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What every child needs during this pandemic & beyond – Safety & Connection

Like every parent in the pandemic, I too am struggling to stay afloat. Not thrive but just survive. Two years ago, if someone had asked me whether I could play the role of being with my children 24/7- being their parent, teacher, friend, classmate, playmate, I would have told them it's absolutely impossible. And yet, it now seems like we have stretched ourselves beyond what we could ever imagine. And it's not just managing our children but everything else in our lives- our work, homes, our own parents. How does one handle all this while surrounded by a cloud of anxiety and uncertainty? Wondering each day what we need to do to keep ourselves and our families safe from Covid.

 

 Why is the pandemic considered a traumatic event? 

“So what do you think our children most need from us during this pandemic?”, an older colleague of mine asked me a while ago. I rudely shot back, “I am simply struggling to get through each day, keep everyone safe, put food on the table, manage my work, keep children occupied and keep myself from going crazy. Do you think I have time for these deeper questions?” To which she said, “Do you know that what we are all going through is collective trauma? Only if we recognise this, can we reduce the long term effects of this pandemic”.

Really! I was taken aback. Oh my gosh!… It's true I hadn't  thought enough about what this intense anxiety, fear, uncertainty, loss, unmet needs, and isolation is doing to us, both adults and children. I began to find out more.   

According to the Center for the Developing Child, Harvard, ‘COVID-19 is a global communal trauma–it fundamentally reshapes our world views, including our sense of trust in others, in larger systems, and ourselves.’

As a parent educator, who spends time learning about how the brain develops, I should have realized that the past year and half has had a deep impact on the very wiring of our brains! 

 

We  know that stress is a part of life. Stress in small doses is OK and even healthy as it can work as a motivator, like feeling stressed for an exam may push us to study. But constant stress is toxic. We start viewing the world as an unsafe place. Our brains are operating on high alert and many of us may be experiencing constant anxiety. This feeling could stay with us and our children much after the pandemic is over. 

 

What we all need to focus on, at this point of time, is how to build RESILIENCE-  A feeling that even when faced with adversity, we have it in us to  recover and get back to a place of balance and mental well-being. We want resilience for ourselves and our children - it helps us cope with trauma. 

 

How can I build resilience in myself and my children?  

“Amidst the overwhelm of each day, do we have it in us to think about resilience and how to develop it?”, I asked my colleague.  She replied, “What if I told you that this is the single most important thing we can do for ourselves and our children at this point of time? Children can always make up for learning or other milestones they have missed out on, but this can happen only if they are emotionally and mentally in a good space”.  

 

According to child trauma experts at the Child Trauma Training Center at the University of Massachusetts, ‘Young people—even infants and toddlers—are keen observers of people and environments, and they notice and react to stress in their parents and other caregivers, peers, and community members. Adults who strengthen these skills in themselves can better model healthy behaviors for their children, thereby improving the resilience of the next generation.’

 

I realised that if I did not feel safe and calm, I could not help build resilience in my children and so I decided to take a few simple steps towards my own mental well-being by paying attention to: 

  •  Rest (getting adequate sleep and downtime to unwind). 
  • Exercise (even a short walk or stretching routine). 
  • Taking time out to do something I enjoy. 
  • Eating well.
  • Breathing or meditation to counter anxiety.  
  • Finding supportive relationships to talk-laugh-share-connect. 
  • Letting go of many expectations I had of myself and of my children.

 

The adults in the house also reached an agreement with regard to not watching too much News or discussing ‘COVID’ all the time.  

With a positive attitude, we communicate to our children that we, as a family, are doing everything to keep them safe despite all that is happening around them.

 

The Center for the Developing Child Harvard tells us that the one thing that most children who develop resilience have in common is a stable, warm relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.  “Resilience is not a trait that we develop in isolation. It is more of a process–often a messy onethat is primarily developed through experiencing responsiveness.”

In the face of worry and helplessness for our children, it is empowering to know that we are in a position to mitigate the effects of this trauma. Warm relationships work as a protective factor. We worry about their studies, homework, eating and exercise, and transfer this worry to them along with the pressure to do things. We may feel that they are well taken care of, and so what do they have to be stressed about? We may not understand the extent to which this ‘abnormal’ life is affecting them. We may find them anxious, clingy, not sleeping well, overly cranky and demanding, unaware that it is the cumulative effect of going through this pandemic. Their basic needs for friends, play, movement are not being met and the ongoing situation of not having needs met is a form of trauma. 

From anxiety to emotional safety and well-being - Be the protective factor for our children.

Children feel emotionally safe and connected to us when: 

  • They receive a lot of physical touch, hugging and holding. 
  • They are reassured that all will be well. 
  • We let go of normal expectations as this is not a normal time. 
  • They have a choice and control over decisions in their life such as school work, extracurricular activities, food, clothes etc. 
  • We are relaxed about screen time as they often need the screens to connect with their friends. 
  • We avoid conflict with them or other adults, keeping the home environment calm. 
  • We find positive ways to set limits. 
  • We create a routine where there are fixed times in the day when they can connect with us either through play or a short chat. 
  • We have rituals like eating together or reading a story at night.  

Children feel they are surrounded by a wall of safety which is family. 

Thinking about all this was hard for me, given how much I was juggling, yet, having the clarity of what my children MOST need from me gave me strength. I found it easier to shelve the homework, let go when my children sometimes refused to sit for online class, spend time hugging them and listening to their feelings, stop myself from yelling about screen time and be less rigid about routine. I could tell myself, ‘It's OK’,  there is a purpose to my actions.  

Experts say that having reliable supportive caregivers makes toxic stress tolerable for children  and they learn how to cope and adapt to adversity, hence building their resilience. My children are absorbing what it means to endure difficult times. I am investing in their future. I hope this sense of security and well-being will take them forward when we emerge from the pandemic and stay with them for life whatever challenges they may face.  

RESOURCES

  1. For more about common FAQs about how to support children in the pandemic download our free booklet-https://parentingmatters.in/covid-resources
  2. For more about resilience - https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/resilience/

Kesang Menezes is a certified parent educator with Parenting Matters, an organization which empowers parents to build deeper connections in families.

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