April 5, 2020
When we as humans face things that are too big to understand and process all at once, we get an emotional back log that gets stored into our system. When we run out of room to store these emotions, often they make their way out in emotional outbursts and dysregulated behavior. This is especially true of our kids, who have less cognitive resources and experience available to them to process difficult emotions. During this ongoing pandemic, we as adults are working hard to process and regulate self amidst the waves of uncertainty and constant changes. I, myself, am finding at times that I am crying without provocation and am so much more tired than normal. I have heard from so many adults in my life that they are feeling overwhelmed. Can you imagine how much more difficult it must be for our children, then, when they are surrounded by things they cannot explain and changes that are out of their control and everyday norm? We can, therefore, expect our children to be experiencing a whole range of emotions; and primarily, we can expect our kids to be feeling alarm, a feeling of unsafety and uncertainty, with all these moving pieces. We can expect that this will mean that our children will be tired from working hard to feel their feelings or store them. Experiencing the many losses that come with this pandemic and change, in and of itself, takes a lot of energy. With this understanding, we can compassionately move toward our kids and walk alongside them during this pandemic. As parents, it will require us finding ways to also be compassionate towards ourselves, too, as we try on new things, create new routines, and face things we ourselves have never faced before.
The first step we can take on this journey in parenting is inward. Walking alongside our kids’ emotion and helping them process their emotional back log compels us to take a look at our own emotions and coping methods. If we are dysregulated as parents, it will be very hard to walk alongside dysregulated emotions without getting more triggered. “What am I feeling?”; “How am I processing this situation?”; “What do I need to regulate/ process my feelings?” – these are some great curious questions we can ask ourselves as we begin. As we then turn to our children, we can be curious as to what is happening for them when we’ve first been curious about self.
There are several things that can help our children during this pandemic. Three that I’ll mention are rest, play, and validation within relationship. As mentioned above, our kids will be very tired as a result of all the changes and the ensuing emotions. It is so important to our mental health to create spaces and times for rest. Rest does not only mean sleeping. Rest is any activity that slows us down from constantly giving our energy, “outputting”, and allows us to be filled up with new energy. For some, this may look like taking a walk. For others, it may look like quiet alone time; and for others still it may look like mindfulness or yoga. Finding what this is or what it could look like for your kids can allow you to offer rest preemptively as you start to notice trends in your child’s needs. For my kids, I notice that I need to create a space for rest sometime in the afternoon; otherwise, pre-dinner time is filled with dysregulation. However, we can also offer rest after the fact too. When we see lots of dysregulated behavior or emotional outbursts in children, it can be a sign for us that our kids have been outputting for too long and need some filling up.
Play is another way that children, teens, and even adults can process emotions. Play is a great resource as it allows us to look at stressors from one-step removed. Whatever medium of play that we are using becomes the vehicle for carrying and process emotions – whether it be through toys, art, music, imagination, etc. Play also allows us to look at things without there having to be an end result. Play, in and of itself, is the “result”. When we can play freely, we can access parts of self that are often hidden under stress. Feelings are safe to show up. Emotions that we didn’t have words for can be experienced and processed. For some kids, talking about their emotions is hard as they might be scared that talking about it will make the feeling bigger. Play helps them experience the feeling slower and in bite-sized chunks. My kids and I have been playing lots of games that help them process the “alarm” feeling without them having to name their fear– Hide and seek has been a favourite. Being “stuck” in jail has also been another great imaginary play-based scenario that they’ve created to help process the frustration around the extra time indoors. The best part of play for parents is that you don’t have to structure their play time. All you have to do is create the space for free play to show up.
Walking alongside our kids will also require us to “see” them, to really understand or at the very least have a glimpse of what it might feel like from their perspective. This is the essence of validation. Being seen or heard is a fundamental human need. In times of stress and separation, we naturally move toward one another because of our need to not feel alone in the chaos. Our kids need to not feel alone in their really big emotions during this time. If our children are not naming their emotions or if their emotions are coming out in dysregulated behavior, we as parents can help name their internal world for them. To help parents do this, Emotion Focused Family Therapy has come up with a “formula” to help coach our kids through their emotions and help them be seen and heard. It begins with validation, followed by emotional and, finally, practical support.
To validify someone’s feelings we can use three “becauses” to help them feel heard. An example of what three “becauses” specifically addressing this pandemic might look like could be: “I can imagine why you are feeling scared right now because so much has changed over the last little bit, and because you don’t get to see your friends and relatives as much and you’re scared something bad could happen to them; and I can understand why you’d be afraid because we are all still figuring this out and I get scared sometimes too.” Coming up with “becauses” takes practice and intentionally looking at things from your child perspective, even if the perspective has elements of the irrational. And let’s be honest, our kids’ emotions are wildly in the realm of the irrational. As parents, we may have to guess what these “becauses” are if we are unsure, but you can rest assured knowing that your child will let you know if you get it wrong. But even in trying and getting it “wrong”, space is created for our child’s internal world to be seen and heard. We can use validation around our kid’s emotions, but we can also use validation around our kid’s behavior and then slowly bring them to their emotions. An example of that might be “I can understand why you might want to hit your brother right now, because he stole your toy, and I can imagine that made you feel very angry and frustrated because you felt like you deserved to be playing with it; and I can imagine that it was hard to know what to do because your anger felt so big in that moment”. Validation requires us to try naming what is real for our child in that moment; but we do not necessarily leave them there. A big distinction to make is that validation is not agreeing with someone, it is about seeing them. I can see why my kid hit his brother while still not agreeing that he should hit his brother when frustrated. This is why it is important to add in emotional and practical support following validation.
In providing emotional support, the key is the relationship. We offer to our kids the unconditional love we have for them – so that they know that there is nothing they say or feel that would get in the way of our love for them. We hold truths for them in the face of irrationality in this support. No fear, no sadness, no behaviour is too big or bad. We’ll face it with them together. We tend to offer emotional naturally. Often in the face of stress, we want to tell people that “you’ll be ok” and “we’ll get through this”. These are great things to hear, but they can invalidate a person’s experience if we do not first understand/ see why a person is feeling certain emotions. That is why it is important to follow the steps, starting with validation when a person really needs to be seen and heard. In the example above of hitting, emotional support might look like: “I will love you no matter what even when you hit your brother. There is nothing you could do that would make me love you less. I’ll walk with you through this angry feeling. I’m here for you.”.
When feeling big emotions or when validating a behavior that we would not condone, it is important to follow up with the very last step of practical support following emotional support. In this step, we make a plan for regulation. We offer solutions. We set limits. Following the hitting example above, this could look like: “While I understand why you would hit your brother and will love you no matter what, I will not let you hit your brother. Here are some things we could do instead when we are angry…”. Practical support allows you as a parent to be the container, the boundary your kids needs to learn how to operate in this world. Through it, you can gently guide your kids to appropriate behavior, hold the worth or your kid and others, create room for choice, model regulation, and teach them resiliency. So many good things!
It is important to note, that we as parents will not be able to “see” our kids all the time. In fact, it is important that we don’t “see” them all the time. The validation technique offered above only needs to be done about 20-30% of the time. We can actually end up over “seeing” our kids and leave them feeling like they have no boundaries. No sense of where they end and you begin. As parents, we can learn to be more compassionate with ourselves if we recognize that it is a gift for our kids to be feeling their negative emotions and learn to move with them. That it is a gift for your kids to face and feel their stressors. In fact, we really want them to face the difficult feelings while still with us so that when they one day leave the comfort of home, they will know how to face the challenges of the world. They will have built resiliency and the capacity to face tough things. Our “negative” feelings help us move through this tough and broken world. And if we don’t let ourselves or our kids have negative feelings, we can often end up stuck holding them inside. This knowledge can then give us permission as parents to not get it right all the time, to make mistakes. In “not getting it right”, we can trust that it gives our children and opportunity for resiliency building and a chance to test their capabilities. Isn’t that a relief to know! I know it sure is for me, especially in a time when I cannot possibly know what even the next day will hold.
If you’d like more resources on the validation, emotional support, and practical support pieces, please check out Emotionally Focused Family therapy’s resource website: https://www.mentalhealthfoundations.ca/resources
And for a script builder for helping you to walk through these three steps, check out: https://e78f226b-636a-4b6d-b774-75ca09eb3c0c.filesusr.com/ugd/c390c7_85269bd0a7f0450c9b19167907654cb3.pdf
With much love,