lower school student listening intently“The most valuable thing that will come from this pandemic is that we don’t have time to save our kids from negative emotions anymore.” Mounds Park Academy school psychologist Jules Nolan shared this observation in a recent virtual MPA parent education session.

In recent years, Nolan has observed an unfortunate parenting style that involves parents “over saving” their children from experiencing negative emotions. The unintended consequence of this well-intentioned approach is that too many young adults fall apart at the first sign of a challenge. With the COVID-19 pandemic, parents do not have the time, resources, or emotional energy to assuage every moment of their children’s boredom, loneliness, frustration, and anger. This is a good thing.

Nolan likens the COVID-19 situation to wartime, where every family member has to take responsibility for the functioning of the family. She calls it “an opportune moment to embrace the idea that our children are an important part of our family—but they are not to be the centerpiece of the family.”

Over the next several weeks, kids will become skilled at being sad, bored, lonely and disappointed. They will gain experience in tolerating uncertainty, navigating frustration, and overcoming boredom. These skills are connected to regulating emotions, and predict strong outcomes for kids such as good performance in school, college, and life (Durlak et. al., 2011). Nolan sees our current reality as “a rich garden, ready for cultivating the social and emotional skills that kids really need to develop.”

Recommendations for Navigating COVID-19
As parents, how we present ourselves to our children matters because we “co-regulate” our emotions with our kids. Co-regulation means that the emotions and behaviors of the parents and the children are connected. Younger kids co-regulate with us more intensely, and our frustrations and anger elevates them more than these emotions affect older children, but all people are influenced by the emotional states of others. Our children’s decision-making, impulses, and reactions are affected by our emotional states.

With this idea in mind, Nolan recommends that as parents, you:

  1. Take care of yourself first. The expression “put your own mask on before helping others” may be overused, but it’s a critical sentiment. Attend to your mental and physical health: eat good foods, exercise, and sleep; pray, if it’s part of your spiritual tradition; practice mindfulness and meditation, and connect with people in a way that provides meaning in your life. But be realistic. You won’t be able to tackle all of those self-care practices each day. Try incorporating at least one of those things into your life every day.
  2. Model “naming” your emotions in front of your kids. When you name your emotions, it helps you deal with them. Nolan says “psychologists tell us that when you name it, you tame it.” If you can’t name it specifically, talk out loud about how you are feeling, and why, but not in a way that accuses anyone else of causing the emotion. Simply saying “I feel uncomfortable in my stomach, and I think it is because I know I have a report to write, and I’m having a hard time concentrating on it”. According to Nolan we have 2,000 words to describe emotions, but adults only use about 15 and kids only use five. Kids who have more words around emotion in 1st and 2nd grade are less anxious and depressed in 6th and 7th grade. This is a great time to build emotional literacy.
  3. Show how you expect to be treated. When you yell at your kids, you’re showing them that it’s okay to yell at the people you love the most and that it’s okay to be yelled at by the ones who love you best. Remember that we’re always parenting for the current moment and for their future.
  4. Practice mindfulness. Pay attention to your breathing and slow down as that process helps you better tolerate negative emotions. But help your kids sit with their anxiety and identify the feeling. Then, they can work through it with calming strategies. But understand that having anxiety is normal and natural, and the more practice they get just “sitting with it and not trying to escape it, the more skilled they will become with anxiety.” Mindfulness is a great tool to build resilient brains that can better manage strong emotions including anxiety. An app called Headspace is included in the resources below and teaches mindfulness in a more informal and interesting way than most apps.
  5. Find balance between “neglectful” and “overbearing.” You don’t want to ignore your child’s needs, but you don’t want to solve their problems for them. Nolan says that “we feel like we are helping when we offer solutions” however, “if you’re better at being a 7th grader than your 7th grade child, you can accidentally rob them of the opportunity to build a skill.” Instead, empathize with your child (e.g. “that sounds really hard” or “I can see you’re struggling with this”) and then provide a space for them to come up with their own solution (e.g. “What ideas do you have?” or “What have your friends done in similar situations?”).
  6. Parent later. Anytime a kid is emotionally elevated, they have temporarily lost the ability to encode anything that you’re trying to teach them. The amygdala (fight, flight structure of the brain) is in charge. When you find yourself in an elevated moment (e.g. “HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO TELL YOU?”), walk away, take care of yourself, calm down—and parent later. If you don’t, they’ll learn that big people get to yell at little people and that you are fragile and likely to freak out over little things. They don’t realize that you have asked them to pick up their shoes a thousand times and that you are frustrated. They only notice the blow-up.
  7. Establish house rules. You’ll be spending a lot of time together as a family, so it’s important to have house rules—and to set consequences for breaking them. During this stressful time, try to give as much slide as you can, and have meetings to discuss the rules and how things are going. This is the time to build the notion that the family is a team and all voices are important, but that the rules help everyone be safe and healthy.
  8. Go ahead and cry. When you’re sad or grieving a loss, crying is a natural response. Crying releases cortisol, a stress hormone, and makes us feel better. Just avoid crying in front of your kids when they make you mad or frustrated or you are feeling out of control. Kids need to know that you’re in charge. Cry, if you need to, as it’s good for kids to understand that humans have a wide range of emotions, but you don’t want them to think that they “made” you cry. That is too much emotional responsibility for children.
  9. Actively seek the “pro social” moments. If you find yourself disciplining too much, adjust your approach. To maintain a good relationship, aim for four positive interactions for every one negative encounter—and a ratio of five to one in order to help repair a relationship. Pay attention to the “pro social” behaviors they’re exhibiting and call them out, even if it’s a small moment in the midst of fighting, or a neutral behavior when nothing is happening. (See “The Nurtured Heart” resource below.)
  10. Practice gratitude: Gratitude is the antagonist of sadness. Recognizing when you’re thankful for something creates happiness, so encourage kids and adults to articulate why they’re grateful. A sad child might write a letter to someone who has influenced them and then read the letter to that person. Prayer expressed as gratitude makes us calm, but asking for graces to “spare us” can make you more anxious.
  11. Don’t interview for injury. If kids say they’re okay, believe them. Dig deeper if you think there’s something amiss because their behavior isn’t matching “I’m fine” and you notice big changes in eating, sleeping, and engaging. But watch the way you’re interacting with your child, when they’re being negative. If they get more of you when they’re miserable, that approach might lead to more complaining because they’ll have your attention if they do.
  12. Connect for the greater good: The more we use emotional energy to produce good for other people, the better we feel. So encourage your child to put their strong emotional energy toward something positive. Have them connect with friends, write inspirational notes to people in nursing homes or develop games for younger kids to play.

upper school student paintingAt MPA, we teach from the whole-child philosophy, so the focus on the social and emotional aspects of learning is part of what we do every day. Given the current situation, it’s important to focus on this aspect of our collective learning both for ourselves and our children. At the same time, we need to realize that the next few weeks are a marathon and not a sprint. We need to recognize the potential for cognitive overload—we only have so much emotional reserve. Self-care in the coming weeks will be critical so we can replenish what we’re expending.

“As a school we will be changing as time goes on, which is good for kids, too,” says Dr. Bill Hudson, head of school. “I am hopeful that we can model as adults, both as parents and educators, that learning happens continuously, that it happens in the moment, that we can react in real time, and we’re open to change. These are all attributes that we can build among our young people and ourselves.”

Annotated Resources

  • Watch Dr. Jules Nolan’s Presentation To The MPA Community >
  • A Good Enough Mother (Winnicott, 1953) and The Good Enough Parent (Bettelheim, 1988) shows parents that perfection in parenting is neither an option nor a goal. Children whose parents strive to provide an ideal childhood grow up emotionally weak and without the ability to solve their own problems. This causes lack of self-esteem and agency in one’s own life. A brief overview of the concept is included here.
  • The Nurtured Heart Approach: The Nurtured Heart Approach® is a relationship-focused methodology founded strategically in The 3 Stands™ for helping children (and adults) build their Inner Wealth™ and use their intensity in successful ways. It has become a powerful way of awakening the inherent greatness in all children while facilitating parenting and classroom success.
  • Magination Press: The American Psychological Association created Magination Press® in1987, out of a desire to publish innovative books that would help children deal with the many challenges and problems they face as they grow up. Written for ages 4 through 18, these books deal with topics ranging from the everyday — starting school, shyness, normal fears, and a new baby in the house — to more serious problems, such as divorce, attention deficit disorder, depression, serious injury or illness, autism, trauma, death, and much more.
  • Headspace: According to its website, “There are over 2,000 mediation apps out there, but Headspace is one of the only ones committed to advancing the field of mindfulness meditation through clinically validated research on our product.” Nolan says that kids tend to like this app better than others. The app is being offered for free right now because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Mood Meter: The Mood Meter is designed to help us learn to recognize emotions, in ourselves and others, with increasing subtlety and to develop strategies for regulating (or managing) those emotions. It provides us with a “language” to talk about our feelings. Nolan says that younger kids can use it with parental support, and kids can use it independently by middle school.
  • Woebot, Youper, or Wysa: Nolan recommends these apps for kids who have anxiety and depression, and are having a hard time getting into see their mental health professional. They provide the same cognitive behavioral approach to changing the way we think about emotions that psychologists work on in therapy.
  • The Impact of Enhancing Student’s Social and Emotional Learning: Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions ( Durlak, Dymnicki, Taylor, Weissberg & Schellinger, Child Development, 2011)
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