Falling Apart and Finding Resilience
Dear exhausted parent:
No one has a playbook for how to navigate family living during these challenging times, so please don't feel badly that you aren't doing any of this perfectly. Most parents and kids are riding a daily roller coaster of emotions as we sometimes worry, sometimes grieve the loss of normal life as we knew it, sometimes want nothing more than to escape the closeness of quarantine, and sometimes feel our hearts swell with gratitude for the sweet and tender moments of family connection. Our many mixed feelings show up in each moment in our behavior, and it can feel extremely challenging for both parents and kids to bring their best self forward during these unusual times. Believe it or not, though, you are growing and becoming stronger individually and as a family, even now.
We all have what can be called a "resiliency zone" - a capacity to show up as our best self, despite the ups and downs of life. Some of us are born with a very deep and wide resiliency zone; some of us are born with a more narrow one. But the good news is that we can all - kids and adults alike - learn to stretch our capacity for resilience, and to show up as our best self (or mostly best self!) despite challenge and adversity.
It's not so much that any of us needs to make resiliency growth a priority at this time - if anything, the priority should be simply getting through the day in one piece. If people are fed and you're still functioning, albeit on far lower batteries than usual, that's a win! But whether you're aware or not, both parents and kids are building the muscle of resilience each and every day, by virtue of the fact that you are getting through the day - which means that you're flexing and adapting to highly unusual circumstances as best you can. You likely won't recognize obvious signs that you're building resiliency muscle just yet, and that's okay. You likely won't see the fruits of this labor until we're all feeling safer again, and life has begun to return to some semblance of normalcy - we're able to leave our homes, school is back in session, we're working in ways that more closely resemble what we were doing before the pandemic.
Based on our years of study of regulation, trauma resiliency, and neuroscience, we've put together some simple tools and practices to help support you and your family - and to help you deepen and widen your capacity to show up as your best self during theses difficult times.
Acknowledge what’s hard … and practice acceptance. Let’s be honest: Being home all or most of your day - let alone with kids - is not something you would have asked for. There will undoubtedly be times when you feel overwhelmed, frustrated / angry at the situation, bored to tears, exasperated with kids. Kids will feel these things too. At the same time, none of us can do anything about these circumstances. Model for kids how to practice acceptance by vocalizing what’s hard (“We all really wish we didn’t have to stay home so much … this is hard!”) and verbalizing how you’re going to show up for the experience anyway (“This is one of those times in life that we just need to make the best of things. We’re taking this one day at a time.”)
Don't be afraid to fall apart. Letting all of the difficult emotions we may be feeling come to the surface, and expressing them, is an important part of the grieving process. Don't be afraid to express emotions in front of your kids - as long as you're taking responsibility for your own emotions, and as long as you aren't sharing the specifics of financial worries or a loved one's difficult symptoms of the virus. "Mommy's having a hard day today. I'm feeling really stressed, and I feel like I want to cry. This is mommy's stress and sadness, and I'm taking care of my feelings by talking about them and letting my tears be here. I'm also going to put a hand on my chest and take some deep breaths ... that feels really nice."
Focus on what you can control, not what you can't. What you can't control: That you or a loved one might get the virus, what the stock market does, whether your company may restructure things a little or a lot, what's available at the store. What you can control: Staying safe through best practices (washing hands, staying home), offering extra caring and understanding in family relationships, doing the best you can to work while parenting and homeschooling (and accepting that you'll do none of it perfectly), and - most importantly - deciding how you'll show up in each and every moment of this difficult situation.
Remind yourself of what's true right now: "Right now, I am safe. Right now, I am well. Right now, my loved ones are safe and well. Right now, we have enough." If you are dealing with a hardship with health or otherwise: "Right now, I'm doing the best I can." Help kids repeat these mantras before bed - or anytime - if fears are coming up for them.
Practice your own self-regulation. You will most likely - and understandably - run lots of emotion at times over the coming weeks. One minute you might feel fairly resigned to circumstances as they are; the next minute, you might feel highly anxious about an older loved one, your own family’s health, your job, the stock market … and the list goes on. Taking the time to find your own center will not only help you function as well as you can during these challenging times but will also help you bring your best self forward with your family. Bonus: Your own self-regulation will have a ripple effect on your partner and kids, too. Some simple practices:
Ground. Feel your feet on the floor and notice the sensations at the points of contact. Put ALL of your attention here. Feel your body on the furniture and do the same. Go slowly - this exercise should last several minutes. You can also experiment with sitting or lying on the ground, indoors or out.
KID VERSION: Kids can do the same as above, or push against a wall with their hands or their backs. This helps give sensory input to the muscularl and skeletal systems, helping them to feel more grounded. Kids can also sit or lie on the ground and usually enjoy doing this - epsecially outside!
Orient. Put focused attention on a few of the objects in your environment. Imagine you are seeing them for the very first time: notice shape, texture, color. Say to yourself as you slowly scan: green plant, wood table with white flowers on it, beige carpet with little flecks of black, etc. Notice how your breathing may change as you do this.
KID VERSION: "Can you find a rainbow in the room? Let's see if we can find something red ... something orange ... something yellow ..."
Lean into an imagined resource. Think of anything that makes you feel calm, safe and happy - could be being with a person or animal you love, being at a place you love (or imagined place), or a favorite memory. Turn up the volume on all you see in this “mini movie” in your imagination - as well as all you hear, and all you feel. Make it real. Notice what happens inside (what sensations and emotions are present?). The brain doesn’t know the difference between a real and imagined experience - this exercise can be extremely effective at inducing calm.
KID VERSION: Ask your child to close their eyes and think of anything that makes them feel calm, happy and safe. As above, tell them it can be a person, animal, memory or imagined place. Invite them to tell you what it is, if they'd like to. Ask questions to help bring the resource alive. "Tell me more about that beach! Is the sun out, or is it cloudy? Is it a hot day or cool? Can you hear the waves?" Ask them to see what they notice inside ... will usually be pleasant emotions / sensations. Reflect back to them that they look relaxed, are smiling, or whatever else you notice.
Track sensations. Simply notice, where are you noticing sensation in your body in this moment? Does that sensation have a color? A shape? Is it moving or staying still? Hot or cold, heavy or light? Get as much info as you can. Breathe into the area where you’re feeling sensation. Have the intention that you’re turning toward it and listening deeply, allowing it to be there; be curious about it. Stay with it. Ride the waves, noticing how sensation becomes more intense, then calms. Notice if it begins to shift on its own if you just allow it to be as it is (rather than try to fix or change it).
KID VERSION: "Honey, can you find the place in your body where you're feeling that? Is it in your belly, your chest ... your hands? (Child can verbalize or point.) What color is that feeling? What shape is it? Is it moving or staying still? Hot or cold, warm or cool? Heavy or light?" When child has given you some info about what they're experiencing, say, "Thank you so much for telling me all of that. You're feelings are super important to me, and I heard everything you said."
Find sensory support. Do something sensory based - squeeze a ball, push against a wall, get on a foam roller, dig in the garden or bread dough, splash water on your face, take a sip of water, step outside into the cold air … discover what feels regulating (and dysregulating) for you.
KID VERSION: Same as above.
Breathe. Take a deep breath - or several. Can put a hand on your chest and / or belly and just notice the sensations as you breathe. Can have the intention that you’re breathing in calm, breathing out stress if that works for you. If you have a baby or young child, this can be fun to do with little one on your belly - notice how become super calm and quiet as you do this (don’t talk, just breathe!) If breathing dysregulates you, don’t do!
KID VERSION: Kids can lie down on the ground and put a stuffed animal or book on their belly, then watch their belly move up and down as they breathe. Or, tell your child there is a balloon inside their belly that they must fill up with air, then let the air out. Once your child has learned how to breathe with their belly, you can pretend you forgot how to breathe this way and ask them to teach you. When kids become the teacher, skills come forward!
Gratitude to wonderful teachers such as Elaine Miller Karas and Peter Levine for inspiration for parts of the above.