Practicing empathy and listening… it matters more now than ever
Yesterday, consultant Lynne Reeves Griffin met with parents online to talk about the times we are living in today, and what parents can do to support their children and themselves. I was able sit in on all three of these sessions, and one of the themes that stood out to me is the need for more empathy and listening right now in all of our relationships.
As Lynne pointed out, this global pandemic is something that we have never faced before in our lifetimes. Whether we recognize it or not, this crisis is causing increased stress for all of us, and that has a profound impact not only on our lives as adults but also on children as well. Although the pandemic is new, Lynne reminded us that we have a lot of data and research that helps us know how to effectively cope with major mental health challenges, including the lessons we have learned from 9/11 and Newtown. Lynne has synthesized a lot of that research, as well as her own experience as a nurse and school consultant, in order to provide many helpful insights for parents today. I encourage you to read Lynne’s post in Psychology Today, “Parenting in Uncertain times.”
I took notes during Lynne’s meeting with parents yesterday, and here are a few of the insights that might be helpful to all of our parents:
The importance of structures, schedules, and routines for kids (and adults)
All children need structure and routine in their day. Daily routines help keep our stress level down. Parents should work to create a day with structure (school structures, family structures, and personal structures) and then create freedoms for the child to operate within this structure based on their choices. Lynne encourages parents to be proactive in planning: have a regular meeting time to talk about the schedule for the day, put the schedule on the fridge or someplace everyone can see it, and make time each day to tap into something your child finds fun and looks forward to. There also must be flexibility in this new normal. That can be facilitated by making time to talk together and listen to each other, and agreeing on the structures and freedoms that support individual family members and the whole family.
The importance of lowering expectations and not overloading children at this time
In any stressful situation, a child’s capacity for doing anything is lower. Because children are having to shift to school happening at home, their attention spans are shrinking. Students should not be overloaded with work right not–less is more. Parents should also lower expectations at home — meals might be simpler, hygiene may be more informal, and standards might be relaxed a bit.
Responding when your kids are anxious, upset, or frustrated
In responding to student stress and concern, it’s important to take your cues from your child. Answer a specific question as your child poses it rather than adding additional information based on what you think the child needs to know. Be truthful in what you say, rather than saying something that sounds comforting but may not really be truthful or certain. If a child is worried that an adult may get sick, a parent might respond, “we are doing everything we can to be healthy.” If a child is angry, the first response might be to acknowledge that anger. It’s not possible to problem solve when emotions are heightened. Find calm moments to problem solve and take perspective, and problem solve as partners in a relationship. “What can I do for you?” “How can we agree?” We need to turn up the dial on our ability to communicate with each other.
The importance of parents taking care of themselves
The analogy of putting on your own oxygen mask first applies here. Moms and dads set the tone for how kids will cope. Parents need to build time into their own daily schedule to care for themselves. Parents should give themselves time that is “off-limits” except for emergencies, and help children know that you need those times, too. Post the parent schedule on the fridge, letting your child know when they can ask for your help. Parents need to build time for themselves, and tag-team with their partners to give each other time off.
Addressing concerns about screen time for children
Parents may be thinking, “I was doing such a good job by not having my child be exposed to screens. How can this be the new normal?” This is a time when we need to be thoughtful about the screens our kids are on. But during this time, appropriate use of screens is okay, and helpful. The school is using screens in purposeful ways — ways that are interactive rather than passive. A good online curriculum is both synchronous (live and online) and asynchronous (not live and not necessarily online). Kids need guidance about the amount of time they are spending online. Parents can help to keep this in perspective by working with the child to create a visual representation of screen time that is easy for the child to understand: academic time versus social time. Parents shouldn’t talk with kids about “taking away” their technology. Kids should know that you want them to use technology, but that you want them to use it wisely.
Turning this challenging time into an opportunity
During this unprecedented shift in our daily lives, let’s remember to see this as a profound opportunity to connect with our kids, and to help our kids learn how to do this. Let’s use this challenging time as a unique opportunity to strengthen our personal connections and communication with each other. A simple and important way to help children stay healthy is for parents to encourage family conversations about gratitude. Take time once a day to ask, “what are we grateful for?” If adults practice being grateful, it will be an enormous help for our children in thinking about other people, and about being kind and considerate. Kids need that shift in mindset to stay healthy and not get stuck in a rut of just thinking about what they need to get done.
Are you interested in honing your skills in family communication?
Here are two books recommended by Lynne: