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Challenge: Back to School 2020

Uncertainty: supporting your children when you don’t know what the future holds

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Uncertainty

Supporting your children when you don’t know what the future holds.

By Julie Miley Schlegel, MD, FAAP

www.drjulieschlegel.com

When my youngest child was four years old, we took our first trip to DisneyWorld. The older two children were excited to try all of the age-appropriate rides, but the youngest wanted more information about what each ride would entail before he boarded, and he wanted the power to decline certain rides. He had seen the giant roller coasters and had heard people screaming, and he was not a fan of putting himself in that situation.

It came time for the Haunted Mansion attraction, and since the other four of us had watched that particular movie together, we wanted to ride it as a family. We assured him it would be OK, but his fear set in. He had been to a Halloween store with his dad and siblings, and the memory of those ghouls and goblins made him sure he did not want to go into a manor with “999 happy haunts.”

I admit we pressured him into going on this ride, though the uncertainty of it was clearly making him uneasy. If you’ve been on it, you know that the characters in the ride are actually happy and singing, and it’s not too scary.

However, he spent more than half of the ride with his face buried in my chest. And when we got off and everyone else exclaimed how awesome it was, my son didn’t say a word. He stomped off and wanted space, so I took him on the train ride around the park while the other three members of the family went on a roller coaster he didn’t want to ride.

He stared off into the park and was silent for the first 15 minutes of the train ride, refusing to talk to me. I let him have his introspection, and when he finally calmed down, he said, “You shouldn’t have made me go on that. I didn’t know what it was like.”

My friend recently described the experience of living in a global pandemic as living in your own personal horror film, with perpetual suspenseful waiting. There is the constant stress of wondering if and when you will contract the virus, if and when your family will contract it, and if you’ll be a survivor or have a bad outcome. There is the stress of not knowing when the kids will go back to school or daycare, wondering if you should send them in person, not wanting to make the wrong decision. And some have the added stress of unemployment, family discord, or reduced income.

Lately I am, much like others in the medical community, getting multiple requests for guidance about the uncertainties we are facing in 2020. Should we travel? Should we visit grandparents? Should we go to in-person school or virtual school? Camp? Birthday parties? Routine doctor visits?

Basically, in 2020, we are all my four-year-old son standing in front of the Haunted Mansion. With every new hurdle, we don’t know what to expect. We know we could make a decision we might regret. And after the ride, we might need some time to introspect and determine how we feel about it.

Remember seven months ago, when we were going about our lives and activities without much uncertainty? Most days, we weren’t faced with any new rides at all. But now every family has to daily decide the level of risk they are willing to take based on their own situation, make the best decisions they can, and then live with those decisions. What makes it hard for us right now is the uncertainty.

Out of familiar routine, a toddler might show her stress by having a monumental meltdown over your asking her to wear blue shorts instead of purple ones. A school-aged child might suddenly have trouble sleeping alone at night. A teen might retreat into his room, only coming out to be fed or watered.

Think of all the uncertainty you are struggling with right now as an adult. Your children are dealing with that uncertainty as well, and acknowledging that might help explain some of the tantrums, sleep difficulties, and teenage brooding.

Uncertainty leads to anxiety because we like to know what to expect. Having control over what will happen in my life helps me stay calm. But 2020 is a ride many of us don’t really want to be on, and this lack of control causes anxiety for all of us.

So how can I help my kids during this time? First, I can control my attitude and accept that the pandemic changes the way this year looks. I can be willing to try new things or forego others for the time it takes to find our new normal. And, most importantly, I can teach them that this pandemic looks different based on one’s perspective. A nurse who has been the last and only face countless patients have seen before death has a different experience than someone this illness hasn’t personally affected.

You can help your children know what to expect, even if uncertainty itself is exactly what to expect. And you can let them know it’s OK not to know all the answers.

Parenting confidently might feel like you have to know all the answers. But this year provides a lesson for us to say, “I don’t know what is around the corner. But I will be there for you if you need to bury your face in my shirt and cry.”

Sometimes in life, you’re standing in line for a roller coaster you don’t want to board, whose threats you don’t know. Sometimes you have to get on the ride, and sometimes you can walk away. When you’re forced to ride it anyway, it is OK to grit your teeth, close your eyes, and simply survive, knowing it won’t last forever.

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