encourage you to talk with your spouse/partner about worst case scenarios. Write up a list of questions that need to be addressed, such as, what happens if one or both of us get sick? What happens with the kids? Having a plan will help dispel some of your children’s fear if they ask those kinds of questions. Other good questions to ask: do we have our wills or Advanced Directives up to date? Do we have each other’s list of passwords? When kids sense that their parents are on top of things in an emergency, it gives them confidence.
Attempt to Meet Each Child Individually Every Day – Even if it’s only for five minutes.
- Be honest with your child – when they have questions, try to answer them clearly at a level they can understand. Your child is aware something happened – ask your child what they know and want to know and let them set the parameters of what you talk about. Don’t give more information than your child asks for. Encourage your child to ask questions at any time. Comfort them, but don’t give false assurances, this only stokes the fire of their anxiety. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
- Listen to your child’s feelings and concerns – teach them they can have strong feelings but there are positive and negative ways to express them. Teach them how to express their feelings in a constructive way. Some children may show what they’re thinking/feeling through their pictures, their play or the little ditties they sing. This can relieve stress, give you clues to their concerns and open the door for talking about their feelings. Expect some acting out and regression, such as problems with potty training, sucking their thumb, whining, clinging or temper tantrums. For older children you may see emotional outbursts, disrespectful behavior, slamming doors, shutting themselves in their rooms, etc. Be patient, set clear boundaries, and be consistent in your discipline.
Look for the Positive and Take Action – For instance, teach your children to practice what Mr. Roger’s mother said to him when he was a little boy and saw scary things in the news. She said: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Point out that there are heroes and helpers who are diligently and selflessly working to make this situation better. Encourage your family to share stories about how they saw people helping one another, then talk about ways you all can help others.
In the midst of this crisis, the greatest gift you can give your child is this; your love is the antidote to their fear.
“There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear.”
I John 4:18 MSG
Children & Teens Resources:
Rahnella Adsit – International Coordinator for REBOOT Recovery; speaker, author/co-author: When War Comes Home, Combat Trauma Healing Manual, First Responder Healing Manual and REBOOT First Responders Course.