There has rarely been a time that’s more universally challenging for parents. Amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, families across the globe are sequestered at home. While this is the best way to stay safe and keep others safe, it comes with its own difficulties.
As a child psychologist, I’m fielding daily calls and emails from parents who are struggling to support children who seem less able to function or to comply with simple requests. A boy who previously had no trouble tackling an hour of homework before dinner, for instance, struggles to focus for even half that time. A girl who’s usually cooperative and cheerful suddenly can’t go an hour without pushing back. What should parents do? How hard should they push children, how much should they set limits, or issue consequences and insist that children pull their load?
In such moments, it’s helpful to keep in mind the “expectation gap.” Dr. Stephen Porges describes the safety awareness system, a subconscious process in the brain. When this system is triggered by stress, a gap develops between what we want to do and what our brain and body can actually achieve. The mind may be willing, but the body-mind connection (our autonomic platform) isn’t strong enough to support us.
We’re expending so much energy on survival—keeping ourselves and our children healthy and alive—that we simply cannot perform at our usual level.
The feedback loop between the human brain and body is designed, on the most basic level, to keep us safe. The earliest part of this system to evolve was the limbic system, the part of the brain that detects danger and safety beyond our awareness. As this pandemic rages around us, all of us—children and adults alike—perceive signals of lethal threat. Even if you didn’t have access to television or the internet, you would detect an atmosphere of threat simply by looking outside and seeing streets that are either deserted or populated by people wearing face masks and keeping their distance from each other. Surrounded by these indicators of dangers, it’s no wonder that it’s nearly impossible to be productive or use our thinking brains the way we did before the pandemic.
Still, neuroscience offers some valuable lessons that can help all of us through the coming weeks and months of the pandemic. The first is to be easy on yourself and your kids. And keep in mind the expectation gap between what we think we (or our children) ought to be able to do, and what we can actually do. A few other suggestions:
- Reduce expectations according to your child’s stress load. Your child’s ability to concentrate, track, focus, and produce is decreased, as is your own—for good reason! Our current scattered brains are actually a tribute to our survival instinct. Have compassion for your children and yourself.
- Maintain a predictable schedule with breaks for creativity and free time. Predictability helps humans feel safe, and the nervous system relaxes when our desire for patterns is met. Mealtimes, nap times, bedtime routines that are consistent, all help children feel calmer.
- Play helps bring our brains back online. Engaging in play may not seem important, but it actually helps bring us back into a brain state compatible with thinking, organizing and planning. That’s true for children as well as adults.
- Find music you love and move or dance to it. Letting your body do the work gives your mind a chance to rest. Movement and sounds can be our brain’s and body’s best allies. Even if you don’t enjoy dancing, simply move your body—around your house, your apartment, your back yard. Do jumping jacks or sit-ups. Just move!
- Allow your vulnerability to be, and don’t be afraid of it. As Brené Brown has shown through her research and writing, copping to our own vulnerability is the most courageous thing humans can do.
These are surely unprecedented times, and every day can feel heavy and challenging. But when we show courage during these moments of stress, we can show our children that we can survive, and even thrive, in the most challenging circumstances.
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