How Young Children are Responding to Stay-At-Home Directives and Why
Right now we are all stuck in our homes. Families are stuck together, at the mercy of each and every high and low. We face tremendous grief, loss, and trauma – all of us. And, one of the hardest parts of this is the adult desire to control what their children are experiencing. I have heard things such as we “don’t want to ruin their innocence,” “they are fine because they’re getting everything they need,” or “they’re too young for this to matter.” There is also the constant conversation around maintaining previous schedules and activities, to thepoint of absolute panic. Adults seem to want their children to continue on with regular schedulesand activities as though nothing has changed. In our defense, as adults, a lot of our employers want the same things from us. Keep working, keep providing, focus on what needs to be done. Go on without acknowledging what it means emotionally to lose physical contact with the world outside of your home, or to see, live, and hear unbelievable and consistent stories of death and insufficient protection. Maybe it feels like if we let it in (the pain, the anxiety, the sadness), it will eat us alive. There will be no way out, and so we try to keep ourselves and our children from getting too close.
But in truth our children have lost so much, often without the understanding of why. We could try to maintain their innocence, but the fact is they are living through a once in a hundred years pandemic and we can’t change that. As much as we try to carry on with things that are interesting and important, constantly redirecting them from the meltdown that is popping it’s head out, they know. They know they have lost their friends. They know they’ve lost the field trips, field days, and birthday parties that were promised. They do not have the predictability of childcare or school, the relationships they’ve established with teachers and caregivers. Many have lost physical contact with grandparents, cousins, and neighbors. They are grieving just the same as you and I. And, they also know that you are feeling things too.
More About Feelings…
When we tell our children that things aren’t that bad, but put out an energy of panic, fear, and anxiety, it is unsettling. They might think, “why is mommy lying to me?” This incongruence of how we feel versus what we say can create distrust and fear in young children, thus creating behavioral issues, nightmares, and meltdowns. As hard as it might be, it is important that adults think about what they are feeling and what they are telling their children. It is perfectly fine to spare the details, but you could explain that you are feeling scared because there are a lot of people getting sick or that you are angry that you have to stay home and can’t go to work. It feels much safer for children to have a name for the feeling and an understanding that you’re doing your best to keep them safe even when you are feeling scared.
Developmentally, young children up to the age of 6 or 7, make sense of the world through magical thinking – the belief that we have control of our world through our thoughts, fears, and wishes. It is difficult to know for sure with non-verbal children, but the older the child is within this stage, the more likely they are to believe that they literally did something to create social distancing or other situations that come up daily. They might show defiance out of shame and guilt. This thinking often does not follow the logical patterns we as adults might use to make sense of things. If we only allow our adult kind of thinking, we will miss the important internal experience of the child. That is why it’s important to talk to kids about how they are feeling and why. What they tell us is based on their understanding of what happened and might sound more like a story (or like magic!) It’s important for kids to have the freedom and safety to explain their reasoning with the understanding that, however crazy it might sound to us, it is developmentally appropriate. When we do this we can support our children in understanding that none of this is their fault.
The Art of Emotional Regulation
One of the most important things we do when we respond to a young child’s emotions is called co-regulation. Young children rely on caregivers to help them regulate their emotions until they can learn to consistently self-regulate. Even children who seem to have mastered self-regulation might require additional support with co-regulation right now. It is not uncommon for children to show some regression in times of stress or trauma. This could be why it is so difficult to work from home right now – the child who used to be able to play alone and easily complete tasks independently is now by your side all of the time.
The younger the child, the more likely it is that they will need an adult to help them regulate big emotions. This is so important for us adults at this time, because it is challenging to regulate ourselves. Never, in our lifetimes have we been asked to know how to maintain a healthy emotional response during a pandemic. Most of us typically try very hard not to show our own meltdowns to our children. But, when do we melt down? Because it seems like we all need space for this emotional purging right now, for our own mental health and for the health of our relationships.
One of the strategies I have talked most about with other parents and my husband is “tapping out.” This is the recognition that you need to get out of the ring for a little bit. You might need to go cry in your car, go pound out the anger in a walk or workout, or call a friend for connection. If you are living with another adult, it might be worth it to talk with each other about how you could do this. When and how do you ask each other for a break? I know that there might be limitations to this idea due to work schedules, trust and safety, or being the only adult in the room. Creatively thinking, you might have to think about the times that are hardest – for me I’ve recognized Fridays are very hard for me and my daughter. Plan to take things easier during those times, strategically incorporate screen time or activities that have less power struggles. It is ok, actually it is necessary, for us adults to give ourselves space to feel what we are feeling. If we can’t allow our feelings space, they will come out at other times and in ways that we didn’t intend. They could even be causing some of the problems you’re facing with our loved ones.
So as we carry on, lets recognize it isn’t an easy time for anyone. Children are relying on us to provide safety and support, and this can be exhausting. Giving space for feelings, even if they are born out of magical thinking, will help tremendously. Being honest about our own needs and asking for help from each other is significant. If we see an increase in conversations about feelings between ourselves and our children, we are probably doing something right.