Vital to a child’s sense of well-being are parents who act competent to provide adequate provision and protection under any and all circumstances.
I often refer to that obligation as “acting like a superior being.” It requires, under the most trying circumstances, keeping one’s cool, projecting a sense of having it all together, not letting emotion (yours or your child’s) take over, being proactive, having and being able to communicate a plan. In short, embracing the legitimacy of one’s authority as a parent.
Some parents, perhaps most, think of authority simply in terms of the discipline of children. That is indeed one of the functions of a parent authority figure, to discipline with calm purpose. Equally if not more important, however, is to always broadcast an aura of competence. The popular World War Two British adage, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” expresses the nature of said aura in a proverbial nutshell.
When that quality is absent in a parent’s demeanor, a child’s predictable reaction ranges over a finite list of malfunctions, from depression and anxiety to raging misbehavior.
Intuitively, children know they can’t deal with the world, in all of its complexity and unpredictability, on their own. They need people who are BIG in every sense of the term to deal with it on their behalf. When those people fail to act up to the job of being BIG, twenty-four-seven, it throws children into a tizzy.
The tizzies provide mental health professionals with a living, fodder for the justification of largely meaningless testing, diagnoses that have no scientific basis, and medications that don’t reliably outperform placebos. Unfortunately, the tizzies are a large part of yours truly’s raison d’etre.
America is facing a crisis at the moment. No one knows for sure where this is headed, how long it will last, or how much it’s going to change for the long term our collective way of life.
For parents, the crisis requires keeping calm and carrying on. Calming a child’s potential emotional reactions is only possible if one’s own emotions are under complete control. It would be unfair to suggest that having emotions in a crisis is a sign of parental weakness. Go ahead, have emotions. Just keep them under opaque wraps when kids are around.
“When and how should I tell my children about the coronavirus?” is the question I am most frequently and urgently asked these days. I answer, “When they ask questions.” An unsolicited homily is likely to provoke rather than subdue anxiety.
When questions are asked, keep it short and sweet, as in, “Mom and I have this under control. We have plenty of food and we’re staying indoors or in our own back yard as much as possible to reduce the chance of getting sick, but even if one of us gets sick, it’s probably going to be nothing more than a runny nose, sneezing, and maybe a slight fever, like a bad cold. We’re all healthy people. In any case, we’re going to take care of you. You’re our first priority. Any other questions?”
At some point, one may need to say, “That’s enough questions. What are your plans for the day?” Knowing when to end a conversation of this sort is being a BIG person, the adult in the room.
[Family psychologist John Rosemond: johnrosemond.com, parentguru.com. Copyright 2020, John K. Rosemond]