by Chris Parrott
And here it is: the 2020-21 school year is upon us and yet, we are still grappling with the uncertainty and unpredictability that is now the hallmark of life during the Covid-19 pandemic. We thought we might have had some answers and some strong solutions by now, but such is not the case. It can be maddening. Yet, it can also be a lesson for us: life is simply inherently uncertain and so if we are going to live life fully, we need to be able to live it well even in times of uncertainty.
For most of us, uncertainty makes us uncomfortable. Indeed, uncertainty, unpredictability and a lack of control are the golden nuggets that feed that little beast called anxiety. Instinctively, our minds and bodies like situations that are controllable, predictable and certain. In evolutionary terms, such situations helped to keep us alive. When situations are not that way, our lower brains can be activated, bringing on the feeling of anxiety that demands comfort and seeks control. Unfortunately, none of that is available in this current crisis: we can’t be comforted by solutions or control the ever-changing myriad of scenarios this pandemic is putting in front of us.
That leaves us, and the parents with whom we work, one option: to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. This pandemic is providing the opportunity to recognize and come to terms with the uncertainty of life. When we do that, we can fully embrace our present circumstances in a state that allows us to manage them and learn from them, rather than to be fearful of them. Instead of fighting against the feeling that we are uncomfortable, we can use it for what it is—an indication that a challenge needs our attention and problem-solving skills.
Here’s the conundrum though, problem-solving skills do not reside in the lower areas of the brain with are the parts of the brain that are activated by anxiety. The synapses that control problem solving skills, self-control and analytical thinking reside in the upper areas of our brains—the prefrontal cortex—which can only be accessed when we have turned off the worried reactions of the lower brain. Once the lower brain is calm, we have access to the parts of our brains that allow us to make solid decisions— we can meet challenges with the skills that will allow us to rise to them and better ourselves.
Just how can we help our parents in learning to manage the feelings of uncertainty? Here are three small interventions that can have big results:
1. Compassionately witness the disappointments and frustrations they are feeling. So much has been lost and so much is beyond their control right now, which can make things feel chaotic. Be careful not to try to fix what can not be fixed or to judge their feelings. Instead, validate their emotions and just bear witness to them. Feelings need to be felt before they can be understood. When we try to tell someone things are not so bad or they shouldn’t feel a certain way, we are inadvertently blocking their path to full understanding and, if necessary, healing. Once we allow the space for feelings to be safely witnessed, we open up the path.
2. Managing uncomfortable feelings starts with using them for what they are— indicators about a challenge that needs our attention. Help parents reframe their feelings of anxiety lights that shine on issues that deserve their attention. Challenges require the prefrontal cortex, not the worried part of our brains, so when we turn off the alert and turn on the curiosity about a situation, we are in a much better place to manage it.
3. Give parents the permission to just be a parent right now. Parents are being asked to take on multiple roles during this pandemic and many of them feel overwhelmed. That feeling of being overwhelmed activates the lower parts of their brains and thus, their abilities to connect with their children and to make sound decisions is compromised. Encourage parents to simply focus on being a parent— that is the perspective they should employing as they navigate these challenging times. In the end, children are not necessarily going to remember what they learned in math class or which story they read, but they will remember how they felt during this unusual period in their lifetime. Support parents in helping their children to feel safe, valued and loved. Those feelings of security will always far outweigh fears of the unknown.
Chris Parrott earned her BA from Dartmouth College and her MSc and Post MSc Degrees in Counseling Psychology at City University London. Since returning to the U.S., her focus has been on supporting self-development in children and teens through the Your Self Series program. Chris is dedicated to raising the level of education globally so that it focuses on empowering teens socially and emotionally. To that end, Chris presents at various national and local conferences as well as schools and community forums on topics related to building a strong sense of self. Chris lives in New York with her husband, two children, two dogs and a cat.