Managing frustration, disappointment, anxiety, and fear during the COVID-19 pandemic
My 11 year-old son is only ten days into the virtual school year and is already taking a sick day due to migraine. My 8 year old daughter has spent most of this week having sudden bouts of extreme sadness, anger, or fear with no obvious provocation; she herself seems bewildered at the wild swings of her emotions. She claims she is “in a bad mood because she just doesn’t feel like being in a good one.” My teen is the only child who seems to be emotionally even keel, or perhaps even happier now that school is back in session.
Before this migraine episode, I noticed that my son, who is on the autism spectrum, was beginning to shut down emotionally. At first, it was just him receding into his own world more than usual. I saw a sharp uptick of listening to audiobooks and podcasts, headphones on, sitting in a corner of the house, tuning out the rest of the world. Then it became episodes where he just didn’t feel like speaking anymore. To me, these are signs his body is processing more emotion than he is able to handle.
I have heard similar stories from parents whose children are not on the autism spectrum. The signs of emotional shut down often look different in their case - slumped body language with the child hanging their head, tearing up at small provocations, not being able to have what feels like a normal dialogue or conversation, sometimes not wanting to be touched or comforted. Prodding seems to make things worse, which leaves the parent feeling out of touch with their clearly distressed child.
One theory I have formed is that the start of the school year, usually met with so much excitement over being amongst friends again, has made our children suddenly feel the quarantined nature of our current lifestyle. My son, with his reduced social “politeness” filter, shows me very clearly what his body and mind are experiencing; and that is a cluster of extreme emotions leading to a complete overwhelm of the system. Oftentimes, shutting down emotionally can be a child’s attempt to take control of something in their lives, in a world where “normal life” feels so out of their control.
These are five research-backed strategies to help a child who is experiencing emotional overwhelm; I share them here in the hopes they can help your own children as well as mine.
Tip #1: No agenda, no judgement
Children must regulate before they are able to relate to others or learn. A lecture that is given while they are in this emotionally vulnerable state will either fall on deaf ears, or worse, cause damage to their emotional recovery. When emotionally raw, we operate from the most primitive parts of our brain; it is difficult for us to access the logical portion known as the prefrontal cortex. (Not to mention children do not yet have a fully formed prefrontal cortex!)
Use active listening tools to show your child you care. Reflect back to your child what you hear them saying, and check for understanding by asking them to correct your interpretation. Refrain from correcting them. Be collaborative in coming up with solutions. Listening, understanding, and showing empathy will help lower your child’s defenses, which will then allow you to best support them.
When I have a child who is really struggling to communicate their needs, I often ask them to simply tell me two things. What do they feel? ...and what do they need? Those two answers often give me all I need to know to help them.
Tip #2: Offer warm hugs
Over half the time, the answer to the above questions is that they need a hug. A child in an emotionally vulnerable state needs to be soothed. Respect their boundaries, but if they will allow for touch, offer them cuddles; or allow them to sit on your lap like they perhaps did when they were younger. Use calm, soothing tones and positive language. Be effusive with praise and words of love and encouragement.
If your child has shut down more verbally, try keeping a discussion journal for a little while. Write down things you want to tell your child, and ask them questions that are easy to answer. It is sometimes easier for a child to communicate in writing.
Tip #3: Have a structured routine - but stick to the essentials
Routine is notoriously good for children. If your children are doing school at home, routine is even more important - it provides the structure that normally comes from school. However, you may find your children are far less efficient than normal while they work to process and regulate these intense emotions. Create a school routine and keep an evening routine...but allow for some unwinding/relaxation in the middle of each day. Even better if kids can use this time to get outdoors!
If possible, keep only the after school classes that are most relaxing to your child. Between my three children, this includes dance, piano, flute, swimming, programming and trips to the driving range. Anything else will just have to wait.
Tip #4: Help your children find ways to socialize safely
Humans are 'social beings.' We are biologically programmed to work together, as in the original tribal communities. Hanging out with friends generally lowers stress, decreases loneliness, is enjoyable, and promotes feelings of safety and belonging.
Socializing and building relationships is critical to mental, emotional, and physical health. Digital connections, by themselves, have been shown to be far more superficial than in-person connections; but can be a life saver during this pandemic. If possible, help your children to also have outdoor, socially distanced playdates in a safe, controlled environment. Parents should arrange for one-on-one times with each of their children individually, if possible, to talk and connect.
Tip #5: It’s not just about the kids
Much of our interactions with our children have to do with our own emotional state as well. Practice plenty of self care during these stressful times. You can’t pour from an empty vessel. It’s important to check in to see if any negativity is coming from your end. Do you believe your child is being purposefully defiant? Are you holding them to the same standards as you would normally, without accepting the trauma and extreme emotional turmoil brought on by the pandemic? These are not normal times, and everyone, child and adult alike, feels powerless and uncertain about the future. Increased emotional sensitivity is a normal reaction to the onslaught of changes we continue to experience this year.
Visit my site EmotionalMUSE.com for Social Emotional Learning curriculum you can use with your children. My first two units include Piloting Your Plane, an emotional regulation curriculum for early elementary school children; and Socializing During A Pandemic, a social skills unit for secondary school students. It is a rapidly growing site - follow me for updates when new units become available!