When everything started to shut down six months ago, I got a text from a good friend. I was introduced to this friend through B’s medical team at Hopkins when he was just a few months old. Her daughter had a trach and feeding tube at the time and I was a newly minted “medical mom.” This friend graciously endured my questions about everything from blended diet to nursing challenges to where to get compounded medications. Her ability to laugh through the tough moments helped put me at ease — and we became fast friends.
Her text? “Do you feel somehow more prepared for everything that’s happening because of everything you’ve been through?”
My answer at the time? “Oddly enough, yes.”
Her response? “Me, too.”
You see, my family had ridden the roller coaster before. There were moments when we found our rhythm and we coasted. There were extreme highs and extreme lows — and I’m pretty sure our bodies and minds adapted to the adrenaline rushes and crashes. I don’t want to go so far to say as we were comfortable with the unknown; it was more or less that we knew we’d be able to handle whatever unexpected curve was thrown at us. When you’re a medical parent, you don’t really have an option. It’s your child that is depending on you.
The “Stay at Home” order this past spring — that many of our friends and family members felt physically jarring — was something we’d done before. For the first three years of B’s life, we stayed home. We found little rituals to keep our kids engaged around the house. We were thoughtful and intentional about minimal contact with friends and family during flu season. We had to be because a cold for a ‘typical’ child is usually a ticket to the ICU for a child with a trach. We were strict about our rules and I’m sure for those on the outside looking into our little family, we may have seemed overprotective. It was a daily balance between health and wellbeing. Reorganizing life and work so that one parent could always be home with the kids because someone needed to be physically present? Been there. Turning the family finances upside down because of a sudden income shift? Done that. Please don’t misinterpret that we found any of this easy at any point. But knowing that we had done it before offered some buoyancy. We knew we could somehow figure it out again.
I’ll be honest. The resiliency I felt six months ago is starting to fade. And as a parent, I’m starting to worry more about how pandemic life is affecting my kids long term. A few months is one thing. An unknown time frame? That’s different.
Last week, I listened to Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s CHILDHOOD INTERRUPTED: Raising Kids During a Pandemic. I found this was a particularly good way to start looking for guidance because he specifically addresses the neurology of the situation: how pandemic life is affecting the brain. It’s equal parts research, personal experience, and advice. Here are a few of my personal takeaways:
- Kids look for your actions, not your intentions. Children are more like mirrors than sponges, so we need to be purposeful in what we say and do because they don’t necessarily pick-up our intentions. This doesn’t mean changing our actions, but instead being aware of our actions. Kids often reflect fears and anxiety — and sometimes amplify them. It’s ok let your kids know that you don’t have all the answers. We may not know everything today, but we may know more tomorrow.
- Sometimes you just need to listen and be present. Although they are little people, kids have big feelings. As parents, we often want to be the fixers when kids feel bad. But we’re living in a moment where there are too many unknowns and literally can’t fix the situation. More than this, our kids are going through something that we haven’t gone through. Their childhood experience is fundamentally changed. This doesn’t necessarily mean for the worse, but we do need to recognize that we can’t possibly identify with it or put it into a framework that makes us understand it better. We don’t have context for this. This is new and — to use a term I’ve started to hate — unprecedented. So we need to listen and let our kids know that they are being heard. We need to reassure them by proving support and a safe space.
- Hugs are important. Speaking of providing support and safe space, hugs are critical. I know, this is antithetical to virus protection. But when it comes to your own kids, hug them like crazy. Right now, we are under constant stress which results in cortisol flooding the body. Oxytocin is a hormone that causes feelings of trust and love and safety — and helps buffer the effects of cortisol. While we can’t keep our kids from the trauma of this situation, we can help protect them with feelings of love and safety. Gupta suggests that this emotional “safety net” of sorts is what helps build resiliency. Hug away!
- Kids may not know why they are crying. And no, they aren’t just saying that. Stress takes a toll on the body — but also the brain. The emotional center of the brain can get overwhelmed and send kids (and adults) into tears. Even the most adaptive kid may become a puddle. So if your child breaks down after virtual learning it may not have been triggered by a particular action or event. It may just have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. What helps? A hug.
- Mask wearing won’t socially and emotionally stunt our kids. We all know that kids rely on facial expressions for social and emotional cues, and it’s hard to see those expressions behind a mask. But kids are also perceptive and adaptive. They’ll start looking for other behavior cues for social interactions. We (adults) will, too.
Virtual learning has been one of the big changes in our lives — especially in our kids’ lives. In our family, we opted to homeschool our two youngest children this year, but our fifth grader is doing virtual learning. We’re still sorting how that might play out of the rest of the year, as I’m sure many of you are as well. On Thursday, October 8th, Rosalind Wiseman (founder of Cultures of Dignity and the author of “Queen Bees & Wannabees,” the book that inspired the movie and musical “Mean Girls”) is offering a webinar on supporting children’s wellbeing through distance learning. I had a chance to hear Wiseman speak when she was at Gilman a few years ago, and have continued to be impressed with her advice and work. If this is something you’re struggling with in your own house, the webinar or her new book The Distance Learning Playbook for Parents might be good resources. The book comes out on October 2nd and is available for preorder now from Amazon.
As our team continues to find resources, we’ll share them. We’re also working on some new projects and activities to help keep kids — and families — connected in the months ahead. If you have ideas and resources, please feel free to leave a comment or send us a note. We’d love to check them out!
In the meantime, may your coffee be strong and the hugs plentiful.