At present, we are being bombarded with advice on how to manage as we live with rapid change and uncertainty. While I do not want to inflict more of this, I thought a short article I read written by Ned Johnson has some good ideas and strategies for helping our children and building resilience in this time of stress.
The causes of stress fit into the acronym NUTS: novelty, unpredictability, threat (or perceived threat) and sense of control. Pandemic viruses hit on all of those stressors, more so for the young, for whom the novelty is higher and a sense of control lower. Neuroscience shows that it is adversity in life, dealing with tolerable challenges, that wires the brain for resilience. So, while ideally, we will be spared the worst of the crisis, there’s also an opportunity to use it to help our children.
Make a plan … and a Plan B. Visualising how to navigate a situation activates neural pathways in ways similar to actually doing the thing. This is why airlines give the same instructions to passengers time after time. Anticipate difficulties and make multiple plans to navigate them. It can be paralysing to feel you have only one route and that is blocked, so make a Plan B too.
Make a list. Putting plans, thoughts and concerns on paper can increase a sense of control, lower the power of those concerns and free up cognitive resources.
Assign children something to do. Parents want to make children feel safe but it’s better if we make them feel brave and give them a sense of control.
Teach children where to get help. Talk about what they should do if they feel ill or afraid. Show them where emergency supplies are kept. Share your plans. That helps engage their pre-frontal cortex and its problem-solving faculties, calming their amygdala (the stress response) and strengthening the connections between the two.
Teach children what to do. When they can see washing hands as something that helps others and not just themselves, it increases their sense of control. Hygiene becomes a superpower!
Spread calm. When family members are alarmed or panicking, calmly say, “Do I look worried? This is manageable.”
Take the long view. We can remind ourselves of the difficulties we and our families have weathered in the past. It engages our coping skills, helping us better figure out how we will get through this challenge if it comes our way.
Talk back against your own fear in front of your children. “It is scary that so many people are sick, but the news doesn’t talk about the fact that everyone else is doing fine, or all the people who are only a little sick. We have a good plan and other people looking out for us.”
It is the sense of control that can be the source of future resilience. After this virus has run its course, not only will we have a greater herd immunity to the virus, we may also have greater herd immunity to the stress. And if we handle it properly, our children will, too.