We’re all feeling stressed and kids are picking up on this. Talking with kids matters now more than ever. Yet it can be hard to talk to kids about the stresses they are feeling under quarantine, missing their friends and not knowing when, or if the world will get back to some sense of normal while we juggle our own unknowns as parents.
We asked licensed school psychologist and special needs PhD, Leota Tucker, to offer some insight on how we can all be gentler on ourselves as stress builds and days roll by. The mom of two elementary-age boys shared how to help kids who can’t always express all that they may be feeling.
“We are all becoming aware of a major shift in life itself,” said Tucker, who is a former Las Vegan and currently lives in Vermont. “Adults are beginning to understand that life will never be what it was two months ago. All parts of life have been impacted by the virus and no one has ever experienced this before. This amount of uncertainty is bound to bring about feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, and fear. And that is just in the adults.”
The most important thing to remember for children is that no matter how gifted or smart we believe our children are, they are still children.
“Their bodies and brains are still developing,” Tucker, who has a special needs son, said. “Their ability to respond to change is also still developing, meaning they do not have the capacity to respond appropriately to major life changes without significant help.”
Listen to the way you talk to your children when they are acting out or turning on their sibling.
“Help is not (saying) ‘calm down,’ ‘stop,’ or ‘be quiet’,” she said. “Help is calming conversations that are both honest and gentle. Help is accepting that children, littles and bigs, will not respond appropriately to these major life changes. This is not your fault as a parent/guardian/caretaker, or the child’s fault.”
If we accept that children have not fully developed their ability to adapt to change (a characteristic of emotional intelligence), then we must accept that children need guided practice with adapting to change.
“We have to model adaptability,” Tucker said. “This is referred to as external regulation. This is when we show a child the appropriate way to respond to something they have responded to inappropriately.’
An appropriate response requires the adult to be calm, patient and not react to the child, but to the behavior (no punishment – implement consequences). Consequences do not mean aversive tactics, shouting, spanking, or shaming. Consequences are a result of an action, and externally regulating for a child is a consequence.
“The key difficulty, and I know this because I experience it daily, is controlling our own anger and frustration,” Tucker said. “Hold tight to the idea that the maladaptive response you see with a child is a communication of an unmet need – in the BEST way the child can express that need in the moment – no child wants to upset their parent/guardian/caretaker. Children want connection. If the child is only able to get this connection through poor behavior – they will behave poorly. They are doing their best to communicate what they need.”
What are some prompts parents can use to find out how their child is feeling?
Children will not tell anyone how they truly feel unless they feel safe. For young children this involves playful engagement. Play with children, and let them lead the playtime.
If we are being honest, a lot of adults (myself included) find this to be boring, really boring, and frustrating when we are thinking about the 17 other things we need to do, but keep the goal in mind. This play will connect you to your child, and that connection alone will create a clear path of communication – one where your child will want to talk. Think about that…..your child will be more open to sharing their most scary and intimate feelings….instead of acting out.
For older children it is the same thing but in a “parallel” way. You may not play l
Legos with your 15 year old, but you could watch YouTube videos (of the 15 year old’s choice) and begin a conversation. Ask “why”, “who” and “what” questions – so they cannot answer with “yes” or “no”. Be goofy if your child will respond to that, be imperfect. Once the humor has returned to this interaction, you have opened up the path to communication and can let the conversation flow. Show your imperfections to your children, don’t be afraid. Talk about what it was like to be their age in a way that is real. My oldest son is 10, and we talk about school and friends, and how shy I was at 10. I tell him I was so afraid to speak in front of other people, and am so proud of him for speaking in front of a room of adults about himself. Show them they are strong.
Humor and play are the best ways to begin real conversations with your children. Silence also works wonders. Just BE in the same physical space with your child, try.
How can parents comfort their children without stressing them out further?
More than anything children want to know that they are protected and loved, that they are valued. Be honest with your children. None of us have been through this before. We don’t know everything that will happen in the future, however – “I do know that we will be together.” “I will always keep you safe.” “You deserve to be loved and protected, and that is my first job as your mother/father/guardian/caretaker.” “No matter what you are important and loved.” “You don’t have to be perfect all the time to deserve love all the time.” What matters most to children is that their primary caretakers are present. The pandemic doesn’t have to be the topic of every conversation, and distractions are good. Be honest, but be present for your children.
How can parents better understand what their children may be going through or feeling?
No matter how bad you think you are “doing” as a parent, you are a lot better than you think. (this is true for 99% of people). If we can keep the idea ever present that poor behavior is a communication of an unmet need, then we can also understand that this poor behavior is also a communication of their child experiencing a significant struggle. Bad behavior = a struggling child. No child wants to struggle, no child wants to make the most important person in their lives (you) angry with them. No child wants to hurt, offend, damage anyone or anything. Poor behavior is not a first choice for a child, it is the ONLY choice – from the child’s perspective. If they could find a better way, they would. If they cannot, it is our job to help them find a better way.
Why is it important to talk with kids during this difficult time?
It is critical to talk to your children and be honest (age appropriate). This is an unprecedented time for everyone. Children need to know that we have never “done” this before either. Uncertainty breeds fear, as we see in society today. We can be certain that we love our children, that we will protect our children, that we all deserve to be loved. Impress these ideas into conversations with your children. My boys (7 and 10) have experienced a lot in their short lives, but they always know two things. 1. “Mom (single Mom, no Dad) doesn’t care if you are thrilled with a her choice, your safety is my First Job. You can be angry with me but if you are not safe, nothing else matters.” 2. “I know you don’t like it when I leave, but I always come back. No matter what, when, or how I will always come back to you.” Make your own, few short rules/matras for your family. Repeat them when you are happy or angry. They don’t change. Be honest about uncertainty – you can always return to your rules/mantras.
How truthful should parents be?
You know your children better than anyone else- know that. Your friend may have been able to talk to her child about death on a much more graphic level than you can talk to your same age child about death. trust your instincts. Yes, you should be truthful with your children about the world today, but it also helps if they get information from other sources. Parent talks can be white noise after a while.
For younger kids, CNN has held a few video sessions for children in combination with Sesame Street. There are also age appropriate broadcasts for older children from trusted resources such as CNN or NPR. You can google and Youtube to find them. Parents should watch with their children.
Any resources you can recommend for parents?
The events of today will bring about long-lasting trauma for many. There is a conference streaming through May 31 2020 that I find useful. The conference is run by a faith-based organization, but the information and practices are based on research and intervention with children, NOT on a particular faith. I have used these practices in my professional and personal life for 5 years and find they are the most effective principles out there to truly make positive change with children.
I am a trained practitioner both in the classroom practices and for training professionals in these practices, so if you have questions, I am more than happy to answer and offer a deeper understanding. The conference you will watch was run over two days (about 12 hours). It is sponsored by a Christian organization, however the practices are based on research and direct intervention with children in homes, orphanages, and residential treatment facilities. Please don’t let the faith aspect put you off of the valuable knowledge the conference provides.
Both personally and professionally, these practices have improved my work with children 10x over. I have been implementing these methods for over 5 years now and find this conference so helpful. I attend every year.
Registration is easy. Click the link below, enter basic information. You will be given a link and a password. Follow the link, enter your unique password and watch the segments when you have the time, through May 31, 2020. Print out the workbook for note-taking and reference.
We are excited to be able to offer Vegas Kids Zone readers the ability to watch the Empowered to Connect Event from your home. Register for free to receive the event link to watch from now till May 31.
When asked for your registration code please enter zip code 05059.
Once you have registered you will receive the event link, password, and instructions.
If you registered to receive CEU’s, you will be sending tracking documents directly to Show Hope. Instructions and forms will be linked in your confirmation email after you register.
You have a choice of watching the 2018 or 2019 rebroadcasts. I recommend 2019 because of the addition of Marti Smith, OT. You can download the Workbook HERE.
Leota Tucker, PhD (Special Education)
Licensed School Psychologist (NV, CA, VT, NH)
Nationally Certified School Psychologist, NCSP
TBRI Practitioner (Trust Based Relational Intervention)
Vital Links Practitioner (Therapeutic Listening)