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Creating Realistic Expectations During Unreal Experiences

The creativity, ingenuity, diligence, and heart shown during this pandemic is awe-inspiring. Parents, teachers, kids, and teens have been earnestly striving to adjust to their “new normal.” Schedules have been established. Assignments have been given. Zoom playdates and drive-by birthday celebrations have been hosted. Everyone has been striving to navigate new forms of media to allow work and education to continue. This should be no surprise – our country was founded by adventurers and trailblazers.

But, as the dust has started to settle a bit, things are not going as smoothly as had first been hoped for or expected. Parents are simultaneously managing work and the household while trying to meet the demands of homeschooling with little to no formal training in teaching or child/adolescent development. An often frustrating situation.

The unexpected

Parents aren't the only ones who are feeling the pressure. Elementary students are sad and confused – missing the “fun” parts of school (treasure boxes, Fun Fridays, centers, recess, etc.). Teens, who often are trying to navigate demands more on their own, are having difficulty completing and turning in assignments. Parents often feel frustrated and baffled as to why their once capable students seem unable to manage doing school work for only a few hours per day when their typical school day runs much longer. All ages describe feeling distracted, exhausted, and overwhelmed.

The list of unmet expectations is long. “We don't have any extra-curricular activities, we can't leave the house, they only have a couple of hours of school per day. Why can't they get their assignments done? Why aren't they doing their chores? Why are we tired all the time? We have all of this down time – we should be more productive.”

Why does everything feel unreal?

For many, the past several weeks have seemed unimaginable – almost surreal, as though we were somehow cast as extras in a dramatic thriller movie. At the same time, our ability to actively control or influence our situation is restricted. When events or circumstances disrupt our sense of the familiar and what we “know” to be true about our world, it can stimulate an array of emotional reactions, including uncertainty, confusion, fear, anger, sadness, and helplessness. This experience has a name - trauma.

Scientists have shown that trauma interrupts the brain's ability to manage emotion, form memories, and think flexibly. It interferes with executive functioning, which includes our ability to direct and maintain attention, organize and prioritize information, set and reach goals, and control impulses. These skills are necessary for adults to maintain strong productivity at work and for our children and teens to learn and perform well in school. For those with extra challenges – ADHD, learning difficulties, depression, anxiety, etc. – this becomes even more challenging as these areas are already stretched.

So, herein lies the problem. During times of heightened stress, it is exceptionally challenging to learn new things. Our brain strives to do what is comfortable and familiar – desperately seeking balance and stability. This is not a flaw. It's by design. It's our body's way of protecting us, focusing on the most important things to ensure our survival. But to cope effectively and get through this crisis relatively intact, we can't just give up or give in. We have to change and adjust.

So how do we adjust our expectations?

Before we can adjust our expectations, it's important to recognize and appreciate where we are. Everyone has needs. Our basic survival needs must be met for us to have enough energy to work on meeting other, more complex needs. At the height of WWII, Abraham Maslow developed a tool that may help us understand our struggles during the current crisis. Let's take a look:  

Pyramid chart 

The bottom 2 tiers: physiological needs, and safety and security. These are our basic survival needs. They are our foundation and must come first. For the bottom tier, many families right now may be concerned about securing food and maintaining shelter. Loss of sleep has also been a common concern. The second tier has also been affected for many of us. We may be struggling with illness and the real or potential loss of employment as well as concerns about whether we will be able to keep our families safe. It's fair to say that the stability of our daily lives has certainly been challenged.

Maybe your family has been more fortunate, and you have weathered the challenges to the basics pretty well. Let's take a peek at the third section, love and belonging. As humans, we are relational creatures. We were made to be connected with others. COVID-19 has interfered with these needs dramatically. For many parents and kids, despite their best efforts, digital connection with friends and extended family is just “not the same.” And they're right, at both the heartfelt level and at the biological level. Any challenges we have in these 3 tiers take a toll on our self-esteem (tier 4). It becomes difficult to learn, achieve, and be productive. 

Between our brain's response to trauma and so many unmet needs, it's no wonder we're overwhelmed and exhausted. We're faced with having to completely relearn how to get through our days at a time when we have fewer resources for learning. So we know where we are...what do we do now?

  • Honor the need for the familiar – Create, post, and keep a regular routine. Even young children can follow visual schedules with pictures. We all cope better when we have an idea of what's coming up next.
  • Listen to your body and your heart – It doesn't matter what your friends on social media are doing. Take some time each day to just breathe and to ask yourself what you need and how you're feeling. Do this with your children as well. It's ok if not everyone's needs are the same – you may need connection while your preschooler needs movement and teen needs sleep. All are important.
  • Pace yourself – We can't learn how to renegotiate everything in our lives all at once. How we do school, work, socializing, exercise, entertainment, shopping, health care, etc. all have been upended by COVID-19. Give yourself permission to slow down and forgiveness when making mistakes as you learn new skills.
  • Take a breakPlanning frequent breaks and varying the types of breaks is important to maximize benefit. Our bodies need to move often, so encourage your family to get up hourly and move away from their work area for 5-15 minutes. Younger children may need more frequent breaks. Do something enjoyable or relaxing – it's fine if you find doing the dishes relaxing but your kids may not. Breaks should be tailored to individual needs – have your kids create a list of break ideas. Encourage a balance of breaks that take care of needs for movement, rest, play, relaxation, and connection.
  • Move your body – Go for a walk/run, do some yoga, try an exercise video, play with the dog, make an obstacle course, try an indoor/outdoor scavenger hunt
  • Go outside - Take some time each day to connect with nature. Studies show it boosts energy, attention, creativity, mood, and our immune system!
  • Take time to connect – Engage in spontaneous play with your family. Eat dinner together without any devices. Try to focus on listening and playful conversation rather than correction. Consider conversation starters for kids and teens or have everyone share a fun fact, joke, or moment of joy or gratitude from their day. Connect with a friends or extended family through phone or video calls, texts, or even online games.
  • Ask for help – Sometimes we don't realize our expectations are unrealistic. Sometimes we don't realize there's an unmet need that's getting in our way. Take time to check in with your kids about their schoolwork and their level of understanding. Encourage them to come to you if they're stuck, and model asking for help from teachers. Talking to others helps us realize we're not alone and may highlight possible solutions. Teachers have mad skills and can provide insight into how to help kids focus, how to manage transitions, and even how your child learns best.
  • Look for balance – We can spend a little time taking care of each area rather than focusing all of our attention on being productive. By doing so, we are helping ourselves develop resilience and well-being. Resilience is what we need to successfully recover and bounce back from this crisis.
  • Practice compassion – Everyone is struggling as a result of COVID-19. We are all doing the best we can with the skills and resources we have at this moment. We all need understanding, kindness, and grace - this includes our kids, our teachers, and ourselves.  Remind each other that it's ok if we don't do everything perfectly or even finish everything – no one is at the top of their game right now. You're not behind – you're not even in a race. You're on a journey, and the reality is, everyone's path is unique.