How can we answer questions and address the issue of uncertainty?

As our current landscape continues to present us with uncertainties, how does one parent during these precarious times?

Parents are facing numerous challenges. Some have younger children and have to manage a work-from-home schedule along with assuming the role of teacher. Some have the challenge of parenting teenagers whose social lives have been upended. They, too, are doing their best to make sense of this unusual time. Fears and anxieties are heightened, coupled with economic challenges that look different in each family. The list goes on and on with all the ways we have been impacted by the coronavirus.

One commonality is our children have questions. Fair, thoughtful and appropriate questions. We find ourselves — the parents — to be without answers. How do you respond during uncertain times? Can uncertainty provide us an opportunity to grow? Trying to navigate the parenting ship is challenging, especially when many parents — myself included — have presented a false sense of certainty to our children. This is not an insult. We try to present this idea of certainty to make them — and ourselves — feel safe.

As adults, we know nothing is certain and this makes us uncomfortable. Feelings of uncertainty are always connected to feelings of vulnerability. Dr. Brene Brown (if you are not familiar with her work on shame and vulnerability, I highly recommend reading her books), defines vulnerability as this: “Uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” Based on this definition, our lack of uncertainty carries us right into feelings of vulnerability.

Uncertainty can be one of life’s greatest lessons. As our children come to us with questions, many things need to be considered: their age, the appropriateness of what to share and your own fears and insecurities around the situation. Within each age group there are answers you can provide to help them consider their role in this world. I am not suggesting that you walk through the door and tell your kids, “It’s over, no one is safe.” Rather, consider these suggestions to help answer their questions, especially when it comes to uncertainty.

Preschool-age children:

I am not one who loves to lie, but in this case, tell them everything is going to be OK. They are too young to process uncertainty. We have to consider the fact that their brains are still developing. Logical thinking and reasoning skills are not fully formed. I recommend acknowledging and validating that things are different right now. Also, self-reflect and think about your energy and state of being when you communicate with them. How are you carrying yourself throughout the day? They feel much more than they hear. How do you achieve calm during this time? First, create self-awareness. If you are managing a to-do list that is not achievable, make your first change there. Home schooling can be a great source of stress. Preschool-age children will survive the quarantine if they are not in virtual preschool. In fact: children can survive a lot of things. It is our impositions of what they should be doing that gets in the way.

Give yourself a break. These times are unprecedented. Let them play video games and watch their favorite movie. We are surviving our way through this. And keep in mind that this situation is temporary. You and your child will bounce back. Here’s an example of what you could say:

“There are some people who are getting a virus called the coronavirus. Our job while the doctors and scientists try to find a way to solve this, is to stay home and keep our distance from our friends and family. We don’t know how long it will last. But here is the great part, we are all home together (If this is the case). By staying home, we are using major superhero powers because we’re protecting a lot of people.”

Then take a moment to talk about all the positive things that are currently happening in your home.

I would adhere to a loose schedule — nothing that overwhelms you or your children. Let them be and the same goes for you. In my opinion — and even before the quarantine — we do not give our kiddos enough down time to just be kids. Let them freely explore, create, play imaginatively, and dare I say it, play alone. There is a tremendous amount of research to indicate the benefits of independent play. Most importantly, silence the self-critic — no matter how loud it is — and let them know they are going to be OK.

Elementary-Age Children

The language is not much different here. Their brain is still developing, and it would be unfair of you to tell them that things are not certain. You would place an unnecessary burden on them. The one difference is you can share a little more about how the virus has impacted others in the community. This is a great chance to foster empathy, kindness and compassion. Consider making cards for nursing home residents or donating meals to hospital workers. Send messages of kindness and connect with loved ones virtually. There are several programs accepting donations that would be appropriate to share with your kiddos. Language could include:

“I know this is really different than what we’re used to, but I am so happy that we are safe and sound at home together. Let’s think about some of the ways we can help people in our community.”

Do not miss out on these teachable moments. Communicate how they can have a positive impact on others and the world!

Teenagers

Here is where honesty is the best policy. You want to present the situation accurately. Inform them about the virus and how it is affecting the world. Explain their role in the process and the responsibilities they bare. Tell them: This is not a you problem but a we problem.

For those of us who have teenagers, we already know they think they’re invincible. They say things like: “Nothing will happen to me.” Or, my personal favorite, “Mom, I’ll be fine.” I think we do our kids a disservice by presenting a false sense of certainty. It is an illusion we buy into to feel safe, while thinking we have some sense of control. Instead, take this opportunity and give them the language they may need to describe how the uncertainty is making them feel. Be candid about your own feelings. With my children, I explained: “Anytime I am uncertain I immediately feel vulnerable — like nothing is in my control.” I gave examples of how leaning into the discomfort taught me valuable lessons. Draw examples from moments of uncertainty that they have already experienced. What did they learn? How did it impact them moving forward? Allowing our children to see our vulnerabilities allows them to have their own.

Uncertainty is not a bad thing; it is our reaction to it that becomes harmful. When we’re presented with challenges, I try to present uncertainty as an opportunity to grow. Share with them what Glennon Doyle so beautifully wrote in her book, Untamed: “We can do hard things.”

As a parent, you may want to roll your eyes when they complain about social distancing, but don’t. They do not have the same life experience or perspective that you do. That comes with time. Social experiences truly matter to them and should be validated. There are several teenagers missing out on salient moments: high school graduation, prom, parties, special trips and events. The minute we minimize their feelings, we don’t allow them to feel what they’re going through. Be there for them. Provide them with some good insights and language to help them describe what they’re feeling. Or, just listen. This can speak volumes to our children, and we begin to model present and active listening.

Uncertainty is messy and wonderful all at the same time. There is no better teacher of this than a pandemic. Work through it with your children instead of running from it. Explore the hard questions, and create a safe space where everyone can express their fears. Take this moment to remind your children, and yourself, that we can do hard things.