By: Christina Melville, MSED, LCPC, NCC, Clinical Therapist at 360 Youth Services
Part 3 of 3
It’s likely that over the past 6 weeks both you and your kiddo(s) have experienced many difficult emotions: frustration, fear, aggravation, anxiety, sadness, and even sensations of grief as we mourn the loss of the lifestyle we were living a short while ago. It has been an emotionally draining time. Hopefully you’ve also experienced joy, laughter, gratitude, and even relief as you discover gifts that have come from being at home together.
Children and adolescents are navigating their emotional responses to this unprecedented time, and so are we as parents. Sometimes those responses collide, and sometimes they are occurring on parallel journeys. All of our reactions to this are normal and understandable; there is no right or wrong way to feel.
To help our kids manage their emotions, I encourage you to first be reflective of how you respond to stress. What types of behaviors or habits are you modeling for your kiddos? Do you respond right away in anger or irritation? Do you give yourself a moment of space to breathe and then tackle the problem? Is your tone calm and soothing? Sometimes I get overwhelmed and resort to yelling when I feel stressed, which tends to make the situation worse. And I remind myself that if I, an adult with a fully developed brain, have difficulty regulating my emotions, then I can’t expect my kids to master those skills on their own. Kids build their emotional intelligence skills by watching and learning from us. As hard as it is, it is important for us to model the best example we can. No pressure, right?
But if we can work on our own self-awareness of what our triggers are and use that information to develop self-soothing skills, we can be better prepared to help our kids do the same when they are in distress. It’s okay to take a few minutes to collect yourself, breathe, and try to re-frame the situation so that you can approach it from a different vantage point. It isn’t easy, but the more you practice your own response, the greater success you will have in helping your kiddo manage theirs. Identify your feelings, say them out loud for your kids to hear you, and then let them observe your process for working through those tough emotions. It can be an amazing teachable moment for them.
When attending to your child’s big feelings, I encourage the use of empathy so they feel heard and seen. For example, “I know this is scary not knowing when we can see friends again, and it’s okay to feel sad about it. I feel sad too,” or “I can’t imagine how frustrating it is to do all of your schoolwork from home. What has it been like for you?” Invite them to share their experience and emotions and reassure them that what they are feeling is okay. Even if they have an outburst, let them know it is understandable that they are struggling and that you’re right there with them to get through it. Brainstorm coping skills together so they have tools to use when tensions are high. It can be as simple as them taking a break and going for a walk, putting on their favorite music, giving them a snack or water break, or letting them take a few minutes to switch gears by engaging in coping skills like coloring or journaling. Partner with your kids and let them have some autonomy in deciding what they need.
When self-awareness and self-soothing is not possible for either you or your kiddo because life is VERY extra right now, I’m also a great believer in pushing the reset button. The best part about it is there is no limit to how many times you can push it. Sometimes the process of resetting and making up is more important than whatever blow-up or tantrum (either by child or parent) happened in the first place. Human beings are feeling, sensing creatures and life is hard. Sometimes all the best parenting tips in the world will not prevent you or your child from yelling or lashing out. That’s okay. Push that reset button, take a deep breath, and when things have de-escalated, focus on the repair work with your child. Own your part in the communication break-down, apologize for anything you regretted saying or doing, and make sure to focus on identifying feelings for both you and your kiddo. Discuss what you both will try doing differently next time. Listen to your kids and help give them the emotional vocabulary they need to express what they are going through.
Some days your response to your kids will be very Zen. Other days it will not. Give yourself and your kiddos grace to make mistakes and to focus on the reset and repair part of navigating big feelings. I believe one of the gifts that will emerge from this pandemic experience is our collective emotional intelligence and resilience will be stronger than we ever thought possible.
Best wishes to you in the coming weeks ahead as we steer our world towards health and safety. Show up for your people, reach out to others, practice good self-care, and push the reset button as many times as you need until we come through the other side.
360 Youth Services in Naperville, IL provides substance use prevention education and counseling for youth and families, as well as housing for youth experiencing homelessness.