One of the greatest gifts we can give to our children is the ability to cope. Much as we would like our children to have stress-free lives, that wish is not realistic. We all experience disappointments, loss and anxiety caused by events that we could not have foreseen or are out of our control. When times are good, it is easy for us to be role models. When we are stressed by family issues or financial challenges, we forget that the children are still taking their cues from us. In fact, those times of hardship and struggle provide us with the greatest learning experiences and they can do the same for our children.
Your children know you are struggling, sad or worried. They show the signs of fatigue and stress when they are with us at school. We see the behavioral changes, added sensitivity and symptoms of anxiety from the time the children are toddlers. The way they act, react and play changes when their homes are in a state of stress or anxiety. As a parent who has navigated a family through difficult times – my husband’s layoff, the death of a beloved grandparent, the aftermath of car accidents – I understand the desire to protect the children. Do we really protect them when we don’t include them or when we don’t give them the outlet to express their anxiety? Not only does that attempt to protect them cause their stress, but we have closed a door to teaching important life skills.
When your household is in turmoil, remember that your children are looking to you as an example of adult behavior. We are fortunate to be raising children in an era that encourages communication between adults and children. Coping skills are taught and you can teach them.
- Help children to express themselves. There is nothing more empowering than the validation of feelings. Children need to know that their feelings are valid simply because they are feeling them. When children cry, they have a reason to cry. When children are afraid, something is legitimately scaring them. Young children need the words to express what their physiology is telling them. Give them the words they need. By saying “I see you are unhappy” or “I see you are frustrated,” you open the door to communication and help them identify what they feel. Older children should also be encouraged to talk about what they feel because that will pave the way for future conversations. When our own fears or egos prevent us from hearing our children, we build a boundary that is hard to take down. We will want our teenagers and adult children to come to us and tell us what is going on in their lives. If they have been encouraged to do so from a young age, they will know that we are always there for them.
- Show children bravery in the face of emotion. Emotions aren’t only felt by children and when adults hide every emotion, they don’t know that. Children can see you cry. Children can see you afraid. You can say “I am afraid too. We will get through this together.” By making honest but courageous statements, your children learn that everyone feels emotions sometimes but that you can be brave. We are in it together and we will get through it together. Give them a chance to be a part of the team and to use their love to comfort you. Allow them to feel pride in having their love brighten your day. From doing so, they will learn that they are powerful and that they can help as well as be helped.
- Be a role model of logical rather than emotional thinking. Emotions are not the same as facts. So many of us learn to separate emotion from fact after many years of allowing our emotions to guide our reactions. Having our lives abruptly change against our will or wondering how we are going to buy food and pay bills are emotionally charged situations. As adults, we learn that we cannot make a plan while we are giving into fear and dread. We need to take a deep breath, make lists of pros & cons and decide what we can do to improve our situations. It is when we allow our emotions to subside that we realize that we can make gifts when there is no money to buy them. It is when our heart stops racing that we can figure out how to stretch the food that we can afford. Think logically with your children. Do not exclude them from that process. Children learn to solve math problems from their teachers and life problems from you.
Remember that coping is a learned skill and children who seem unaffected by their environment may not be coping as well as you think. It is your job to start the dialogue and to be the role model.