The day New Jersey closed schools feels like a lifetime ago, but it was actually less than a month ago. With two teenagers, a husband who is a teacher and me (a school administrator) all under one roof, the day didn’t feel real.
New Jersey was one of the first states to take this definitive action, in terms of a Shelter in Place order, so we didn’t have the same amount of time to digest what was happening as other states may have had later in the process. I was honestly questioning the decision. We’re actually closing schools over this? Isn’t this a bit of an overreaction?
But what quickly became apparent was that it was far from an overreaction, and yes, this was really happening. What also quickly became apparent was that this wasn’t going to be like a snow day, or even like the week of school closings after Hurricane Sandy. The days have turned into weeks, and now it’s becoming ever-clearer that the weeks have a pretty good chance of turning into months.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, in one of his daily briefings, said that the effects of the pandemic have been ‘disorienting.’ I couldn’t agree more. Everyone is in a bit of a fog, trying to orient themselves around a new normal with no end date posted on the school website.
A collective grief
So many of our children are experiencing the loss of loved ones, their parents’ jobs, their family’s income and major milestones (proms, graduations, championship games). All of them are experiencing the loss of how things are ‘supposed to be.’
The alarm is supposed to go off every morning, and they are supposed to get ready for school. The last bell is supposed to ring at the end of the school day, and practice is supposed to start. When there’s no more milk in the fridge, Mom or Dad are supposed to be able to run to the store on their way home from work and pick it up.
Instead, we are all experiencing a collective and very disorienting grief, and it is that grief in our children that needs to be faced, right along with how they will learn geometry in a virtual classroom. How our children learn to deal with this grief now will be the greatest indicator of how they will come out of this pandemic on the other side.
Although it’s a challenge, as a parent, to address a child’s mental health while we ourselves feel on the verge of a mental breakdown, there are ways that you can help your children that will ultimately help you. During a time of uncertainty or panic, it is natural for a person’s mind to start wandering to scary places. The problem is that the more we wander to those places, the more detached we become from ourselves.
It doesn’t take long to be lost in a spiral of anxiety, and as anyone who has experienced anxiety knows, once you have entered the spiral, it is very difficult to come out of it. Children need to know that they have the power to bring themselves out of it and into a safe and solid space, despite the fact that the adults around them do not have definite answers for them.
There are steps they can take every day that will empower them to face the fear of the unknown that we are all fearing. Each step in this five-step grounding process is a very simple but extraordinary form of connection.
These steps will not guarantee that everything is going to end up the way they want it to or that everything is going to be OK. What they do guarantee is that these children will have the power to ground themselves in a safe space every day, no matter what is thrown their way. Even more importantly, when all of this is over, they will still have the power to do that.
5 connections to ground our children
Connect with a new routine
Children have lost routine as they once knew it to be, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have a new routine. Sticking to a set time to wake up in the morning and go to sleep every night is a great way to create that new routine. Haphazard wake-up times create a sense of summer vacation. This is fun for a few days, but doing this for too many days in a row starts the disorienting process.
If you want to fit in days for sleeping in, make them on Saturdays and Sundays, so there is a clear delineation of the days of the week. Orienting around a clock and a calendar may sound simplistic, but that simplicity is exactly what will ground a child.
Connect with the body
Exercise is a great way to become grounded. The effects of cardiovascular exercise on mental health have been well-documented. It increases endorphins that help children feel good, and when they feel good, they can handle difficult things more easily.
Exercise also allows them to ‘feel’ their bodies in a way that they tend to ignore the rest of the day. They feel their heart racing, their muscles moving, their skin sweating. It brings them back to the basic form of who they are.
Exercise can mean anything for a child. Take them on a walk or a hike, if possible. If that’s not possible, create something in your home. Make up a game that gets them moving. And, if possible, do it around the same time every day.
Connect to the Earth
If you have the ability to go outside, find a piece of nature. Get your children to walk barefoot on the grass, pick up leaves, plant a garden. When it gets warmer, they can put their toes in the water. Physically touching nature is the most literal form of grounding. They are connecting to the ground—and they are playing—another wonderful way to unwind.
If you can’t go outside, find connections to nature in your house. Help your kids plant an herb garden or a potted plant. Put a bird feeder outside the window and watch the birds come to it throughout the day. If all else fails, turn to nature online. Look up bird watching on YouTube. Check out Planet Earth. Nature is continuing to work its magic, even though we are sheltered in place.
Connect with friends
Make sure that your children are finding a way to connect with their friends. In this age of technology, this is a fairly easy thing to do, but do not assume that children (even teenagers) are doing it on their own. Sometimes, in times of stress or fear, people actually isolate themselves even more than they typically do and stop reaching out.
For older children, check in and get a read on what their connection to friends has been. For younger children, set up specific virtual ‘playdates’ with friends, during which they can connect online while you supervise. The most important aspect of this is, if possible, some face-to-face contact.
Platforms like Zoom and Google Hangouts are ways that virtual meetings can be held and your children can actually see their friends. While initially meant for schools and corporations, these are great ways to be social now as well. Texting all day is certainly a great way to stay in touch through this quarantine, but seeing friends and speaking to them every few days is how children can ground themselves back into the life they had before this—a life where they saw each other in the hallways and sat next to each other in classrooms.
Connect with each other
If you are fortunate enough to be healthy and safe throughout this pandemic, take advantage of the forced lockdown and create regularly scheduled family time.
How many times have you said that you wished you didn’t have so much running around to do? Haven’t you said the reason you never have family dinners is because of all the kids’ after-school activities? Haven’t you wished, longingly, for a night when your teenagers weren’t going out and you could just hang out together? Guess what? That time is now!
Watch movies together, read the kids a book every night and break out Candyland, Scrabble or Spikeball. Go on walks together, if you live in an area where this is possible. Your kids will love it, they will come to expect it every day, and it will become something that they can count on during a time when nothing makes sense. It will be a daily reminder that the world is still spinning and they are safe, despite this crazy time continuum it feels like we’re on.
The gift of time
Even though this experience feels like it has been and will continue to go on forever, this too shall pass. When it does, society will quickly go back to rushing around to work, school, sports and music lessons.
If you are one of the healthy ones, don’t miss out on the wonderful gift you have been given—the gift of time. Help your children soak in the minutes instead of staring at a ticking clock, waiting for it to be over. Together, you can ground yourselves in the things that you will always be able to count on, no matter what life throws your way.
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