So here we are, entering our second national lockdown. Right now, it truly feels like life sucks. The mood out there is gloomy, and as we all hunker down for what feels like a grim old Winter, while we are all trying to keep it together on an individual level, we also have tobe a cheerleader and role model to our children. That is a big ask when feeling utterly fed up with the never-ending nightmare that the pandemic has become.
So the question is, when life sucks, how should we be broaching this cruel old world with our kids? I posed the question to Melissa Hood, co-founder ofThe Parent Practice and here’s what she had to say…..
This is a difficult question for parents as we want to be compassionate and understanding when our children are facing difficulties but we also want them to learn to handle problems and to be resilient. Perhaps we think they should recognise that life is not always rosy, maybe we’d like them to have an upbeat approach to life and we might prefer not to listen to complaints.
We certainly do want children to be problem-solvers. We want them to not get stuck in despair but to think of solutions. Resilience means the capacity to recover from difficulties; it means adapting well in the face of adversity or stress. We all want our children to be able to do that.
If we tell our children to ‘suck it up’ we are basically telling them that life isn’t always agreeable and that we just have to deal with that and implying that feelings should be pushed to one side. The trouble is that humans are emotional creatures and feelings cannot be expelled.
Studies using MRI scans show that even when people try to suppress their feelings emotional centres in the brain are still lighting up, revealing that emotions are still present and driving actions. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of our brain that controls emotions and makes judgments based on logic and rationality. It curbs impulses and analyses our first instincts. But this part of the brain will not be fully mature until the mid-20s so to expect our children with their immature brains to be able to push their feelings to one side and focus on problem-solving is unrealistic.
The brain operates sequentially. This means that the primal instinctive and reactive brain stem, which is concerned with safety and primes us for fight, flight or freeze, kicks into gear first and then the emotional mid-brain, and it is only when those parts are satisfied that the rational brain can operate.
So we need to make sure our children feel safe (physically and emotionally) and their emotions are heard before their problem-solving brain can kick into action. Pushing aside their feelings won’t work. Acknowledging the emotion allows the child to let it go and move on.
Resilience, or the ability to cope with setbacks, is closely linked to self-esteem. When something goes wrong a child needs to feel they have the resources to cope with it and if they get something wrong on this occasion to believe that they have the capacity to get it right next time.
Children feel capable when they know what they did right (and they know they can do it again), when they know they are unconditionally loved and accepted for who they are, not for matching up to someone else’s ideal or because of their achievements. Praise them descriptively for the effort they make, the attitude they exhibit and the qualities their actions show, especially courage and perseverance and adaptability.
The attitudes we show to life are partly inherited as our genes predispose us to approach life in a particular way, and are partly learned. Some children naturally have a very positive outlook on life and others are much more cautious and inclined to see the problems with things.
Wishing your child had a different temperament is a waste of time and risks sending them the message that they are unacceptable the way they are. Even if your child is temperamentally disposed to view the glass as half empty you can teach him to see the positive aspects of life. Value his cautious side as well.
If you want your child to have a positive outlook and a can-do attitude it will help if you model a problem-solving approach to life. As yourself if your child hears you giving up on things, moaning about what can’t be done or do they see you thinking about how to get around difficulties and finding solutions?
Covid restrictions may mean that you have to stay home but maybe you’ve become adept at using technology to be in touch or instead of meeting people indoors you’re making use of the outdoor spaces available to you.
Fair enough. Usually when a child feels that their feelings have been heard they let go of their emotions. If they still seem upset it may be they don’t really feel acknowledged so check if you might have tried to argue them out of them or justify your position or tried to shame them into dropping their feelings.
Sometimes it just takes time and we need to understand their feelings from their perspective –it might not matter to you that they can’t be on the phone all night to their friends but it is the world to your teen.
If they’ve had a good airing and they’re still stuck you can gently prompt them to start thinking about solutions. Don’t take over and tell them what they should do but ask questions to get them thinking. Without lecturing, convey the idea that just complaining doesn’t do them any good and can alienate them from others.
Sometimes complaining about other people or external circumstances masks a fear of their own inadequacy. Help build up capacity by encouraging self-reliance and confidence by pointing out to them evidence of their own capacities. Use lots of descriptive praise.
Sometimes there is no solution. It’s just a fact that they can’t have a birthday party with all their friends at your house. But you can gently urge them to think about other ways of being with their friends or otherwise celebrating their birthday. Sometimes what they’re dealing with is loss, of a loved one, or a family break up or having to move house or schools. Nothing can be done about the facts but you can and must acknowledge how they feel about it.
Letting them have their feelings doesn’t mean that they can be rude either. If you are the subject of the complaint it needs to be done respectfully. If the first attempt at expression was less than polite then acknowledge the feeling behind that and then require them to rephrase their point of view.
Without a doubt, life sucks big time right now and it’s truly a challenge to stay positive. That said, we hope these tips and insights will help everyone to be the positive force that our children need in our lives right now.
Sending positivity to you all and don’t forget if you need support as a mum during these hards times you can download our free, personalised positive affirmations for mums below.