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 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.
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.