You may be switching off the TV or turning down the radio when your kids enter the room. But you can be sure they’re still aware of the turn their world has taken – and they can feel what you’re feeling, too. “Kids may not have the language or correct facts to make sense of a situation, but they are typically aware of the general mood and tone of their environment. No doubt, if parents are feeling overwhelmed, even if not directly communicated to children, they will be in touch with these feelings too,” notes Natalie Solomons, clinical psychologist and director of Research and Development at Bellavista S.H.A.R.E.
To make matters even more frightening for them, children often take on the responsibility for these feelings. This is because their developmental stage is based on egocentric thinking – so, not only do they feel your distress, they worry they’ve caused it. It’s vital you make sure your children know this isn’t the case, says Natalie. But it’s vital, too, that you look out for signs that they have taken on the stress of the moment.
Natalie says key anxiety symptoms include:
- Changes in sleep and eating patterns, as well as shifts in energy patterns.
- Look out, too, for clinginess and attention seeking, or a new tendency to push boundaries.
If your child is, indeed, displaying these signs, don’t blame yourself for projecting your own misgivings onto the rest of the family. Natalie says that, as parents, it’s good to be authentic. Plus, if we are open and honest about our anxieties and express them in a manner that is appropriate for the child’s age, they are better equipped to manage our filtered down stress levels.
Here are some other ways you can help dial down stress levels in the home:
Remind yourself that you have survived other trying situations
Granted, none of us have ever faced anything quite like this, but it may help to think of how you coped with other stressful situations you have faced, says Natalie. “This gives us courage, because it reminds us that we have found a way through challenges – even if it wasn’t in the way we expected. And we’ll find a way again.”
Watch out for stress signals
Your child may appear preoccupied or impatient, and may express excessive negative self-talk. Physical responses to stress include muscle tension or body aches, difficulty falling or staying asleep, constant tiredness, edginess, restlessness or nervousness, and stomach aches, nausea and digestive complaints. From a behavioural point of view, your child will be doing things she believes will protect her from a feared outcome. She may struggle to relax, may procrastinate, battle to pay attention, be forgetful, and seek more reassurance and approval.
Far from making their symptoms worse, Natalie says that children may actually feel reassured if they see you battling with the same issues. That’s because it authenticates what they’re going through, and teaches them perseverance, endurance and patience in the face of challenge. A word of caution, though: if you’re feeling totally overwhelmed, connect with an adult before you chat with your kids. “It’s ok to show children how we work through our processes to address fear, but it’s not alright to go through those processes with them.”
Go easy on yourself
“It is completely normal to feel frustrated. We face enormous uncertainty and stressors at this time, and they bring out our primitive defences of survival,” Natalie says. All of this means that frustration is inevitable – so cut yourself some slack. And don’t try to hide what you’re feeling, either. “Being real with our kids grants them permission to be authentic with us, too, so don’t feel bad about sharing some of your vulnerability and frustration,” Natalie advises.
She says that it may help to acknowledge that there are many things beyond our control right now, and we have to let go of those things. Focus, instead, on what you can control, and regain your sense of agency by making intentional choices.
The basics are also important
A routine creates structure and order, and imposes a natural rhythm on the day that creates an internal sense of safety and regulation. Check in with your friends and family as often as you can: sure, that Zoom call is no replacement for a sunset gin, but it’s definitely better than nothing. Finally, step away from the news and social media, because hearing repeats of the bad news will only entrench your negative mindset. And, of course, walking past the fridge, saying no to the banana bread and doing an online yoga or HIIT class will help to regulate your mood.
More about the expert:
Natalie Solomon is a clinical psychologist. She has worked in remedial school settings and private practice for the last 14 years. Her areas of interest include attachment, trauma, interpersonal neurobiology, learning difficulties, depression and anxiety. She enjoys individual psychotherapy and parent work. Learn more about Natalie Solomon here.
In her 16 years as journalist, Lisa Witepski’s work has appeared in most of South Africa’s leading publications, including the Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times, Entrepreneur and Financial Mail. She has written for a number of women’s magazines, including Living & Loving, Essentials and many others, across topics from lifestyle to travel, wellness, business and finance. She is a former acting Johannesburg Bureau Chief for Cosmopolitan, and former Features Editor at Travel News Weekly, but, above all, a besotted mom to Leya and Jessica. Lisa blogs at whydoialwayscravecake.blogspot.com and lisa.witepski.blogspot.com, and tweets at @LisaWitepski.