Making the ‘New Normal’ Work – How to help kids, teens, and your family through social isolation.

Social isolation will be affecting all of us in different ways. In times of uncertainty and escalating anxiety, as the important adult in their lives you are the solution. It won’t always feel like it, but you are.

Your incredible power lies in your ability to find enough calm within your own anxiety to be a strong, steady presence for your children. It doesn’t mean not feeling anxious and it doesn’t mean being a peddler of optimism or certainty. What it means is whatever you might be feeling, they can feel the strength of you through it all. Your relationship with them is built in the precious space between you and them. Whatever is happening out there, this is the space in the world you can control. 

 Here are some ways to do that. 

Our teens might be feeling particularly vulnerable during social isolation.

During adolescence one of the primary roles for teens is to explore their independence from the family. They are wired to do this. They are also wired to turn more towards their peers for the meeting of important needs such as a sense of belonging, safety, emotional support, and information about who they are and where they fit into the world. Without a doubt, if you have an adolescent in your life, you might have felt their almighty push against you. This does not mean they don’t need you, and it certainly doesn’t mean they don’t want you. 

More than anything, and more than ever, adolescents need strong connections with the adults in their lives. In fact, it has always been this way. Don’t buy into the worn-out cliches about adolescents not wanting to be close to the adults in their lives. They want to be close. They just don’t want to be controlled. 

During adolescence, we need to let the connection be more on their terms for a while. Check-in with them and let them know you’re there. Sometimes they might want to talk, and sometimes they might want to be distracted. Let them know you’re up for either.

There will be so much that will be feeling out of their control during social isolation – assessment uncertainty, the loss of sporting or extra-curricular events, the loss of time with friends. Let them have choices wherever you can, even with the things you might have held onto control of a little tighter before now. If something feels important to them, and if the outcome isn’t terrible, think about handing it over to them. 

If they need to connect with peers online, be the one who helps that happen. 

When there is no capacity to connect in person, it can make the world feel even more unsafe and uncertain. Whenever you can, support their attempts to connect with friends online. House Party and Google Hangouts are ways for them to connect in groups. Of course, we need to make sure they are safe, but the truth of it all is that for teens at least, with or without us they will be finding ways to connect. Things will always be better for them if it’s with us. For this to happen though, we need to make sure they feel safe enough to share their decisions with us. It’s the only way we will be able to influence the ones that could lead them headfirst into trouble.  

Make sure they move.

Exercise is one of the most important ways to keep their mental health strong. One of the ways exercise works to decrease anxiety is by helping the brain to maintain healthy levels of the neurochemical, GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid). We all have neurons that have the personality of puppies – easily excited and quick to fire up. They are healthy and normal and help us think quickly and act quickly. Sometimes though, these little gems can become a little too excited. Sometimes too much of a good thing is wonderful. Sometimes it causes anxiety. When there are too many excited neurons firing up for some fight or flight action in the absence of any real need, anxiety happens. Cue GABA. GABA is the brain’s ‘nanny chemical’ that calms these overactive neurons when they need some hushing. Like all neurochemicals though, it can only do its job when its levels are right, and exercise is a way to make this happen. 

There is something else exercise does. Research has found that GABA plays an important part in a person’s capacity to stop the cycle of negative thinking that can lead to anxiety or depression. Here’s how it works. The hippocampus is a key part of the brain involved in memory. ‘Memories’ aren’t just built by our experiences. They can also be built by ‘memories’ of the stories we hear through the news, movies, books, other people, or thoughts about memories, images, or worries. When we retrieve the memories of those experiences, stories, thoughts over and over, and when they are negative, it can lead to a cycle of negative thinking. Our capacity to interrupt this negative thinking with healthier thoughts is important for mental wellness, and GABA plays a role in this. People with less GABA in the hippocampus are less able to stop thinking unwanted thoughts.  

Exercise is a healthy way to make sure GABA are at the levels it needs to be to do its job, whether that is calming the overexcited neurons that lead to anxiety or interrupting negative thought cycles that also feed anxiety. 

Screen time – think of it as an ‘adding in’, more than a ‘cutting out’.

If social isolation means more screen time, that’s okay. We’re going to be here for a while, but not forever. There will be time to reign things in but in the middle of a global pandemic isn’t one of them. 

The trouble with screen time is what it gets in the way of – play, time outside, family time, face to face conversation, exercise, reading, sleeping. The challenge, then, is how can we add this in. To make sure screen time doesn’t intrude too much, think of the issue of screen time more in terms of what can we ‘add in’ to keep things healthy, rather than ‘how much screen time we need to cut out.  If your kids are old enough, ask them to come up with a plan for how they can make sure they include other important things their brains and bodies need – play, time outside, healthy eating, exercise or movement, family time, sleeping, reading. Once they’ve done that, then there is less chance of screen time doing damage. Think of it less about managing screen time, and more about leaving space for other things. 

And while we’re on screen time …

Not all screen time is created equal. For many kids, especially adolescents, isolation means their screens are the only way they can connect with their important people, and now more than ever, they will be needing that. Screen time is also a way that kids can escape the world for a little while. If there was ever a time to support their ‘escapism’, it’s now. Of course, there are other ways to do this – reading, playing, writing stories – and it’s okay if screen time is one of them.

Let their big feelings take up space.

Their anxiety and uncertainty will activate yours. It’s part of what it means to be a parent. When they hurt, we’ll catch it. This isn’t because there is something wrong, but because what you are feeling is so right. You will be feeling protective, maybe anxious, and wishing you could make things better. When the people we love are hurting, we hurt too. It’s just the way it is. These feelings are important, and if we open up to them there is so much they can teach us about the experiences, needs and wishes of our young loves.

Your own anxiety has so much wisdom about what your child might be experiencing. If you can be with it in a way that isn’t overwhelming, it will let you sit right there beside them, in the middle of the mess. If we can do this without disappearing under the weight of it all, and if we can find calm, strength and a sense of our own power, we can expand this just enough for our children to feel it too. Think of it as creating the space they need to come in out of the storm. You might still feel anxious about what’s happening out there, but right now, and right here, you are safe and so are they. If you need to, take a moment and a few strong, steady breaths. Then, place your hand on your heart, or wherever your anxiety might live, and repeat the mantra, ‘I am safe. I am safe. I am safe.’

Let nature, nurture. 

If we could bundle up what nature gives us, and take it everywhere we go, we would all be better for it. Research has found that 20-30 minutes in nature, or somewhere that gives the sense of being close to nature (such as a park, a garden or a backyard) can significantly reduce cortisol, the stress hormone. 

Mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the wonder drug that’s not a drug of the mental health world. It changes the structure and function of the brain in ways that strengthen mental health generally. A consistent practice of mindfulness during social isolation will help lower cortisol (the stress hormone), increase GABA (important to calm anxiety) activity in the amygdala (the ‘anxiety’ part of the brain), increase anxiety in the pre-frontal cortex (the ‘resilience’ centre of the brain). As well as this, mindfulness can help with attention, finding calm when feelings feel big, and sleep. (See here for mindfulness videos for kids.)

Sleep. But how to get them there.

The part of the brain most sensitive to a lack of sleep is the amygdala – the seat of anxiety. This means that if your kiddos (or you) aren’t getting enough sleep, anxiety will more likely to drop in. But – the relationship is complicated. A lack of sleep will feed anxiety, but anxiety makes it harder to get to sleep. A way around this is to bring in a bedtime routine that makes it easy to find peaceful pillow time. If you can, have them start with a warm bath or shower to help calm the nervous system. From there, make space for a 15-30 minute routine (whatever works for them) that includes a combination of any or all of strong deep breathing, gratitude (it makes positive memories more accessible than the negative ones that can feed anxiety), muscle relaxation (tense then relax your toes, then feet, then lower legs, upper legs, tummy … and work your way up to your head), or guided imagery. And have an end time for screens. Your young loves might not thank you for it, but if their brains could give you a million kisses, it would. 

You don’t have to keep them entertained, (even if they work hard on having you believe otherwise).

You don’t have to keep your kiddos entertained and learning all day during social isolation, or any other time. Boredom is the spark for creativity (even if it sparks a few frayed tempers first). Play is the best way to nurture learning. When children make their own discoveries, the learning and the richness that comes from that will often nourish them at least as much as the things that come from an online classroom. 

Love-bomb them.

Whether you’re working from home, or whether you’re working at home (which is all parents), you’re going to need time and space to get things done. To make this easier, and to soften any feelings you might have around not spending enough time with them, try to set a time that you can reliably be with them every day, towards the end of the day. It might take them a few days to trust that it’s coming, but when they do, it will be easier for them to give you the space you need (and for you to take it) because they know their time with you is coming. Let them time be all about them, and directed by them if you can. It might be half an hour kicking a ball outside, walking the dog, baking, building a fort, chatting under a tree – whatever lets them feel your full attention on them. Whether it’s one on one time or time as a family, it doesn’t matter. The important part is letting them feel that there is a time each day when they will feel your laser focussed love and attention for a while.

But ultimately, the solution is you.

Some days you’ll have the parenting thing sorted. Other days it will be a mess. Neither will break your children. We are facing such extreme times, and for a while anyway, things will be different from what we wish they could be, and that’s okay. There is so much we can’t control, but there are things we can choose. What can you choose to bring to the space between you both? What can you bring to their anxiety to make it soften? What can you bring into your day to take time for you, to be kinder to you, and to play?

Let go of any ideas you might be holding onto about being a ‘perfect parent’. Your children don’t need a perfect parent, they need you. It’s okay if you need space sometimes, or if you amp up screen time for the sake of peace, or say things you shouldn’t. That won’t break them and it won’t hurt them to see that you’re human too, just like them. What’s important is that if there is a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. We are living through the most extreme times, and we are going to feel the strain of it. That’s okay. The most healing, loving things you can do have nothing to do with perfection, and everything to do with connection.

You have the most profound power to help them feel calm and safe, just by being there with them. This doesn’t mean never feeling anxious. It means adding in calm, courage, and hope whenever you can. Nothing out there will matter more than what happens in the space that exists between you and them. This is where your true power lies – in the space you create for them that is warm, loving, welcoming and safe. 

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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