April 10, 2020
Cynthia Manley MA, CCC, RCT-C
is a counsellor in Pictou County, Nova Scotia. She has worked as a Special Education Teacher, a School Counsellor, and has a private practice in New Glasgow. Cynthia’s practice is focused on play therapy with children 12 and under. She will be presenting a workshop at our conference on yoga calm. Her website can be viewed at: www.cynthiamanley.ca
In 1987, a woman named Emily Perl Kingsley wrote a piece about her experience of expecting a baby and then having a child with a disability. She compares it to planning a trip to Italy, but, on arrival, finding out you have landed in Holland. She says, “there's been a change in the flight plan. They've landed in Holland and there you must stay.” Kingsley goes on to write about all the ways that one would need to change one's plans in such a circumstance. “You must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.” Kingsley, like so many parents, had to accept and adapt, to meet the child she had, not the idea of a child who doesn’t exist.
These days, it feels like, as parents, we planned a trip to Italy and found ourselves in the jungle. We had our lives organized into patterns of days, nights and weekends. Our families spun through regular orbits of the morning rush, the after-school clubs and sports, supper and bedtimes. Now, we find ourselves in a strange country where we are not only parent to our children, but teacher and sometimes principal and school counsellor as well. Our responsibilities have gone beyond love, food and shelter. Now we are educator and protector on top of our normal duties. It can feel overwhelming and sometimes suffocating.
There are lots of articles online about how to talk to your children about the pandemic, how to break up fights between kids, and on and on. But what’s most important now, is how to navigate this new landscape, when it can feel like you have no map, no compass or guidebook.
The first step, is to realize that feeling a sense of loss, helplessness and even fear, makes sense. It’s important to accept and acknowledge how you are feeling, and how your children might be feeling. While we need to manage our days and look after our responsibilities, it is also necessary to acknowledge the emotions that come with a situation like this one. Pema Chodron, who runs a meditation centre in Cape Breton, wrote a book called Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living. In that book she writes: “If someone comes along and shoots an arrow into your heart, it’s fruitless to stand there and yell at the person. It would be much better to turn your attention to the fact that there’s an arrow in your heart. “ Right now, it’s vital that we take a moment and address that arrow in our hearts. Our lives have been turned upside down, and no one knows when things will get back to normal or how that will look. Accepting our feelings about that is the beginning of moving forward.
Once we have moved into this place of accepting things, we need to look at where our children are, and set some reasonable goals for what we, as parents, want to do. You have to give yourself permission to be a different parent than you were before quarantine. Forget the perfect families you see on social media, or the cute Pintrest posts. Living with giant question marks over everything in our lives isn’t a usual state of being, and it’s stressful. Some children may appear to be handling things just fine, others may be struggling a bit, and some may be falling apart. That’s to be expected when you thought you were going to the land of pizza, Roman ruins, and endless sunshine, but instead landed in a jungle where the path is dimmed by overgrowth, and you aren’t sure where to put your feet.
The key is, as Chodron wrote in her book, to start where you are. As counselling professionals we might say, what is your baseline? Before the pandemic, what were your child’s days like at school? Up to the time that your child got the packets from the school board, what were they doing? How have they been coping with being home and not seeing friends? Set a simple goal, based on where your child is now. If all your child wanted to do was play video games, and it was a fight to get them to the supper table, it’s going to be hard to change that pattern all at once, especially if you have to work from home at the same time.
Start where you are. If your child can read with you for 20 minutes a day, when they were reading zero minutes a day, that’s progress. It’s setting you and your child up for success, and lowers the chances of power struggles and conflict.
When I was a Special Education teacher, we used to talk about applying “Grandma’s Rule” to challenging situations with children. Grandma’s Rule is that you eat your vegetables before you get pie. In many of our homes, it can mean that parents keep video game controllers locked up, until 20 minutes of reading is finished. Or it can mean that kids who read 20 minutes, or pick up the things on the floor of their rooms, get a treat. In the adult world, it means we get money for doing a job. It’s motivation and reward, and in times of stress, it can feel good and get us to do something we didn’t want to do.
Be kind to yourself: the over-taxed caregiver in a locked-down world. Pandemic parenting is asking too much, but you can do it. Just remember to start where you are. You aren’t letting your children down by keeping things simple. You are using wisdom and management skills. What your child needs most right now is routine and consistency. Despite what it may look like, they are doing the best they can to cope with a pandemic, given their developmental level and their life circumstance. Our children need to maintain the attachments they had with us before all the change, and to feel a sense of calm in their home. You have the best chance of giving them a sense of peaceful contentment, if you can embrace all your feelings about what’s been lost, set your children up to be successful in their daily demands, and provide some motivation and reward for their efforts. Start with your children, wherever they are and wherever you are, and build from there, with simplicity, honesty and love.