Have your kids been clingy for attention lately? Complaining about tummy aches or other bodily complaints without physical? Whining more than usual or refusing to follow directions? These can be symptoms of anxiety, and I know based on my work as a psychotherapist that we are all experiencing anxiety on some level right now. All.of.us.
"Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life."
- Susan David
Contrary to popular belief, we don't get to avoid suffering in life. We've convinced ourselves that there are positive and negative feelings we experience, and if we don't feel positive, then there must be something wrong with us. Here's the hopeful news - There is NOTHING wrong with any of us. We are built with these emotions. They are neither good nor bad; they just are. I like to say we have comfortable and uncomfortable feelings, and both are equally purposeful for our well-being.
Being a perfect parent/teacher/therapist for kids isn't possible, as hard as we may try. Hello, mom guilt! BUT you know what is possible? Being a PRESENT parent, teacher, or therapist. When we spend time and attention on our children, we give them and ourselves the most valuable gift in the world - presence.
I was recently working through a journal prompt that asked me, "What are all the things you tried to get done today?" I had a long list of:
Pack-up from vacation
Drive home in the rain with cranky child
Unpack from vacation
Eat healthily and exercise - failed.
Work on webinar
Take care of my daughter
Connect with my daughter
The very next prompt asked, "What accomplishments would make you feel most fulfilled at the end of the day?"
My answer to this question is where everything came into focus for me. Connecting with my daughter was the number one thing that would help me experience fulfillment, and yet I pushed it off the list several times in favor of other tasks that day. This was the wake-up call I needed.
I've come back to this question several times this week when I feel pulled in opposite directions. I ask myself, what will make me feel most fulfilled at the end of the day? Of course, we can't always follow what makes us feel satisfied, or nothing will get done. But, if we pay attention to this need and desire for connection with our children even in small increments, it can help you feel more present in your child's life. In return, your children are getting their bucket for love and connection filled up too, and their anxiety will go down.
So how do we connect with our children in meaningful ways to reduce anxiety?
Get on the child's level. This could be physical, meaning you sit on the floor with them, or mentally meaning you bring out your inner, playful child for a few moments each day. It could also look like showing genuine interest in a worry of theirs, even if it is not something you think is reasonable. Get curious about the child and find out what the purpose of the emotions is. This curiosity will give you a window into their inner world and may help you solve the problem.
Be present. Put away the phones, screens, and other distractions. It helps to turn off the TV or radio, and just be in the moment. Silence is so rare these days. Give your child the experience of watchful silence.
Observe. Instead of jumping in to offer instruction or direction on the children's thoughts, feelings or behavior, just sit and watch. It might not seem like much is happening, but believe me, kids need this kind of unconditional attention more than we realize. Children are continually being instructed and directed with their emotions. When we slow down and let them call the shots, we allow them to be fully accepted for who they are.
Reflect. If you want to talk during this time, pretend you are a mirror and make simple reflections. I see you are disappointed you can’t go back to school. I see you are frustrated you can’t go to the playground. I hear you are angry. Act as a sportscaster, repeating the feelings and behavior you see.
Empathize. “It must be scary to hear about the virus all the time. I feel scared sometimes too.” When you empathize with a child you give them permission to express the uncomfortable feelings. Allow whatever feelings bubble up. We need to feel to heal.
Make this a habit. Give the child time like this each day. It might help to name this time as something special between you two. Set a timer for how long it will last - 5, 10, or 15 minutes. This habit gives you and the children a set of expectations and reduces the anxiety children can have wondering when they get mom or dad's undivided attention again.
I hope this activity will help you find some comfort within discomfort this week as you face the challenges of pandemic life and all the stressors of back-to-school. We don’t always have the answers. I know I sure don’t! But I do know we don’t have to distract, fix, or remove children from their emotions. When we accept children with their uncomfortable feelings, we change the narrative that emotions are either good or bad, and this can be liberating for all of us.
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