The other day a friend of mine posted a question about how kids are coping with the COVID 19 crisis - and how parents are helping their kids. She asked that only parents with kids under 18 respond and so I didn’t write back but it got me thinking.
My child has grown and flown but we certainly lived through traumatic times. When the planes flew into the towers on Sept. 11, 2001, she was 8. I remember rushing to the school to pick her up and then running through the streets with her, holding her hand tight, as police cars screamed by and helicopters whup-whup-whupped overhead. We reached our apartment only to learn that one of our friends was trapped in the towers and that her two little girls – my daughter’s close friends – were home alone with their panicking dad. We spent the evening with them, my daughter experiencing firsthand what it means when mommy suddenly disappears. In the next four months, two other close school friends lost their mothers, one to a protracted battle with breast cancer and another to a sudden death from a cancer she was unaware she had.
How did this affect my child? Profoundly. She’d been sleeping in her “big girl bed” for years and now was crawling in to sleep with me. To this day, she tends to panic if she can’t reach me or her dad, convinced that something terrible has happened. Meanwhile she’s flourished in every other way, traveling the globe and now living and working overseas so her fears haven’t hobbled her. But there’s no question that her experiences have marked her, as COVID-19 will certainly mark young children today.
Think about what’s happened to children in the last two months. Some of them have lost grandparents and even parents to the virus. They’ve lost school. And yes, they have Zoom classes. But they’ve essentially lost their first “new world” and their identity as students. Some of them have lost time at church or synagogue or mosque – and the comfort and lessons these venues provide. They’ve lost sports and teams – which gave them fun and an important physical outlet for stress. They’ve lost music lessons and art lessons – and an important, non-verbal way to experience and express their feelings. And most of all, they’ve lost their friends.
Children – despite their awesome technical proficiency and vaunted “resilience” – don’t have the experience to cope with all these losses on their own. I saw a shattering post last week from a father whose 13-year-old son hung himself the day before his birthday because he was distraught when he broke a treasured game monitor. I mention this not because I think suicide will become common but only because the story underlines how much children are suffering.
And now they’ve lost the tools they’d only begun to develop. Without school, they have no way to detach from heated situations at home. There’s no chance to cool off and think about the fight with a sister or the disagreement with dad. It’s much harder to get perspective when you’re stuck in the middle of what’s driving you nuts. And without an opportunity to bash a ball around or slash some paint across a canvas, they have many fewer options for expression or relief. Most of all, they don’t have a chance to vent and complain to their friends.
Friends are everything when you’re a kid. For most kids, they’re the first step toward independence. You learn how to grow your life by making friends. They’re your first “second family.” And without them, you will never be able to separate from your family of origin and launch into a healthy adult life. So whether you’re 8 or 11 or 14, losing IRL access to your friends is devastating - doubly so when life has turned upside down.
So how do we help our kids – especially when we’re having so much trouble ourselves. Parents have been ill, have lost family members and friends, jobs, prospects and any sense of security. As a result, we’ve lost our tempers, our patience, our senses of humor, our faith – and have often struggled to be the parents we want to be.
First and foremost, give yourself a break. This is hard. And I’m not a shrink but if I’ve learned anything as a parent it’s that it’s very important to acknowledge the reality of the situation, first to yourself and then to your kids. Just acknowledge the losses – without jumping in and trying to make them better or lessen their impact or hold out hope for some sort of miraculous restoration “soon.” Just acknowledge that it’s hard, that we’re sometimes scared or disappointed or frustrated or sad.
And then we have to accept that this experience is going to change us. We all know about PTSD at this point. But we’re beginning to realize that trauma can affect us at a cellular and even a genetic level. Scientists have proven that these sorts of impacts are actually inheritable - the field of epigenetics has exploded as these discoveries have been made.
So the trauma we’re experiencing will change us on every level in ways we can’t begin to anticipate. Accepting that we are changing and that life is changing and talking about it with your kids will reassure them because it supports what they’re feeling. They know things have changed and acknowledging this will help restore confidence in their instincts.
Finally it’s important for them to see us pick ourselves up and try again tomorrow. This is one of the most important lessons they can ever learn – that’s it’s not so much what’s happened, it’s how we respond, how we get up after we fall down. So if yesterday was a bad day, acknowledge it, let it go and meet the new day with optimism. Because change is just that – difference. And difference isn’t necessarily bad.
While my daughter was certainly scarred by the loss of three mothers she knew when she was very young, it also helped her develop compassion. Showing up for her friends, learning how to listen, to keep them company, to acknowledge their losses and give them understanding and support and some good humored perspective has made her a great friend. As a result, she has an enormous circle of friends all over the world who call her and visit all the time. Her parties are legendary and she almost never has to stay in a hotel because she has friends on every continent and in every major city in America. It’s astonishing to me – as a writer and a bit of a hermit. But it’s the gift she received when the world changed and she suffered a terrible loss and learned from it.
(Thank you so much for all your emails. Reach me at WelcomeToThePandemic@gmail.com. And find me on Twitter at @epagenyc or on Facebook at ElizabethPage.)