On Coping with Anxiety and Maintaining Sanity
It’s really important to maintain a regular routine. It’s also important to balance how much information you’re getting; you need to make sure you’re informed but not overwhelmed.
For parents, the main thing to understand is that how you react to stress is what affects your kids’ outcomes; if you’re acting like it’s the end of the world, your kids will tend to be very anxious. Simply recognise how much things have changed and acknowledge the challenges while remaining positive; modelling that resilient, hopeful mindset is really helpful.
In addition to maintaining basic routines, be aware of circadian rhythms. Teenagers could probably quite easily stay up until five every morning and then sleep until three in the afternoon and end up with issues because of they’re not getting enough daylight.
Think about what simple changes you could make to adapt to having increased home-time for the foreseeable future and set up your house accordingly. Are there ways you can improve how your space works for you under these different circumstances? Sometimes just by moving a couple of things you open up a lot more space. If you’ve got little kids, section things off for different purposes – have the hallway for noisy play, the kitchen table for creative play …
Make sure you’re getting enough exercise. Not only will that give you some space from other people who might not be coping healthily with the stress – but it also gives you that routine, and the endorphins help you to look after yourself. I think everyone needs to do that. Prioritising self-care is important – even if it just means having a bath and leaving them to sort themselves out for 45 minutes or going for a walk alone.
On Developing Resilience through Struggle
There’s a bit of a ‘harden up’ approach to Kiwi culture; but research tells us that people who have to just ‘harden up’ are actually less resilient than those who are allowed to properly feel and process their emotions. For example, trying to minimise the impact this pandemic is having on people who’re feeling stressed can completely undermine them.
We don’t know what’s going on in people’s lives at home and what they’re facing. There are people who’re suffering domestic violence; many are facing financial pressures and job uncertainty; parents have suddenly had to manage home-schooling their kids (some of them while working from home as well!); and of course many essential workers actually haven’t had any extra time at home at all! There are a million things that people can be facing, and it never ever helps to minimise the trauma of others.
Instead of expecting people to just tough it out, it’s much better to actually acknowledge the difficulty and offer help if possible. People become resilient by learning that, if something happens, they have the support to successfully weather the tough times. So be patient with one another and be kind.
At the same time, it can be quite helpful and resiliency-building for us to have some perspective about the sacrifices we’ve made. For instance, compared to facing a world war, perhaps this is slightly easier …
On Practicing Gratitude
Practicing gratitude can have a huge impact! Neurologically, it shifts the pathways in the brain. Just the other day, a radio ad challenged listeners to list 10 things they were grateful for. In doing the exercise, I found the first five quite easy, but then I had to think a bit more to complete the list. I could actually feel my frame-of-mind shift as I had to make myself grateful for things that I wasn’t previously conscious of – things I took for granted. And that shift in mindset can be really powerful.
It doesn’t take much to have a positive impact on your brain. Research talks about the ‘letterbox effect’ for endorphins: you don’t have to go for a 40-minute jog for the positive effects of exercise – just walking to the letterbox to check the mail is enough to release endorphins and change your mindset.
To some extent, we choose our mindset; so it’s important to try to make the best of things. It’s not about pretending that there’s nothing bad about the situation, it’s simply making an attempt to stay positive – because that’s the best thing to do for our mental health.
On Home Learning
If I had younger kids at home now, I’d focus less on schoolwork and more on things like teaching them how to cook a meal; how to make a bed and prepare their school lunch; how to shampoo and condition their own hair … those little things are actually really important. It’s not just about getting jobs done; it’s about giving children a sense of self and some autonomy, because when they have a sense that they’re capable of looking after themselves in these practical ways, they carry that autonomy and responsibility into their schoolwork and other aspects of their lives as well.
You’ll see the effects of your efforts across the board. It’s also important to avoid getting stressed; if you’re getting stressed about them doing their schoolwork, then back off from it. It’s not worth it. This time isn’t going to be the ‘make-or-break’ of your child’s academic future. It’s far better to focus on wellbeing and keeping everyone happy.
Think about the memories you want to create – because this pandemic is a historic time and our kids will remember it – so make sure there are some positive memories too, because we don’t want them to only remember you stressing out over their reading level the whole time!
On Bonding Outside Your Bubble
Whenever we’re facing periods of socially isolating or physical distancing, I’d suggest that families stay connected by organising ritualised times to visit with grandparents and others; so, for example, plan to have a ‘virtual’ morning tea at 10.30 each morning, or even once a week, where you sit in your own homes with some tea and cakes and connect with one another over Zoom or Skype. This facilitates small talk, and people feel properly connected.
On Managing Sibling Rivalry
It’s really common for kids to fight like cats and dogs – especially at times like these, when they might be stressed or worried – so rest assured that it’s normal! But when you’re finding that you’re all stuck at home more, it can be helpful to give them some individual space.
You can say something like, “For the next hour, YOU (kid A) have got the lounge and YOU (kid B) can be in the TV room – then for the following hour, you’ll switch…” And have the expectation that they’ll need to stay in their own zones. You can also help them by working together to negotiate issues that crop up regularly. My kids used to have a negotiated roster for TV time, for instance.
On Determining How Much to Inform Kids About the News
For kids under seven, you really don’t want to be giving them too much information. Some parents feel that they really want to keep their kids well-informed, but if you’ve got a kid who’s got even the slightest tendency to anxiety, it’s really not going to be helpful. So, parents should share small bits of what’s going on, and they should really do their best to focus on the positive. You have to acknowledge what’s happening – especially in terms of how it impacts your child – but focus on the practical things you can do to keep safe and healthy.
At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got TEENS – they’re usually fully informed because they’re getting news first-hand through the media. But at the same time, they’re at a stage in their development where logic and reasoning – their ability to process what they’re hearing – is kind of offline. Their emotions are sort of supercharged, and their brains are primed to focus on the negative. So as a parent, you have to try to counteract that.
You need to talk to them about what’s going on in the world, but you also have to make sure that you share a positive focus, to balance their natural tendency towards ‘doom and gloom’. Acknowledge the state of things and its impact on ‘normal’ life, but reinforce the fact that we’re handling the situation – everyone’s doing the right thing, we’ve got a good leader, and things will be okay in the end.
Of course, they’ve got their own minds and their own opinions, so if you’re discussing the news it’s important to let them have their say. However, before you respond with what you’d like to say, just paraphrase what they’ve said, to let them know that they’ve been heard.
It takes a bit longer, but it’s very powerful – and that way your teenager won’t keep harping on about the same thing, because they know that you did hear them! It makes them more open to listening to you, too.
And of course, in between are the primary and intermediate kids. So, you have to gradually give them more information as they get older and more capable of understanding the bigger picture. How much news you share depends on how mature they are at the time. The human brain can tend to catastrophise things, so it’s important to maintain a positive, growth mindset; our brain works a lot better in positive mode than it does in negative mode, when it basically just shuts down.
For all of us – kids and adults, too – the message is the same: Resilience is about seeing a way forward, and (without sounding naïve) about being optimistic.