3 Steps All Parents Need To Take To Help Children Navigate The Stress Of Uncertainty

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As parents, are you helping children deal with stress and uncertainty?

We’re living in very uncertain times. It’s hard for adults to cope with the "not knowing" of the past 18 months.

Now, imagine being a child and not only "not knowing" but not necessarily having the ability just yet to understand what it’s all about and having no control over any of it.

It can feel overwhelming, frightening, frustrating, and confusing. All legitimate feelings, given the circumstances.

But, this is even more challenging given that these stressors have been around for a long time now and there's no clear end in sight, even as people grow more hopeful.

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Helping children deal with stress is more important than ever. 

Children and teens have certainly had several bursts of hope in the last 18 months. Schools open. Then close. Then open again.

Stores and other favorite haunts open. And close. And open again.

With more closures looming, it can be hard to hold on to hope.

What’s a child to do with all that "not knowing"? That lack of control? Those big feelings?

Ideally, they’ll take those feelings to a trusted adult — someone they know, like, and respect to help them work through those feelings. Then, in the ideal world, they'll provide reassurance that things will be OK — and mean it!

In these times, reassurance is hard to come by. And it’s hard to convince children that everything is OK when parents aren’t sure. And you don’t want to lie to your children.

But, you still need to find some way to help children cope with stress and reassure them so they can cope with the prolonged stress of current realities.

So, like with all things parenting, it begins with you.

Here are the 3 steps to helping children deal with stress in uncertainty that parents need to start doing.

1. Take care of yourself.

Start by doing what you need to do to take care of yourself. Not a trip to the hair salon type of self-care. Real self-care. Deep self-care.

Make sure you’re sleeping, eating, and getting regular physical activity on a daily basis. You can’t play "catch up" with these things — they need to be done daily to work.

There's nothing more challenging than trying to be a comfort to others when you’re unable to keep your own energy levels up. 

But don’t stop there!

Assess your stress levels and see if there are ways you can address them in simple ways that enrich your life.

And make sure you have a support system too — even a virtual one if you’re stuck in an isolated bubble. Definitely connect with family members and other parents.

But don’t forget those friends or colleagues who don’t have children. They’re one of the group of people who, despite not having the stressors of juggling work and parenting responsibilities, have had their own stress: isolation. And it’s hard.

There are many adults without children who would love to be able to offer support in a meaningful way if invited to do so. Think about online storytimes for the kids. Or someone to take a virtual coffee (or other preferred beverage) break with.

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2. Help your children work through their emotions.

If you’ve read any of the other articles on helping kids work through their emotions, you already have a head start. Essentially, you need to listen, validate and empathize.

Don’t try to convince them they don’t or shouldn’t feel the way they do.

Don’t try to convince them they should feel a certain way because that’s how you feel or how their sibling or cousin or friends feel.

Just let them be seen, heard, and understood for who they are, where they are, in this moment.

3. Learn how to live with change.

This is the time and space in between what is and what you want life to be.

Change is hard. Even more so when the process is prolonged and the outcome is unknown.

While I would love to offer some reassurance that things will get easier and all will be well, you and I both know that I can’t. We’re all adults here. There really doesn’t seem to be a quick fix, which leaves us dealing with uncertainty.

No one likes uncertainty — it’s a threat cue.

It makes you feel anxious, worried, and on edge. You become grumpy and irritable, which makes everything more difficult.

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But, if you can’t find certainty, then what? This is where the Serenity Prayer comes in handy: "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."

So what can you change? Same thing as always: yourself.

Beyond taking up good self-care habits and offering empathic listening to your children, you can learn to be in charge of your own mind.

Not through "stopping negative thoughts" or "challenging them" at every turn. That takes a lot of support, practice, and effort and can be quite exhausting. And you've got enough on your mind.

Get rid of something! This is where meditation (as a mental practice) comes in.

Look up some good guided meditations on any number of free, high-quality meditation apps that don’t require any special equipment, like the Insight Timer app.

Meditation is about living in that moment between letting go of one trapeze bar and the next one being in reach with some sense of ease. It may be the air you’re gliding through. It may be you're landing on the safety net.

Either way, it can help you get to the other side with grace and dignity.

And through meditation, you learn to hold the tension that exists in this present moment when there may be nothing to hold onto. Between what is and what you would like life to be with a sense of calm curiosity.

And by practicing "creating and holding" that mental space for yourself, you can become more able to return to that space when you need it, like when your children need you to hear them out. 

Putting all three together — self-care, working through emotions, and living with change — you can bring yourself closer to feeling able to create the kind of safety net your children need from you through these uncertain times.

Helping children deal with stress doesn't have to feel like an insurmountable challenge. 

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Judith Pinto is a Registered Occupational Therapist, Certified Clinical Anxiety Treatment Professional with extensive training in Emotionally Focused Therapy (ICEEFT). For more information, visit her website. Download a free ebook about parenting in uncertain times here.