Earlier this week my son called to me after lights out. I sat beside his bed and asked, “What’s up bud? Do you need something?”
“I’m thinking about all the grandparents dying,” he responded “I just know I’m not going to be able to sleep.”
I tried to resist the urge to unleash a torrent of reassuring words backed up by a litany of reasons to not worry.
Kids have spent the past year hearing about or experiencing infection and death rates, family illness and loss, and racial violence. Then on top of all of that they have had to process horrible accounts of two mass shootings in the past week alone. No doubt my child is not the only one preoccupied with worries about losing loved ones. Trying to convince him that loss is not a part of life would ring especially hollow right now.
Being a worrier myself though, I had to work really hard to hold back the reassurance river. Instead of saying “I will never ever let your Grandparents die and just so you know I couldn’t handle that either!!!” like I wanted to, I used all of my self control to pause and rub his back instead. “It is really sad and hard to think about losing the people we love. You love your grandparents so much and they love you so much.” With those words he reached for a big hug and let his pent up tears flow.
After a bit, I asked, “Do you want to hear more about how I think about this?”
During the fumbling but tender conversation that followed we did do a little right-sizing of his worry. We reminded one another that his three sets of beloved grandparents are currently healthy and safe. I continued to hold back my urge to tell him that we would keep them safely in a protective bubble for the rest of days. Mostly we chatted about things we can do when we do inevitably experience loss. More settled now, we agreed that these this would be easier to think about during the daytime and promised to follow up the next day.
Rushing to reassure tends to backfire.
This has been a complicated and heavy time to say the least. There are plenty of feelings and worries – large and small – that are showing up for kids and parents alike. Whether it’s loss, transitioning back to school, or grappling with uncertain futures, it can be tempting to respond to our kids’ concerns with heavy reassurance.
Here’s what it might sound like:
“You don’t need to worry about school – it is going to be just great!”
“Here are all the reasons you don’t need to think about that right now.”
Our desire to reassure, of course, springs from an understandable motivation. After all, who among us doesn’t want to protect our kids from pain, worry and sadness? The first challenge is that we can’t actually control these outcomes for our kids. In addition, trying to convince them that their feelings aren’t warranted or can be avoided might temporarily soothe but doesn’t work in the long term. It robs kids of the chance to name their feelings, understand the context for them, and build a toolkit for handling them.
While grief, anger, worry, sadness, and other emotions are distinct and operate a little differently, there is a link that is worth paying attention to. In related but disparate fields, we are asked to pause and help kids wrestle with the hard stuff.
For example, psychologist and anxiety expert Lynne Lyons argues that when it comes to worry, we would be much better off helping our kids “roll around with the uncertainty and go with the mights and maybes” than to try to constantly persuade kids that everything will be fine. Similarly, the National Alliance for Grieving Children often reminds parents that grief is a normal reaction to loss. Avoiding talks about it only makes children feel more alone and/or confused by their internal experiences. Finally, Dr. Dena Simmons reminds parents and educators alike that real social-emotional learning itself isn’t about “breathing through” the painful emotional aftermath of racism; it’s about grappling with it.
Dr. Lisa Damour provides a helpful definition of good mental health as “Feeling feelings at the right time and moving through them.” We certainly need to be alert for kids who get stuck in sadness or worry loops and provide different kinds of mental health supports. But it’s important to remember that emotionally healthy children should have big feelings in response to what is happening in their worlds.
What can we do instead?
This month marks one year of living and parenting and teaching through a global pandemic and long overdue reckoning about racial injustice. Let’s be sure that as we slowly move out into the world we make room to recognize and name the messy parts. There are as many ways to do this as there are parents and kids. If you are looking for some guidance, I have found this three step process to be helpful. This might take place over a few minutes or across much longer periods of time:
Take a deep breath before you respond. Settle your own body. Notice your own impulses. Do you tend to over-reassure? Do you amplify and escalate? Don’t talk right away. You might use this time to move closer, rub your child’s back, or sit next to your teen.
Give your child permission to feel and name their discomfort, sadness, uncertainty, or anger. It might sound simple but it doesn’t come naturally to all of us! We might try responding with something like,
“Yeah, it might feel really weird to see kids at school again. That makes sense after this wild year.” Or, “You love your grandparents so much. Of course it makes you sad to think about losing them.” Or “You have every right to be hurt and angry.”
Remember, creating space for emotion doesn’t mean amplifying or wallowing. Likewise, acknowledging uncertainty doesn’t mean promoting chaos. Instead, we can work to right-size feelings, provide reasonable reminders of what we can control, and then build a toolkit to move through the rest. For example, we might say,
“It felt weird when you transitioned to a new school a couple of years ago and you made it work. Let’s remember what worked last time.” Or, “We can’t make this go away, but we can try to make it a little more bearable. How about tomorrow you and I cook Baba’s favorite recipe?” or “It makes sense that you are rageful about what happened. We will do what we can do to keep safe. What have you learned about movements trying to create change?”
The good news is that these three steps don’t just help us parent through the hard stuff, they help us notice and make meaning of the good stuff too. During this year we have also experienced unexpected joy, overwhelming love, and tenderness. As vaccines roll out and movements build, we hope there is more of this to come. Let’s not skip over this either. Give yourself and your kids permission to Pause. Feel. And Move into it.