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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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