Helping Children and Adults with the Complex Emotions of COVID

Dr. Lory Britain

Despite my original goal to write a blog every day until things are changed, I have become pre-occupied with reading. Our national priorities have come under deep scrutiny, and textual resources from diverse people and locations abound, leaving me deep in thought and awash in emotions. I find myself thinking about we who support children during these tough times, reflecting on a beautiful book I read my grandchildren, I’m Happy Sad Today: Making Sense of Mixed-Together Feelings (by Lory Britain, Ph.D. with illustrations by Matthew Rivera), a book with something for all of us, especially those who care for children.

Aren’t we all a bit happy/sad? —and a range of other emotions— as we move through a pandemic, civic unrest, questions about schools, insecure jobs and housing, and wondering about going back to business as usual under the specter of disease?  Young children, designed for curiosity and joyful exploration, feel the dense climate of the times, unable to put words to their experience of being endlessly at home.  Our feelings fill their environment, radiating our anxiety, fear, sense of responsibility, and uncertainty. 

As a preschool teacher and professor of early childhood teacher training, Britain has always addressed the task of helping adults be present with children navigating a puzzling world. 

Through safe times, dangerous times, happy times, grief-stricken times, our incredible human capacities allow us to feel it all.  But as Britain points out, feelings don’t always come in isolation.  I remember the horrible, grief-stricken time for me when my sister died, and yet it was also a time of closeness, as family came together in love to celebrate her life.              

Sheltering in place brings comfort for some and well-documented challenges for others. Older adults may have felt liberated during the first few months of life at home, letting go of unnecessary duties and focusing on building a new space out of the old one. Many planted gardens, sewed quilts, and learned how to cook sourdough bread! As time passed, restrictions felt binding, and many felt depressed, angry, or actual grief for the loss of our “old world.”  Too many lay sick or dying or performing heroic, under-appreciated, and dangerous tasks, often without child care. As our financial picture in this country slid downward, many faced the loss of jobs, homes, or both.

From a kids’ eye level, it’s sometimes nice to be home, if home is a safe and secure place to be, not the case for far too many. Children bear the brunt of inadequate national support as parents strive to survive the everyday consequences of this horrible disease.

Within the safest environments, children’s social-emotional health may be compromised;   my young niece went through phases of adjustment during shelter-at-home. Her fear and anxiety replaced the initial novelty of home-schooling. Children not only miss their friends, but when removed from peers lose important opportunities to process their feelings and grow emotionally. Peers provide conflicts, feelings, and conversations about solutions, especially when mentored by wise adults. We humans learn within the community of others, as we actively make mistakes and stretch through our comfort zones.  

If adults understand our own emotions, we have the capacity to provide a safe space and a compassionate presence for others. Psychologist Dr. Susan David grew up in apartheid-torn South Africa. “Emotionally agile” people, she explains, “still experience feelings of anger, sadness, and so on—who doesn’t?—but they face these with curiosity, self-compassion, and acceptance.” David reminds us that “Trying to correct troubling thoughts and feelings leads us to obsess unproductively on them.” 

When we say: “Oh come on now, let’s think about something happy,” to our child’s sadness, we remove the opportunity needed to process our feelings. David directs us instead, to hold our  “emotions… loosely, facing them courageously and compassionately, and moving past them.”         

As adults we are models for our children, sharing healthy ways to express our feelings: ” I’m feeling so sad because I have to be on my computer and can’t help you right now. I’m wondering how you feel when I need to be on my computer?” As your child shares, instead of trying to “fix” the sadness, validate the feelings: “I can understand that this makes you sad, too.” And of course, sometimes we just need to hold them and let them cry.

Building on solid psychological foundations, Britain provides the framework for rich and comforting discussions about feelings by showing children in complex situations. In one mini-story, a little girl stands at the door of a new school, feeling excited to see her friends and at the same time feeling afraid that she won’t be liked. Britain’s stories describe a path for self-expression of our own feelings, emboldening children to learn about their often powerful feelings that can change quickly.  A complete guide at the back of Britain’s book provides effective ways of sparking discussions with children as well as concrete ideas for supporting children’s (and our!) emotional growth and adaptation to difficult times.

The hard part is that we are as vulnerable as our children in all of this, if not more. We are expected to support children while we deal with our own feelings of desperation. By sharing ideas of how to support children’s emotional challenges we can build skills to help us all through troubling times.      

– -David, Susan, PhD (2016) Emotional Agility.  Avery: New York.

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