Kids learn more from our examples than any lecture.
This includes how we communicate, face obstacles, manage anxiety and accept feedback.
This can be challenging on a “good day,” never mind during a pandemic.
If there were ever a time when kids are looking to parents for ways to process and interpret the uncertainty and fear associated with the current health crisis, it’s now.
If there were ever a time when parents needed information and support to help them do just that, it’s now.
Concurrently, there’s a powerful opportunity for you to learn about the brain and use that knowledge to your advantage in your parenting.
How do you know if your parenting approach could use an upgrade?
Consider the following:
- What messages are you sending your kids about how to handle anxiety provoking situations?
- Do you pay attention to your “warning signs” and employ strategies to help you re-set?
- Or, do you ignore your well being and hear yourself using reactive, dismissive or catastrophic language?
My husband and I were four sons into our parenting journey and still lacked an understanding about stress, effective coping skills and the power of communication, often repeating the same ineffective statements we heard as kids. If you asked my kids where they learned anxiety from, they’d all point to me. If you asked them where they learned anger, they’d point to their dad.
Modeling and environment matter.
Accepting these truths and being willing to make adjustments in our habits and ways of communicating cultivated a healthier environment for our family, strengthened us as parents, and ultimately empowered our sons.
The same can happen for you and your family, even during these stressful times.
But before we get there, you need to know something: what’s going on in your brain when it’s stressed.
The stress response
Your stress response is designed to protect you from danger. In today’s world, it’s often working overtime. Worries about germs, job uncertainty, changes in school routines or social isolation can send Mayday! messages to your brain that quickly activate stress chemicals and cause you to experience sensations such as a rapid heart beat, stomachache, headache, or muscle tightness. Before you know it, you’re in fight, flight or freeze mode and find yourself flipping out, zoning out or feeling stuck…or maybe a combination.
In these moments, your emotional brain hijacks your thinking brain, and you’re not able to reason, think logically or behave your best.
The more you and your kids understand the brain’s stress response and its warning signs, the better you’ll be able to reduce and manage stress.
When you’re stressed, you need a toolbox of strategies to cool down your brain, so you can reset and think clearly again. By paying attention to your warning signs—worried thoughts and physiological changes in your body—you can interrupt the stress response and send your brain a message you’re ok and can handle the situation, despite it being difficult or uncomfortable.
The following strategies help cool down the brain—for adults and kids.
1. Learn the ABC Strategy—this three step strategy from ABC Worry Free combines Mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, effective treatments for anxiety, and can be used in “real time” during anxiety provoking situations.
A=Accept how you feel—Ex. I’m having trouble juggling home/work demands.
- Accept your feelings vs. dismissing or judging yourself.
B=Breathe slow and deep—Inhale for 4 seconds, exhale for 6 seconds.
- This calms your nervous system so you can get your legs back under you. (you can use other favorite breathing techniques—just exhale longer than inhale)
C=Change your thinking—I will set healthy boundaries and ask for help if needed. This turns a threat into an opportunity and helps you build a needed skill.
2. Label and express your feelings—I feel ________________when________________.
Anger, frustration and anxiety are normal emotions—it’s key for kids to see they can be managed and expressed in healthy ways. This boosts their emotional development.
3. Engage in some form of exercise or movement to reap fitness and mood benefits.
4. Distract yourself with a favorite hobby or visit a special spot.
5. Let’s not forget the obvious: get sufficient rest and nutrition. You’re probably thinking, yea, yea, I’ve heard that a million times. But ask yourself, “Would you expect a race horse to perform at a high level when you deprive it of rest and feed it soda and chips?
When you use strategies to help you effectively manage stress and self-regulate your emotions, your kids take note—they learn how to set boundaries, manage strong emotions, and take breaks when angry, anxious or frustrated.
Your kids are watching your example, even when you think they’re not.
So, be patient with yourself and your kids if strategy implementation doesn’t go swimmingly the first (or second or third) time. Learning any new skill takes time and practice. With your modeling, kids will get the message healthy habits are valued in your family. They’ll also be empowered to deal with challenging situations when anxiety strikes in their lives…and it will.
Now that you know how you influence your children, how the stress response influences you, and how to use strategies to respond to them both, it’s time to talk a bit about the language of your parenting.
Power of communication
Let’s face it. If you’re a parent, you’ve had days when your emotions got the best of you, and you lost it. Perhaps you screamed at your kids or modeled the opposite language you want your kids to use.
Welcome to the club. You’re in good company.
You can learn to model respectful ways of communicating, which can be especially helpful during stressful times. Here are some do’s and don’ts:
Do’s: use a calm tone (as much as possible) and validate feelings. The following statements honor feelings, decrease anxiety and enable kids to kick into skill building and problem solving mode:
- I’m sorry you’re going through this. I’m here to support.
- I can understand why that’s worrisome. I’ve felt that way before.
- I’m glad you’re sharing—what do you think is a good next step?
- This is hard, and you can learn ways to deal with it.
- Change is possible, if you’re willing.
Kids whose feelings aren’t validated often doubt themselves or think something is wrong with them for feeling a certain way. Of course, if your child is misbehaving, a firm tone is warranted, one that maintains their dignity but makes it known the behavior is unacceptable.
Don’ts: avoid tone and language that belittles, dimisses or judges. The following statements are common, yet ineffective in reducing anxiety or promoting skill building—they often do the opposite:
- Don’t worry about it.
- You’re worried about that?
- Just put on your big girl/boy pants.
- It’s no big deal…get over it.
- This is a disaster.
- Things don’t change…this will never end.
- You always mess up…
Kids rely on their parents to help them navigate stressful situations and emotions. If angry shouting matches, worst case scenarios, disbelief in change or dismissive, disrespectful tones are “normal” parts of your child’s environment, expect them to mimic the same.
Receptivity to life-long learning and change
Modeling a willingness to learn and improve sends a powerful message to your kids. Progress, not perfection is the goal. If you make a mistake—which you will—accept you’re human. Take the next step to apologize, which is what we want our kids to do when they make mistakes.
Even with strategies and effective communication, you’re bound to stumble. When you do, it’s great for your kids to watch you try again. And again. To show resilience. Accept feedback. And seek professional help, if needed.
We wouldn’t send our kids out on a cold day without a jacket, so why would we send them into the world without a set of coping skills?
When you think of your child at ages 5…10…16…21, what do you want them to be able to say and do when they encounter obstacles or stressful situations? Your parenting approach and ways of communicating and modeling strategies will help them get there. Building a toolbox of healthy habits for successful coping is an awesome and empowering gift your child can use in school, sports, relationships, jobs…life.