Do you notice that your child or teen is feeling more frustrated and hopeless as the shelter-in-place directive continues? I’m hearing from so many families that things seem to be getting increasingly worse. With thousands of schools switching their grading systems to Pass/Fail, many kids are doing the minimal amount of homework to get by. Some may not be keeping up with hygienic routines. Others have reverted to less mature coping skills, erupting and arguing more than they typically do. What can you do to combat their numbness, hopelessness or regressive behaviors?
The first step is acknowledging their very real losses and emotional pain. Nothing is familiar any more. They’ve had to let go of daily casual peer contact at school, planned social get-togethers, familiarity of learning environments and teacher interactions — the list goes on and on. Without having things to look forward to, they may get enraged or shut down. This is especially true for kids who’ve had special events like graduation, sports seasons, dance recitals, and more cancelled without warning. You may well be experiencing pushback and aggression in your family that you thought you’d moved beyond or is completely new.
Here are some common family struggles and useful tools for dealing with them more effectively:
1. When kids are stressed, anxious and vulnerable, they act out their concerns with you.
A 10-year-old boy shared his fear and confusion about living with COVID: “We don’t know when and if this is ever going to stop and if we’ll have our lives the way we want it … No matter how much you try not to think about it, you’re still going to focus on it. Like school and stuff but even going on a walk to refresh your brain, you have to wear a mask.” He’s been arguing vociferously with his parents or running to his room, slamming the door and angrily crying more days than not. He doesn’t know how to wrap his brain around what’s going on. Sound familiar?
When kids act out towards their parents, they are showing us with their words and behavior that their emotions have overwhelmed their internal resources to cope. While it’s not pleasant, it is actually positive in one important way: it shows that they feel safe enough with you to share feelings that they can’t manage on their own.
Whatever coping mechanisms you’ve helped them develop probably have weakened recently. Many kids are taking a few big steps backwards based on intense frustration, anxiety and disappointment. This kind of regression is normal during stressful situations. Nonetheless, you shouldn’t tolerate disrespectful, hurtful or inappropriate actions because of their struggles.
Tip: Expect their pushback, notice when it occurs and plan for how to deal with it in advance. Avoid crises by noting issues that seem to trigger distress. When they’re calm, talk to your child about their struggle and put a plan in place to calm things down when they’re upset. Create a timed break, a short regrouping to discuss how to move forward and then take that action: Stop, Think, Act.
2. Support their need for social connection by figuring out ways to engage peers remotely and/or safely in person. Kids have to be able to experience themselves in relation to their friends to nurture their identity and make sense of the world. All of those casual “Hello’s” and “How are you doing?” that occur while passing in school hallways contribute to how they see themselves and who they want to become.
Tip: Try some of these ideas: Zoom sessions for games (Monopoly, Clue, Taboo, etc); chalk drawing outside (mark off sections that are 6 feet apart); tossing a frisbee or baseball with gloves and masks; share a baking project on FaceTime; bike riding with a friend who also has a mask on; group Zoom dinners; playing music or watching a show via screen share; anything that’s outside the box but still follows safety guidelines.
3. Families are tired of being together and everybody’s nerves are fraying. Neither you nor your child or teen can sometimes get enough space from each other. A thirteen year-old girl told me, “Frankly, I’m sick and tired of [my parents]. It’s been repetitive for weeks. I’d go anywhere as long as it’s not with them.” Your kids love you and you them but 24/7 is A LOT OF FAMILY TIME.
Tip: Plan for quiet, alone-time each day. Set a specific, timed period in your day for down time. This may or may not include screen time. It’s best to talk together as family beforehand and list options for each person that make the most sense for them.
4. Things feel incredibly monotonous right now. When kids look into an unknown future where things have already been canceled for this school year and summer activities are following suit, it’s very discouraging. Life can seem hopeless and they feel powerless and discouraged. You may well feel like this, too.
Tip: Think one to two weeks at a time. Create some simple things to look forward to now. Make specific plans for things like take-out from a favorite restaurant, home-made sundaes on a Thursday night, breakfast for dinner. Fill the immediate future with special things for the whole family to look forward to.
Hang in there. We are all struggling — kids and adults alike — to embrace our resilience and integrate the strangeness of our lives every day.