Parenting in a time of uncertainty
I didn’t imagine myself writing this blog post. It wasn’t on my planner. I’ve spent the last few months writing about the various parenting challenges of Covid-19 (working from home, homeschooling, keeping children entertained and socially distanced etc). And I naively thought we were over it. It’s time to move on, to write about recovery and rebalancing. Time to return to those perennial topics in parenting like managing difficult behaviour and relationship-building.
But it’s not over, is it? We’ve had a little breathing space to catch up with friends and family (which has been great!). And now there’s a dawning realisation that our lives are still vulnerable and can be knocked off course with no warning whatsoever.
My personal trigger for this realisation has been supporting my son through the disappointment of his first mates-only holiday being threatened with cancellation. The trip had already been rearranged once – but the lifting of lockdown had given us false hope that plans could be relied upon again. To see yet another of his 2020 dreams being dashed has been really hard.
What has finally hit home for me is that we are now parenting in a time of radical uncertainty. And that our usual emotional props and habits are either unavailable or simply inadequate for meeting this challenge.
How do we parent in this chaos? In a way that protects our children’s wellbeing and futures?
I don’t claim to have the answers. But reflecting on this last year – on my own life, the parents I have worked with, the conversations I have had with colleagues – I think there are some key priorities that we – as parents – should be directing our energies towards.
Be the anchor
Times are so uncertain. There are no givens about what will or won’t happen. We think schools will reopen for the autumn term, but they could close at a moment’s notice. Our newly rediscovered recreational activities could just as quickly stop again. That day out with her friends that your daughter is looking forward to? It might be cancelled, who knows.
How on earth are we supposed to communicate this to our children without unsettling them?
Children thrive on predictability and right now that isn’t available in the external world. So, when everything else feels uncertain, we need to be their anchor. Their rock. Their stability. The factor that is absolutely consistent in their lives. Always there for them. Always showing up. Always reliable. And we need to reassure them of that again and again. That we will be here for them, no matter what.
Hold a calm space for emotions
So many key events are being taken away from our children. It’s tough when you can’t look forward to your birthday (because you don’t know if you will be able to celebrate it). When your important rites of passage – exams, proms, first dates – are liable to be cancelled or put on hold. And there will be other fierce disappointments to come. There will be tears of frustration. And angry lashing outs.
Our job as parents is not to fix all our children’s difficult moments or take away their big emotions (we couldn’t if we tried). Our job is to help them surf the waves of those difficult feelings and bounce back quickly. To help them learn to flatten the curve of big ups and downs and take them in their stride.
And that means being calm and present in the face of their torrents. Holding a safe space for them to experience their disappointments, without joining in or rushing to solutions. Listening, and just being there. Calmly helping them find the words for their feeling and guiding them through to the other side of that emotional crescendo. So that their brains learn that big feelings do pass and we can find calm on the other side.
And that will mean parents managing our own emotions really well. Not being triggered into anger or guilt or shame by our powerlessness to protect our children or make their world better.
Because it is only when we manage our own emotions that we can hold a safe space for our children to manage theirs. So that they can learn to experience the inevitable setbacks to come without being overwhelmed by them.
Model healthy coping strategies
That doesn’t mean that we, as parents, won’t also have acute ups and downs, too. We are all going to be challenged by the uncertainties of this ground shifting new normal. But we do have choices in how we manage those ups and downs and where we find comfort.
We could turn to cake or red wine (two of my personal favourites!). We could take everything out on our partners, be grumpy or snappy, or withdraw into ourselves. (And who could blame us if we did that sometimes?).
But somewhere in the mix we need to consciously and mindfully model to our children healthier ways of coping. Whether that’s through meditation or physical exercise or breathing strategies – or just a long hot bath followed by watching something funny on the TV. We need to lead the way for our children and show them positive ways to manage during times of extreme uncertainty.
But perhaps the most important thing we need to do for our children is to look after ourselves. Really well. To acknowledge and meet our own needs, not just our children’s (or our employer’s). We can’t help our children if we are running on empty.
And so very many working parents are running on empty – after months trying to combine childcare or homeschooling with working at home while simultaneously arranging food to be in the cupboards and meals to be on the table and crunching through the neverending domestic tasks of daily life.
Now is the time for radical self-care. Not self-care that is appended as an after thought, an if-I-have-time option, but front and central to our daily lives. Because without that radical self-care, we can’t be the rock for our children to hold on to, the anchor that secures their world, the emotional stability that makes them feel safe. We can’t hold the emotional space for our children to find resilience in this time of uncertainty unless we care for ourselves too.