Feeling Together Blog

EMOTIONAL WELLNESS FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY

I am not homeschooling my children. I am schooling them from home.

Not only that, but I am also getting my children through the first crisis in their lives, a global crisis.

I am a mother first. My children are human beings first.

I am balancing getting them through their current reality while planning for a future potential reality. That reality may include my husband being activated as a physician in the Air Force Reserves. I am preparing my oldest son for what happens if I get sick while my husband is gone. All of a sudden, he would go from being a 14-year-old kid living through this crisis while doing schoolwork from home and sometimes meeting with friends online, to a 14-year-old kid caring for three younger siblings while I seclude myself.

This is our reality. I am sharing it because I know I am not alone. There are many of us feeling pressures of various sorts, outside of the schooling from home demands, related to this global pandemic. Some parents are wondering about survival logistics such as paying for groceries, or whether or not to go to the ER. Some children are dealing with not seeing their high-risk working parents who are choosing to self isolate. These times are not normal. Let’s stop treating them like they are. Let’s give ourselves and our children permission to be flexible.

I am focusing on what I can do now for my children’s mental, social, and emotional health. I believe that by prioritizing these areas, intellectual growth will come. It won’t come without a strong emotional baseline. Schoolwork may or may not happen. I repeat, schoolwork may or may not happen. That is OK.

Here’s my gameplan:

Keep the wonder

In my work as a psychotherapist and play therapist, I focus on wonder. Wonder is related to delight in the unexpected. We can find wonder in ourselves, others, and the world around us. When we do, we tend to have emotional and social well-being.

We often connect a sense of wonder to childhood. We don’t have to outgrow it. I write elsewhere about why we might outgrow a sense of wonder. One gift of parenting, however, is that children invite us to embrace a sense of wonder.

  • They invite us to the here-and-now moment.
  • They invite us to appreciate small relational moments.
  • They invite us to see the whole of the universe folded up in the beauty of small things around us.

While appreciation of wonder is often associated with the outdoors, or with places such as the Grand Canyon, wonder is everywhere. It truly lies all around us. We can find it even while sheltering in place.

During this time, focus on the wonder and delight available in the here-and-now moment, on relational wonder, and the wonder in small things around us. Search for life’s miracles in the everyday.

Support Playfulness

In my experience, the desire to control comes from fear. These are fearful times. If they aren’t fearful, they are filled with “not knowing.” That alone causes underlying discomfort because our brains prefer complete stories. This story is unwritten.

At the beginning of sheltering in place, I thought I would have a very controlled calendar and schedule for myself and my children. I desired structure. I desired knowns. I desired these things in the face of unknowns and a reduced sense of power. Also, it’s what I was used to. Again, these are not normal times.

  • Play is spontaneous.
  • Play is limitless.
  • Play fortifies.
  • Play heals.

Play is the antithesis to control. And vice versa. Children, now, more than ever, need play.

Making room for play in life means loosening the reigns of perceived control.

Playfulness can take many forms. It can arise in many ways. Playfulness can occur as a planned family game, it can be used as an intentional intervention to reduce stress, and it can occur spontaneously (likely because it is needed ….). Allow it to bubble up spontaneously and trust that it bubbles up as needed. Children are intuitive. They will play as needed. Let them.

Within my family with children age 6 to 14, my husband and I use playfulness to strengthen our relationships with all of them. We use it intentionally to help explore feelings. We also let it arise spontaneously. When it does, we drop what we are doing and engage or support the play. We trust that if our children are being playful when we are trying to do school work or housework, they are needing that playfulness. Then, once connected and grounded, we go about the business at hand.

Children don’t need control. They need structure and nurture. Let the fluid balance of both support play.

Expect Regression

Children of all ages regress for different reasons. They may regress under stress. They may regress when they are mastering a new skill. When they do regress, they are seeking to meet their emotional, social, and physical needs similarly to the ways they did in previous developmental stages.

Regression can manifest more directly. In other words, children seek to meet their needs in different ways. It may look like a child suddenly wanting more physical touch, or speaking like a baby. It may mean carrying around a stuffed animal everywhere. Personally, I have a teen who suddenly wants to hold my hand more. I let him. He is seeking and receiving nonverbal strokes for being. (I discuss strokes further down in this blog.)

Regression can manifest more indirectly. Instead of a child seeking to meet his or her needs in a different way, he or she gets frustrated with where they are. Suddenly, children may find that tasks they had previously carried out easily, are now difficult and frustrating. I have a child who is naturally organized and requires very little support for schoolwork. Now, he asks me to sit next to him as he goes through his assigned school work and decides what he needs to do when. Other children are suddenly not understanding things they recently grasped. It’s a form of regression. When they feel supported and nurtured where they are, trust they will return to where they were.

Regressing is normal. You may find yourself regressing a bit as well. It’s OK. Be flexible in meeting your needs so you can be flexible in meeting the needs of your children. For me, it means taking a nap when I can, calling my mom more, and reaching out more to my friends.

Freely Give Positive Strokes

Eric Berne, who originated transactional analysis, described a stroke as a unit of attention. Strokes can be positive or negative; for doing or for being; verbal or non-verbal. Children at different stages of development need different kinds of strokes. For instance, infants need verbal and nonverbal positive strokes for being (Example: Cooing, smiling, eye contact, etc.) Children who are learning to walk need positive strokes for doing (Ex: Yay! You’re walking!) and some negative strokes for doing (Ex: Don’t touch the light socket.). Children require very few negative strokes for doing or negative strokes for being (Ex: Verbal or Nonverbal messages that the child disgusts you, or saying “You’re such an idiot!”).

School is an excellent source of strokes for doing and for being. Children receive positive strokes from teachers, staff members, and their friends. Of course, they also receive negative strokes, but the positive strokes generally far outweigh the negative strokes. This is especially true in schools that have figured out that acknowledging positive behavior goes further than pointing out negative behavior.

As parents, we are highly invested in our children’s behavior. We want to see them doing well and doing the “right” things. We can be overly focused on what they are doing wrong, and often we do this from the best of intentions. Also, we may turn away opportunities for positive strokes for being by saying “no” to cuddles and playing. With awareness, however, of how we are communicating to our children, we can shift from a framework of pointing out what they are doing wrong and saying “no” to connecting, to focusing on what they are doing well and saying “yes” to connecting and playing.

Adjust the Framework

We all need positive strokes. When our stroke banks are running low or in a deficit, it is harder to stay centered. Do what you need to do to change your framework to allow for positive strokes. A couple of ways to change a framework include:

  • If you are a perfectionist, it is hard to have a sense of being good enough. Give yourself a margin of error. Also, don’t expect perfection from children. Give them a margin of error as well.
  • If you like to have all the answers, become comfortable with the unknown. It is OK to not know.
  • Don’t hold yourself to the standards you once did. Loosen them, give yourself positive strokes for the job you are doing. Avoid negative strokes for the job you are not doing.

Understand that this is more than another crisis. This global pandemic and our necessary response to stop the spread may also be inviting a crisis of narrative (Who am I?) and/or a crisis of meaning (Where is my place in the world?). In fact, our very understanding of the world around us may be shifting.

This brings me to grief.

Ambiguous Grief

I became personally familiar with ambiguous grief and loss when my brother went missing while sailing. Not knowing whether he was dead or alive was very difficult. I didn’t have a clear loss (confirmation of death). But I felt tremendous grief. One moment I felt fine, and the next I felt a sense of overwhelming sadness. I seesawed back and forth. It was nauseating. He eventually was rescued. The grief subsided.

The parallel I see now is not knowing. We don’t really know what will come. Some of us talk about “returning to normal” and others talk about “welcoming a new-normal.”  No matter what comes in the future, not knowing what is becoming of the world invites grief for the world we knew.

Ride the grief. Let it come and go. This is true for children too. Even if you haven’t told your children much about what is happening in the world, they can pick up on the feelings we are having. They sense and intuit what is going on around them and within us. Many children are aware of what is happening and very aware of their losses. They are grieving too. Their grief will manifest in many ways. So far, in my home, it has manifested as anger, in tears, in excited energy, lack of energy, lack of focus, a desire for closeness, and more.

Grief invites meaning-making.

  • Experience the grief.
  • Allow for meaning-making.

This will help with both a crisis of narrative and a crisis of meaning. If we attempt to stifle our grief or our children’s grief, we stifle the meaning-making process.

Yes, we are in a crisis. But this crisis is full of opportunity. It might not be offering the opportunities we want or wish for ourselves, our children, or each other, but still, they are present. I believe that with connection to ourselves, others, the world … and a Higher Power … we will come through this with enriched, enlightened meaning.

Meaning-making is also world-making. The meaning we make out of this will determine the world we create. So, yes, grieve for that world. Cry for it. Let it go. Make room for a new one–enriched and enlightened.

 

 

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