How to explain and digest the unexpected, the unpredictable, and genuinely, the undeserved? As adults, we have resources and plausible options: the capacity to gather more information, consult with professionals, listen to the experts, be proactive in mitigating possible damage, go to therapy, meditate, pray, mediate with a new sense of reality, reach out to family, friends, support systems and community resources. All the essential skills and means that we have acquired and utilized through maturity, experience, and enhanced understanding are at our disposal now. We also have a reservoir of cognitive and emotional tools that we can access under challenging times: self-regulation, insightfulness, analytical thinking, empathy, resilience, and spirituality.
Children do not have all of that. Their teddy bears do not speak back to them; their security blankets or pacifiers do not initiate the comforting. They are so dependent on others for their survival and care. How do they deal with their nightmares, with the scratched knee or infected ear, with their parents’ divorce or with the fears and despair exhibited by their adult parents or caregivers who gave in to collective hysterias or panic?
Children become consumers, easy prey, echo chambers, imitators, and recipients of what grownups exhale. At their young age, they still do not master essential emotional resources. So, they just absorb without channeling, or without the protective gear around their hearts and minds, inadvertently predisposing themselves to psychological maladjustment or mental illness. According to the Child/Mind Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to the study of childhood trauma, 22% of children will suffer some type of mental disorder, depression, anxiety, and others, “more than the number of children who have cancer, diabetes, and AIDS combined.”
This is as scary or dangerous as seeing children exposed to real physical harm as when they stand too close to the edge of a precipice or attempt to cross a busy highway during traffic hours. In essence, just as we protect them from such dangerous incidences, we should be committed to protecting them from emotional and psychological harm.
Our first step is to recognize the level of distress in the minds of our children. Let’s do a quick check: having nightmares, irritability, mood swings, anger issues, anxiety or unusual nervousness, defiance, inability to concentrate, hyperarousal, lethargy, overreaction to loud noises, urinating in bed, cutting, insomnia, obsessive behavioral patterns, over-eating, under-eating, functional impairment, attachment issues, crying for no apparent reason, obsessing with death, hypochondria. The presence of one of these symptoms by itself will not characterize a disorder, but the comorbidity of several of them might be suspicious.
Our second step is to help our children overcome the experiences and symptoms to usher them into wholeness and wellbeing. Here are some ideas:
- Make them feel safe by assuring them that you will be engaged in protecting them always.
- Comfort them, hug them, talk to them in a calm and friendly manner.
- Encourage them to be open about their feelings through words or drawings that can help them express their real emotions.
- Listen to them without ridicule.
- Ask them for their ideas and praise their creativity, but with honesty and courage, help them understand when their judgment is misguided and must be corrected.
- Play with them, engage in educational and fun activities that will distract them.
- Assure them that there are many people working day and night to help us all because we are not alone.
- Talk about good news, progress, positive changes, help already provided.
- Give them HOPE.
During this twilight zone of strange events, adequate parenting and caregiving must be elevated a few notches. We need to detoxicate our surroundings from fear, sadness, excessive anxiety, negativity, fighting, catastrophic thinking patterns, and hyper-emotionality. This is prime time for parents and caretakers to take ownership of the message and become the new professors of the university of life. Homeschooling curriculums need to incorporate “psychology 101” for navigating together through the unknown, and a new sense of appreciation for what is taken for granted.
This is a unique opportunity to teach our children about:
- The importance of honoring the fragility of all human life, young and old.
- The importance of discipline, obedience, and collaboration.
- The importance of exhibiting gratitude to all those who are serving in our communities, in our government, hospitals, and spend sleepless nights trying to protect us.
- The importance of saving resources versus squandering or wasting.
- Understanding the futility of many of our human behaviors or destructive lifestyles that rob us of time, money, and health.
- The difference between precaution and paralyzing fear.
- The difference between social distancing versus apathy, rejection, or prejudice.
- And, learning how to find the “silver lining” in every trial or tragedy: making inventory, not of losses, but lessons learned.
Every traumatic event will undoubtedly change us, for better or for worse. Suddenly, we recognize that we no longer live on autopilot. Now we must open our eyes and ears, activate all our resources and silenced gifts, and reconnect with every security network. Every next step must be discerned, meditated, or prayed-through. The final result is to transform every threatening situation into a trusting outcome. If our children learn these skills, they will have critical psychological tools needed throughout life. As conscientious parents let us make the most of this time in favor of their growth and maturity, and they will be survivors of this pandemic and many other trials in the future.
Dr. Martha Reyes
Doctor of Clinical Psychology
March 21, 2020
copyright 2020 M. Reyes