When the parenting headlines match what’s happening in our own homes, we know something’s afoot. And from Tinkergarten team members’ stories to the New York Times, one theme emerged in the last week: regression.
Why are our kids regressing, how can we muster the patience to help them through, and, worse yet, will these setbacks persist on the other side of this? I’ve read a handful of articles aimed to support on this front, and they have helped. But, it wasn’t until the other night when I was talking to treasured colleagues on Zoom that something fundamental clicked for me: We are all on a roller coaster, and our kids are strapped in with us.
Unwanted roller coasters are not as fun.
Last week, over 100 Tinkergarten teammates and I, our kids mostly in bed, used a simple word cloud widget to aggregate our answers to a simple question: “How are you feeling at this moment?” Here is what emerged (the larger the word, the more times it was offered):
I’ve run similar exercises before, in more stable times, and I have never seen such extremes. As I looked at the range of opposing feelings, I realized that I had felt nearly every one of them that very day, and I wanted to highlight, underline and circle that big, old tired.
A metaphor goes a long way.
In teaching both kids and parents, a simple metaphor can help make tricky concepts click—and this idea of a roller coaster has done that for me. Some of us can’t stand roller coasters. I love them, but only the ones I choose to get on and the ones that, I can tell, come to a clear end. COVID-19 fits neither of those criteria, and it is quite an intense ride.
I have kept so busy trying to do all of the quarantine parent/worker/person things, that I had not really stopped to recognize the intense emotional side of COVID-19 life—to see plainly what me, my kids and those I love are experiencing.
If we are feeling it, they are really feeling it.
Hearing and really recognizing that we have every reason to feel like a wreck can go a long way. And if I am a mess with an adult brain that is capable of rationalizing and regulating my emotions, then how can I possibly expect more of my child, who is not yet able to do either of those things? When kids are overwhelmed emotionally, they show a range of responses—from clinging to us more to acting out, tantruming or struggling with siblings. Just knowing that all of those reactions are totally normal and to be expected during a time like this can help.
Kids regress, especially during times of stress.
If you are worried at all about setbacks in your child’s behavior, check out NYTimes Parenting’s recent “Why is My Big Kid Acting Like a Toddler.” It reminds us that regression, the return to earlier stages of development, is actually a mechanism that kids use to protect themselves from the impact of strong emotions. It might not make the fifth tantrum of the day delightful to endure or make it easy for you to find space from a clingy kiddo who used to leave you alone. But knowing that regression is not only natural but also emotionally beneficial for our kiddos lessens both the worry and our struggle to prevent it—and that struggle was making my “tired” even bigger and bolder at the end of the day.
A few ways to smooth out the ride
How can we smooth things out so the highs and lows are not so extreme?
“Thoughts come and go. Feelings come and go. Find out what it is that remains.” —Ramana Marhashi
Breathe deeply. When you are in a rough moment, alone or with your kids, give it some time. Repeat a mantra like, “This too shall pass.” Then, remember to notice how it really does. Even if it takes until your kiddo is fast asleep, see that kids do become sweet again—these moments come, and they go.
Get outside and move! When tough moments hit, step outside or just open a window and take in some fresh air. Natural settings reduce stress, and the switch of scenery and sensory input can help kids and grown-ups to calm and regulate our emotions. At the very least, it can redirect their attention a bit to help the moment pass. We end every day with a walk outside—and there have been some days in which the kids and I, quite literally, are all crying by 5:30 p.m. By the end of our walk, we are back, tired and worn, but ready for dinner and some sweet cuddling.
Cuddle or soothe. Do this in a way that works for your child. Attention, reassurance and reminders that we are right here for them is what kids need most right now. And, one of the silver linings in all of this is that, for most of us, we are right there—all the time. Experts know that physical touch can enhance brain development and help regulate kids’ nervous systems. In other words, it’s exactly what they might need to break free of a negative cycle.If your child seeks and readily receives physical affection, give loads of extra hugs, squeezes and touches. If kids will accept a hug when they are off the rails, hold and squeeze them through it. Or, wait until later and cuddle again before the day is through. Even add in extra squeezes as you move through the day.
Mindful “you time.” It is really, really hard to get time for ourselves in the middle of all of this, and you need moments of solo, meditative time to repair. So, even if it is just 10 daily minutes of meditation in bed before kids wake up, a 7-minute workout while they watch a show, or just taking a few moments in the bathroom for yourself, build it in and savor it.
This is a lot, it’s hard, and it’s extraordinary
Seeing that word cloud helped me to realize that so much of the regression that kids and I are feeling is a reflection of this incredible situation. Humans are not meant to be or feel isolated. We contemplate the present and future and need to understand where we are going and have hope for better times. We are experiencing loss and anxiety. Our dreams are even impacted. This is real and big. But, this too shall pass. For now, we need to do whatever we and our kids need to get through until it’s finally time to get off this ride and stand on solid ground again.