When was the last time you spent 24 hours of your day with your spouse or your children? This pandemic has made that a reality, for all of us.
In the beginning of this circuit breaker, some of us rejoiced at the time we would get to spend with our families, especially our children. 4 weeks in, not so much.
Research has shown that this quarantine can mess up our emotions. Losing our sense of routine, replaced with feelings of being trapped. Sparking boredom, frustration, irritability, loneliness, stress or even anger.
The fact that we are home all the time, unable to grab a coffee with a friend, go to the gym or have our favourite bubble tea, or any of our usual forms of release, only magnifies our internal tension. As adults, though we are capable of self-control, we still struggle with not letting our emotions take over our actions and words. More often than not, they sometimes spill over in our interactions with the people who are closest to us.
In the same way, our children are experiencing the same emotions as us, except that they may not be able to articulate or as effectively manage what they are feeling.
They are able to understand tangible realities like the fact that they cannot see their friends anymore, that the number of COVID-19 cases are rising each day, that they cannot buy their favourite food or snacks, the change in the way they have to learn. These external influences put a demand on their emotional well-being and could lead to anxiety.
Their self-awareness has not fully developed yet, which means that they do not entirely understand their emotional response to these realities; what they are feeling or why they are feeling it. This may result in behaviour that we do not expect, or have never seen previously.
It could look like your child crying over things that usually would not affect them, seemingly minor incidents, like losing a game they were playing, or that their pencil is not sharp enough. Perhaps they get easily irritated when someone is speaking too loudly in the house. When you ask a simple question like, “what are you doing?”, they react as if you are interrogating. Maybe they spend long periods of time in their room without interacting with you. They do things to provoke their siblings more often, or become fussier with what they will and will not eat. They follow you around wherever you go, or they ask way too many questions that they expect you to answer even when you are visibly busy.
In response, we sometimes hear ourselves say, “why are you so nice to your friends but with me you are…”. The truth is, when our children act up, show a tantrum, lash out or are rude to us, it also signals to us that they feel comfortable and safe to show that side of themselves to you. It may not always be a bad thing for them to express their negative emotions.
As parents, we do our best to understand our children’s’ behaviour, because we want to help them. Sometimes we are unable to do much because we do not know how to approach them, or they do not know how to respond to us.
We might even find ourselves in a vicious cycle where their anger triggers our own, and we end up in an escalating shouting match.
This does not have to be the case. When we respond in a way that they do not expect, we throw in a circuit breaker. Much like how the COVID-19 CB has disrupted our lives, this circuit breaker disrupts the potential heated argument, and turns it into teachable moments for our children.
In order to help you facilitate these conversations with your children, whether it is to build your relationship with them, or to help them navigate their thoughts and feelings, here are some tools that you can use to communicate better with them:
CREATING A SAFE SPACE
When speaking to your children, especially about things that are more personal, like their feelings, it is necessary that they feel safe to share them with you.
If you scolded them for something they did or got frustrated with them, it is alright to not rectify it at that moment. When our emotions are high, we are not in a state to listen to anybody. As parents, we have nuggets of wisdom to share with our children so that they can become the best versions of themselves.
However, when they are emotionally frustrated or hurt, that wisdom is short changed because they are not ready to listen. Anything that we say can come off as a personal attack to them or taken out of context.
What matters is that we create a safe space: calm, dessert (optional but preferable), conversation friendly.
Remind them that there is no correct or wrong answer. It is a time and space where you and your child can be vulnerable and not be judged for it.
As they share, we should bite our tongue and avoid commenting on what they are sharing. With every word they share, they are also testing the boundary to see how much they can open up or how much they should hold back. When we respond too quickly without allowing them to finish, they may not feel like they can be honest with you.
Most importantly, we should keep to our word and not let our objections show, or act defensive, especially if their sharing may imply something negative about us. It is not a time to point out their flaws or find fault. It is a time where we seek to understand them better.
VALIDATE THEIR FEELINGS
After we have created a safe space for them, they will begin sharing what they are feeling and going through. It is not easy for them or anyone to share things that we are not proud of or things that make us feel small or think negatively about ourselves. When they make themselves vulnerable, do validate their feelings.
Phrases that echo what they are feeling like, “that must have been very difficult for you to go through” or “it must have been very frustrating when that happened”, gives them the confidence to share more.
Affirm them for being brave enough to share. Listen to what they are saying. When we acknowledge and validate their feelings, we help to build their self-esteem. We empower them to accept both their positive and negative feelings, and to not always act on it. Instead of judging with the benefit of hindsight, how they could have handled the situation better, help them see that it is okay to err, and they do not have to be afraid to try again.
CHECK-INS AND CHECK-OUTS
Questions like “how are you feeling about this circuit breaker” or “why are you behaving this way”, can be loaded questions that will lead to silence or your children shutting you out. One way to help them open up, is by starting with simple questions like:
Check-In at the start of the day: What is 1 thing you want to do today? It can be anything they want to accomplish for themselves, not what you expect them to do.
Check-Out at the end of the day: what is 1 win we want to celebrate?
You may get one word answers like, “nothing” or a blank stare. Do not be disheartened. Perhaps you can model the way and share first. Or perhaps find a different tack: “What is 1 fruit that would describe how your day went?”
Help them to recognise the small wins in their day. Simple questions like these are light and easy for them to respond to. When they feel comfortable sharing the small things, it allows you to build towards sharing something deeper later on.
FAMILY JOURNALLING TIME
For some of us, we may not be comfortable with verbal communication. Another method that we could try is writing down our thoughts and feelings. You could set aside one notebook for the family to write anything that they would like to share, but may not be comfortable saying it face to face. You may also ask each member of the family to have their own notebook, where they could write about different things each day, and let each other read about it. Things like:
- One thing that made me frustrated
- One thing that was exciting
- One thing that I am grateful for
- Something I read or heard that made me smile
- A song that was stuck in my head today
Remember that this is not a composition exercise and that you do not need to correct spelling and grammar as you read their journal entries.
Sometimes, speaking or writing may not be the best medium to express themselves. They may not be able to find the right words to describe how they are feeling. Consider using doodles as a form of expression instead. Before the day begins or when the day ends, you could spend 5 minutes with them drawing a picture that describes how each of your day was like.
If they feel that they are not good at drawing, let them google images, use magazines or even newspaper cut-outs to make collages that can help describe their day.
You could also prompt them to explain what they put together with neutral questions like, “could you share with me what this is over here?” and “what is so special about it that you chose to add it into your picture?”.
TALK ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS
This could be the source for the roller coaster of emotions we all have been feeling. Our children have the access to the same information that we have. However, most of their news sources are often sensationalised versions they encounter on their social media pages. Speaking to an informed adult could help them have an accurate idea of what is really happening outside of your home.
You could begin with asking them these questions:
- What’s the funniest piece of news you have heard about Covid-19?
- What are your friends doing during the circuit breaker? Are they bored at home?
- What do you like about this circuit breaker?
- Is there anything that bothers you about this Covid-19 situation?
- What is the first thing you want to do when this ends?
If you have no idea where to start, perhaps start from the bigger picture – what is going on around the world, how are their friends doing – and then zoom into asking them about how they feel. Be prepared to share your thoughts too. Keep it light-hearted and see where the conversation takes you. This is the first step into talking about other external events that could affect us in the future.
COMMUNICATION IS A JOURNEY…
It is needful for us to recognise that communication with our children, whether as toddlers or teenagers, is a process of building bridges. It does not happen overnight. The key thing to remember about these suggestions is that they are ways to create opportunities to reach out to your child, especially when they are struggling to process and understand what is going on around them.
It is about finding different ways for them to respond to you and remember that no matter what situation they find themselves in, you are someone whom they can feel safe enough to confide in and grow with.
It is not easy but know that even if they do not respond in the way you expect them to, they do recognise that you are trying and are doing something different. Sometimes, it just takes them some time to process and respond back. Remember that every time you try, you are building the foundations of stronger communication between you and your child.
This COVID-19 situation will pass, but the connections that you are building today will last.