By Dr. Alice Brock-Utne
The other day I found myself in doctor-think, excitingly talking out loud about all the amazing questions medicine is trying to answer. “There is so much we don’t know, so many scientists all over the globe from all different disciplines all working on one virus! Nobel prizes will be won! Lives will be saved! Futures will be shaped! What a moment in history to live through!” My favorite eye-rolling child quickly crashed my party of one. “Yeah really, what a moment to live through,” he scowled. And he’s right. The future may be right around the corner, but the here and now is nothing to celebrate.
Children will have to be resilient to cope with the national conversation, flexible to adapt to whatever form school takes with whatever new rules are in place, and patient with teachers and themselves as everyone manages all the changes for the first time.
Last night, my local school district announced high school will start with all distance learning. My kids are crushed and I’ll admit to feeling more heartbreak than I expected. Already, many of my patients and their parents are struggling; it’s been 4 months of uncertainty. Over and over, parents tell me about their child’s nightmares or that their youngster no longer wants to talk to friends or go outside. I hear about sleepless nights and frantic thoughts. There is just no such thing as “normal” anymore. There doesn’t even seem to be a “new” normal. Layered on, parents now want to know how to prepare children for school when school won’t be anything like what we’ve known before.
Children will have to be resilient to cope with the national conversation, flexible to adapt to whatever form school takes with whatever new rules are in place, and patient with teachers and themselves as everyone manages all the changes for the first time. Can they possibly thrive?
I believe they can, because they must. In times of health crises, I tell my patients that without challenges there would be no such thing as heroes. The journey-to-cape-wearing-status is never easy, but there are 3 key secrets my young patients have taught me about what it takes to get there.
1. Find Hope
Hope may be the one thing that stands between your child and the stresses of our time. Look for stories in the news about new discoveries in the fight against the Coronavirus. Ask them how they might reinvent the world when they grow up. Amongst all the changes, point out consistencies. Stars in the sky and constellations that haven’t changed since you were a child. Plant something and watch it grow, slowly and on cue. Help them find strength in the expected, hope in the unexpected.
2. Help out
There are always helpers in times of crisis. Teach your child to look for the helpers. Observe the helpers, how hard they are working trying to make the best of this pandemic situation. Two standout examples right now are our teachers and our scientists. Think of the creativity and hard work they are putting in to find answers to our problems. Problems can be solved so many ways, we won’t always agree with every solution, but we should take notice of the effort, take notice of the challenge, and appreciate the helpers. Your children will model your gratitude. Gratitude improves our emotions, our resilience, and our relationships. Sometimes, gratitude even makes us want to help. Model this and your children will help, too. Ultimately, we are all helpers and we all need help sometimes. Teach your child this lesson right away so it will be easier to ask for and to give help when it is needed.
3. Have Heart
Remember Marlin, Nemo’s father, “I promised him nothing would ever happen to him!” Then Dory, “That’s a funny thing to promise, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.” Our parental job isn’t to keep life from happening to our children, that’s not possible. Our job is to guide them through life, prepare them for it, and help them know how to find their way through difficult times. A child’s happiness will come and go again and again. When your children are suffering, don’t be afraid of it, it’s not your job to push their suffering away. It’s your job to hold their hand as they find their own way through. Listen to them, ask them questions, and feel their pain with them. You may not be able to stop their suffering but they won’t be alone. And remember, neither are you. Complex emotions in a time of pandemic crisis, social distancing, economic downturn, and loss are normal. Managing those is hard. If you find yourself or your child feeling helpless or hopeless (or heartless), reach out to your doctor. There are skills a counselor can teach us all to make it easier and there are sometimes medications that can pave the way for learning those skills by gently rewiring the way our brains react to difficult circumstances.
In every superhero movie the formula is the same. The hero starts out weak, like a child, but discovers they have an amazing ability. In this case, maybe it’s the ability to hope, help or have heart. And no matter what the enemy - in this case the pandemic - may bring to the battle, it’s not enough. The superhero shines and, in his or her own way, helps save the day.
Of course, even heroes-in-training need reminders. Please, teach yours to wear a mask, wash their hands, and keep a little extra distance from others.
Alice Brock-Utne, MD is a pediatrician and mother of three with a streak of geek for science.