It’s been a year. A year of masking up, standing on the designated red, six-feet-apart circles in Target at the check out line, constant readiness for the abrupt change in our children’s school schedule, fear of coughing or sneezing in public, and frustration that our long-ago “normal” life will never be attained again.
I walk into my local Stop n’ Shop and pause. I take a moment to take it all in. Every person is shopping with a mask that seems to suit their comfort. Some wear fancy, air filtered KN-95 masks. Others have bandanas or the ever-present blue clinical mask that seems to be the staple go-to. I imagine being part of a movie. “The Great Pandemic of 2020.” But this isn’t a movie, it’s reality. Long gone are the days of connecting with others through facial expressions. Sending slight smiles to the tired mom whose toddler is acting up and she’s embarrassed. Struggling to speak loud enough so others will hear and questioning whether or not to pull our masks down just for a moment. Will I offend them?
I’m so over this, I think. Being fully aware in this moment that this is the hand we’ve been dealt. This is our present Life. But what strikes me most are the children. Like any mother I reflect on how this great debacle will affect my own children and how is it affecting them currently. I wonder what they will remember. I question their emotional well-being and try to put myself in their shoes every day. What previously would have been a packed schedule of soccer games, family trips to visit grandparents, and a basement packed with squealing tweens making tik tock videos under a Five and Below strobe light has been replaced with social distancing rules and “I’m sorry honey, it’s because of Covid.” All of this has been taken away, stolen, and replaced with rules and a tired, short-tempered me. Even going to school is a chore. It’s a daily struggle to convince them that socialization is important and laying in your bed, screen off and on mute is not an effective way to learn (in my opinion). I know they have embraced the fact that we really don’t know when all of this will end. I don’t give them false hope that the school year starting this September will be like the good old days. The truth is, we don’t know. Better to be honest I think. Kids are smart, they know so well when we are fabricating words to appease them. Better to be truthful, better to not underestimate their ability to see what we see and feel what we feel.
Let’s take time to really look at what our kids are up against. Let’s put aside our own frustrations and dive into the heart of seeing what our children feel and might not be able to put a name to. Physical health is important. We know that. Making sure they stay active rather than melt into the couch on a device chatting with friends over snap chat stories and Instagram posts is a losing battle sometimes. It’s about survival sometimes. But where does survival during this time and trying to keep their emotional health in balance even out? It really doesn’t. It’s a matter of surviving AND being attentive to their every day struggles, fears, and frustrations.
Physical health is easy to check off the parenting box. Eat your fruits and veggies, get exercise, don’t go crazy with sugar, and remember to drink water. This stuff is tangible for them to understand. Clear health rules that they can follow and intuitively know are concrete yet flexible enough to be broken without too many long term consequences. Emotional health, feeling health, taking time to express emotion is not as easy to check off the parenting box. Honestly, even though I give hundreds of presentations a year on this stuff to school staff and students ranging from age five to eighteen, I still struggle with how to get across to my children that attuning to their emotional needs is important. There isn’t a rule book and all children are different. My five kids are all completely different. From Tom-boy and home-body to the child who needs socialization like humans need water. One connects and shares all details of life, the other retreats and mumbles good morning as she walks back to her room. One needs impact and contact and constant movement while another disappears into a world of pretend play with Barbies. Personalities collide in a family of seven. Emotions and boundaries are constantly being tested and like every parent on the planet I question if I’m messing up. Better to be truthful, I think. Better to be truthful with myself and ask these hard questions.
And then I realize that I don’t have to master this parenting thing. It’s a roller coaster ride of smooth sailing to deep drops of fear and “what the hell is happening right now?” I understand that all I have to do is connect, to find small ways to acknowledge that what we are all going through right now is not normal. It is not in line with how they should be socially and emotionally developing. Kids learn through play; through giggling in each other’s space. They learn by trial and error because they do what they want to do. They don’t consider consequences until they are forced to learn from them, and that doesn’t happen until they’ve screwed up a few times. As adults we’ve been through this process and even though we still make mistakes, we have a greater store of emotional self-reflection able to recall and realize the potential end outcome of a variety of scenarios.
It’s time we really embrace and support today’s youth. Not just our own children, but the ones we encounter on a daily basis. If you are a teacher, you have this opportunity more than others. If your children are grown and out of the house you still have this opportunity. No doubt we all have opportunities for conversation with youth at some point every week. What is my point in all of this? It’s simple. Make an effort to connect with our youth in any way presented to you. Ask them how they are doing. You might be surprised by their answers.
Make an effort to connect with our youth in any way presented to you. Ask them how they are doing. You might be surprised by their answers.
Challenge them a bit when they give you an answer. Because being challenged is learning and reflecting on experience. Notice that these days kids have a hard time looking at grown-ups in the eye. They have a hard time verbalizing what it is they’re feeling. Why is this? My opinion is that most of their communication is through a device, emojis, and pictures on their feeds. This is NOT the way they were designed to connect. Long gone are the days of building forts and coming home when the street lights came on (I laugh when I think about my 9 year old self riding snow mobiles miles from home without a cell phone. When the snow mobile “accidentally” hit a tree and bent the front ski we had to figure out how to fix the problem. We walked to the nearest house and this is could be far in upstate NY. We asked to use their phone - which was attached to the wall - to call my father asking him to pick up my friend and me from a stranger’s house).
Kids need connection and they need our true presence in their lives more than ever right now. They are afraid and they don’t have the words to express that. They are uncertain if they will walk with their peers of 13 years across the stage for their high school graduation and this infuriates them. They are withdrawing and they need our help pull them out of the dark hole some of them are spiraling into. Am I going overboard? I don’t think so. This is important stuff. These children are our future and teaching them to study their individual self is the most important lesson they can learn. In IEP meetings for one of my own, I always say “I don’t so much care about the grade on the report card, I care that he’s okay.” That’s the bottom line, caring that they are okay. Because some of them are, but most are not. I wish at times I didn’t feel this passionately about all this because it gets in the way of my selfish way of attending to my own needs. It’s easier to avoid and hope they’re doing okay rather than peeling back the layers and asking them the hard questions. But the asking is what means most to them. Why? Because they realize that you see them, that they are important, and that they matter. Isn’t that what we all want? To be seen?
Let’s challenge ourselves to provide space for today’s youth and to be curious about the depths of their inner workings. Let’s be forgiving of their mistakes and encouraging when they learn from them. Let’s put shame on the back burner and put affirmation on the front. Will attending to their emotional health matter in the end? Will they remember the connections we are trying to make? Yes. We have to believe that. It’s our responsibility as a society now more than ever to give them the space to feel and that might be the greatest gift you could ever give them. Even the ones that are not your own.