Image by Nicholas Demetriades
Welcome to 2021! The vaccine is on its way, we are into the swing of virtual classrooms, and we know that in a few months we’ll be able to travel again and have more security in our jobs and schools. Many aspects of life will return to something we recognize as normal. We’ve learned a lot of new skills, developed some new habits and changed the ways we do some things for the better.
So why are we not all dancing in the streets and giving (still virtual) high fives? In fact, why are the rates of depression, anxiety, and even suicide skyrocketing worldwide, in both kids and adults? Why are even those of us who are not diagnosable with a mental disorder still feeling discouraged, sad, worried and tired?
Part of it is just exhaustion. Turns out it’s a lot harder than it sounds to stay home and stay flexible. Kind of like holding your arms straight out from your side, it seems easy at first but eventually becomes just too hard, your arms too heavy.
But it is also true that it’s just not enough to compare our relative good fortune to others who might be struggling with greater issues. We feel guilty when others - including that pesky Head of School - remind us to “count our blessings” and not to cry over spilt milk. Sometimes we really wanted that milk and besides it’s dripping on the rug.
The problem with recognizing your comparative wellbeing is that if you do that all the time you can end up ignoring some very real problems. If you have a thorn in your foot, it might help to recognize that other people have smashed legs so you are relatively lucky. But you still have a thorn. You can’t walk. And if you don’t pay attention to that thorn then it may very well become infected and you could end up with an amputated leg. That thorn is important, even if it is relatively minor at first.
My best friend, Sage, has a new granddaughter, Fiona, who was born in March in New York City. Sage was all set to travel from California for the first month of the new baby’s life, but Sage has some major health issues and is also the sole care-giver for her 95-year old mother, so when the pandemic broke out in New York going to visit was no longer an option. She packed up the hand-embroidered baby outfits that she had spent months creating and the heirloom children’s books, and she sent many packages by Fedex. Her new granddaughter is almost a year old, and they have yet to meet in person.
Now my friend Sage is the absolute master of counting her blessings. (In fact, this is so true that I wrote about her ability in my Ph.D. dissertation thirty-five years ago.) So she knows that she is lucky to have a granddaughter. She knows that she is lucky that Fiona is healthy, and that both parents are healthy, and that they have jobs that allow them to work mostly from home. She values the fact that we live in a time when she can actually communicate with them daily and instantly and visually, getting to see Fiona every day as she grows. She can look ahead to many great visits with Fiona as she grows older. She knows all of that.
But, oh… that new baby smell! And being able to just hang out with the baby on her lap, and giving that first bath, and feeling the baby’s velvety skin, and trying on all those wonderful new outfits! Those are losses that will never come back. No amount of comparison will make those losses feel better, and there is no way to turn back time for a do-over.
Luckily, Sage is also wise enough to mourn her losses, rage against the pandemic, complain to friends and stomp around the house at times. She is not ashamed of or embarrassed by her feelings. It doesn’t make her selfish or less appreciative of her blessings to recognize and talk about her losses. It helps.
So as we crawl toward that light at the end of the tunnel, I thought I might share a few end-of-tunnel tips for getting through this part of the experience.
1. First, in a shameless plug for my former profession, I want to say that therapy helps - sometimes a lot. If you or any member of your family currently see a therapist, this is not a good time to stop. In fact, you very likely want to increase the frequency. If you or any member of your family used to see a therapist, this is a good time to start up again. And if you have never talked to a therapist, now is a good time for a first visit or to consider one for your kids.
This doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with you or that you are getting worse. It just gives you a chance to pay attention to the thorns in your foot and carefully remove them. As parents, we don’t want to complain to our kids or spouses because we want to model being upbeat. Kids don’t want to complain to their parents because they don’t want to worry them, disappoint them, or seem to be whiny. Peers don’t want to complain at work because they don’t want to sound discouraging, and none of us wants to complain to our friends because we value our resilient image and don’t want to be a “downer.” So, often there is no way to process these minor losses, the trials of today and worries about tomorrow.
Therapists don’t judge whether you should be disappointed about the school play or angry at your kids for staying up too late or worried about whether your job will exist after this is all over. They just help you to examine these feelings, fold them up, and put them in a drawer where you won’t trip over them. If you don’t do that, then they’ll be all over your floor.
2. When and if your kids, spouse or friends do complain, listen and take them seriously. (We do.) Don’t try to talk them out of their worries or sadness, but do let them talk the situation through. Ask questions that help to clarify the source of stress and let the person examine the issue from all sides. Don’t minimize or brush the problem aside.
It is especially hard for kids to recognize that the end of the pandemic is near or that life will be less stressful than it is today. If you can, try to remember what a year was like when you were a teenager or a child. A year lasted forever. Children who are seven years old have been living with the pandemic for almost a seventh of their lives. (That’s the equivalent of nine years in my life.) Remembering what the daily pace was like a year ago is very fuzzy and distant to grasp emotionally, and a faraway future is similarly difficult to imagine. If we as adults think, “It’s probably only six more months before the kids can see their grandparents,” kids are likely to think, “Oh my gosh, it’s six whole months before I see my grandparents! I can’t wait that long!” It is also hard for kids to recognize that their misfortunes may pale in comparison to others’ - not only because they have less information about how others are faring but also because it is developmentally appropriate that they see the world through the lens of their own life, not that of others.
Set aside some time for your kids to share thoughts with you informally. For younger kids, this is often bedtime when you can sit together and talk about anything that comes up. For older kids, this might be as you are playing a game or taking a walk or travelling from one place to another. Don’t probe, but don’t dismiss either. Just provide the opportunity for a chat and allow them to feel safe and unjudged as they open up to you. Each time a child or teen trusts you with their feelings, treat that carefully like the gift that it is.
Even if kids have been able to interact online and in virtual classes, and even if adults have been able to work with colleagues in zoom meetings, what has been missing for the past year are the casual discussions - hanging out between classes for teens, sharing a secret on the playground for kids, chatting “around the water cooler” for adults. These casual discussions are a place that people often air their tiny worries or grievances, and we often don’t recognize their importance. These “thorn removers” have been missing from our lives.
3. One reason that many people are feeling exhausted or easily distressed is that the deluge of minor irritations has resulted in a chronic overload. Our brains react chemically to stress, and short-term mild or moderate stress is actually a good thing. But long-term or chronic stress is debilitating, especially for kids. Using our thorn analogy, it’s pretty easy to stop and remove a thorn and it’s a good thing to learn how to do that. But if we walk across a field of thorns, we may find ourselves crippled. We need to recognize that this has not been easy, pat ourselves on the back for how far we’ve come, and spend some time soothing those sore feet.
The problem with chronic stress is that it no longer responds to reason - our “thinking brain” has been overcome by our “emotional brain.” So expressing those negative emotions can actually help you return to a positive or neutral state. You can literally have a “pity party” where you say, “I feel angry that…”, “I feel sad that… “, “I feel guilty about…”, “I am worried that…” Once you have released those negative emotions, you can then focus on the positive, with “I am happy that…”, “I feel grateful to…”, or “I am proud that…” If you can do this with your kids, or model it for them, then you are giving them a skill that may serve them through many difficult times in their lives. Taking a “stomping walk” around a parking lot with kids can be both therapeutic and - eventually - fun.
4. I know I say this a lot, but finding a higher purpose helps. Try to do one thing every day that gives your life meaning and is not related to your kids (or parents), spouse, or work. Do something that helps someone else, creates something new, or informs you in a new way. There are some truly terrific online classes for adults, for example. (I’m currently taking one called The Examined Life.) Having a goal for tomorrow gives you a good reason to get up in the morning. Getting your kids involved in helping others not only teaches them good citizenship but also improves their mental health.
5. Humor: This is another one that my friend Sage and her 95-year old mother both excel at. I have seen them get through the darkest nights and climb the highest mountains while still cracking a joke. Life is not funny just when it’s fun -- sometimes it is at its funniest when it is difficult or scary. Being able to laugh at the absurdity of adversity doesn’t cure the problem, but it sure makes it easier to get through for you and for all around you. Often, what is remembered later is the laughter, not the pain. Be sure to find things to laugh at many times during your day and find times to laugh with your kids.
The truth is, the end of the tunnel is near but this may in fact be its darkest portion. Don’t feel guilty about feeling sad or strained -- that is a perfectly normal reaction to almost a year of stress and unpredictability. Do take the time to pay attention to yourself and to your spouse and to your kids. Do sweat the small stuff. And please do pay attention to any bigger stuff or red flags that may come up, and let the school know if they do. Do think about where your kids are getting their conversations - not only the important conversations about school or huge problems, but the importantly unimportant conversations about how they hate brushing the dog or worry about whether there will be bugs under their bed. Schedule play dates for them and schedule friend dates for yourself - even if they are online. Most of all, take some time to remember together how to have fun.