Parenting during a pandemic: How do we address feelings of vulnerability?
Vulnerability is an inevitable emotional fallout when we’re faced with uncertainty. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, and no wonder – when we’re not quite sure what tomorrow holds, the world feels full of risk. And against this backdrop, when the solid foundations we’re used to feel as though they’ve been ripped away from us, emotional exposure is a real fear.
For many, the discomfort is compounded by the fact that this isn’t how we want our children to experience us. We believe that in challenging times, especially, they’re looking to us to model strength. But what if we considered parenting from another perspective? What if we framed our work as parents in accordance with the answer to the following question: “Am I the adult I want my child to grow up to be?”
This is a powerful question, because it forces us to consider the value of compassion – one of the most compelling ways to dispel vulnerability. It also highlights something important: in a time of crisis, the most helpful person isn’t necessarily the one putting up a firm front, but the one who others can relate to because they feel real and like they are understood.
This insight emerged through some conversations with mothers who have been grappling with the issues thrown up at the time of SA’s Covid-19 lockdown. Many of us have felt inadequate, concerned that we are unable to see to the increased needs of our children while addressing our own growing fears, and often experiencing resentment as we try (usually unsuccessfully) to juggle the dynamics.
What’s interesting, though, is that many agreed that there is little point in trying to hide negative feelings. It’s ironic, as children appear to have a built-in radar that alerts them to emotional imbalances, and the more we try to hide them, the clearer it is that something just isn’t right. Most mothers will agree that honesty is key; and while this doesn’t mean giving them a blow-by-blow explanation of the horrors of the world, it does require a frank, age appropriate discussion about what’s happening right now, how you’re feeling about it, and how they’re feeling.
You can’t help your children process complicated emotions while you’re pushing them aside or pretending they don’t exist. In fact, acting as if things are fine when they patently aren’t potentially robs your children of an opportunity to develop resilience, perspective and other critical emotional skills, such as empathy. Many mothers have said that allowing their children to see them battling their own demons has made it easier for their kids to face their own fears, and teaches them that everyone has feelings and that no one is perfect. To be human is to feel and to feel all emotions without labelling some good or bad.
Interestingly, we forget that feelings are called just that because we sense them in the body first. Can you identify what you’re sensing in your body and then be curious as to what emotion might be behind this sensation? Imagine if you could teach your kids to ask this sensation what’s the message its trying to share with you?
Many of us need to learn to build a broader range of language for emotions so using a tool like an emotional vocabulary wheel is also really helpful. This way someone can name what they’re feeling – they say a problem named is a problem solved – and can maybe dig a bit deeper into what’s really driving their behaviour right now which opens up space for reality checking and choice. You can imagine asking yourself, do I want to continue running this story which is keeping me in a funk or could I manoeuvre my mood to open up other options right now.
A final word: I’m often guided by the sentiment that it doesn’t help to look back in anger or forward in fear; rather, we should look around in awareness. There may be little we can change in the greater world, but once we focus on what’s really happening within us and with those around us we see we have more autonomy and acceptance about all that sits within our own three feet of influence and control, and we can appreciate all there is to be grateful for.
Julia Kerr-Henkel is a ICF professional coach and MD of Lumminos Coaching. Visit www.lumminos.co.za