Well, we are 9 ½ months into 2020, 6 months into “quarantine” or whatever this is now and I’m about to use the phrase that we are all wildly sick of… this is unprecedented. Grad School or my many years in practice since have not remotely prepared me for therapisting during a pandemic. As therapists we are often on the outside, listening to the experience, providing empathy and feedback, and helping our clients find a way through that fits with them and their goals. It is rare to have to go through the experience with your clients. Occasionally a therapist may be experiencing a similar loss or transition as their client at the same time, but they are usually able to keep this private and focus on the client. But man, there is no hiding from COVID-19 and the toll it has taken on us all. We are all going through this together, but also having our own separate and unique experiences within our families, communities, and jobs.
In the initial phases of this my focus was insulating my kids from the fear we were all facing; a scary and unknown virus, lack of resources, an uncertain future. We tried to make the best of our time together, baking, dance parties, lunch scooter sessions, sleepovers in our various bedrooms. When we realized that this wasn’t just for the 3 weeks we initially thought, we transitioned to age appropriate honesty and looking at what we could do during this time. We supported local businesses, we decorated our front yard tree and chalked sidewalks. We left bouquets of flowers out for neighbors passing by. We discussed the virus with the kids and talked about what we needed to do to stay safe.
It was around this time… maybe June, that the sadness and loss really began to settle in for the kids. My son wouldn’t get the field trip or end of the year activities he had been looking forward to, he missed his after school program and his friends. My daughter deeply missed her teachers and mourned not getting her TK graduation from the preschool she had attended for 3 years. We felt the loss too, sad for all our kids and family would miss. We created space for these feelings in our house, had talks, gave hugs, had more talks, and bled empathy for days/weeks/months. For us, the hardest adjustment was that our daughter wouldn’t get to start Kinder in person. She had many challenges, some I’ve written about before, and she worked hard to get to a place where she was confident about starting “big kid school”. My husband and I grieved this loss quite deeply.
As school approached we needed a shift, we needed the kids to come to terms with what this would be and get on board. This doesn’t mean they don’t get to have feelings, and we, as parents, certainly still do too. It just means that we shift from grief to action. We talked with them about how school would look and what are expectations were, reminded them that during school hours they are in school mode, behaving with respect as they would in class, finishing work, no non-school related electronics. We approached these discussions prepared, calm, and confident despite feeling anxious, and uncertain about what this year would hold and how we would handle it.
Our kids need us to be their guideposts in this, and much of life. If we are constantly stewing in anxiety and uncertainty chances are they will too (or other fun reactions like becoming the parent’s caretaker or numbing feelings out altogether because they are too overwhelming). They follow our lead, in their own ways of course, but they look to us for direction just like when they fall as toddlers and look up to us to see if they are ok. Let them know they will be ok. This doesn’t mean ignore the feelings, all of my clients know that I am not only a big proponent of feelings (if you’re a therapist and you aren’t a proponent of feelings we need to talk about your career choice) and even a good conversation with your child about your own big feelings. But sometimes we need to move from feeling, to acceptance, to action. If anything good can come from COVID, it will be a massive growth in our resiliency. However, in order to teach our kids resiliency, we need to model it. Here are some ways:
- Set expectations around schooling and be consistent. These will be different for each family but I think it is wildly important to remind your kids that they are capable of this, just as they were when in school. They can adapt and grow!
- When we have big feelings don’t shy away from them, let’s talk, hug, take cool down time, do some deep breathing… whatever works for your child. Once your child is calm talk about how to get back on the horse. Avoidance has never solved a problem. We are in this hot mess for a good while, so let’s figure out how to handle it!
- Focus on the positive and on the motivating. In my daughter’s sadness about not getting to be with her teacher we have moved our focus to supply pick up days when we get to see her. We talk about bringing her flowers from our garden or making her pictures, these things hold her over until the next visit.
- Remind your kids that they are amazing! They pivoted on a dime, they learned to use technology that their parents and teachers continue to try and figure out, they are often their own teachers… isn’t that amazing! These little humans are often so much more capable than we give them credit for.
Full disclosure, just in case I’m sounding too perfect over here or on a high horse with all my therapist skills, I have lost it many times over during this, I have cried in the shower, I have cried in front of my kids, my kids have pouted through class and thrown tantrums about their work. I have wondered how in the hell we are going to get through this. Although I am a therapist, I am a human first, and man has COVID made me feel all of that humanity. If you or your family is struggling I am sending you all of my love and absolutely ZERO judgement. But you and I are resilient and we can do hard things. Let’s keep going.