Is There Light at the End of the Tunnel?

Supporting our children through the next wave

Guest poster Karen Libber Fishbein, MSW, LCSW is a Philadelphia-based clinical social worker and mother of two girls.

Here we are in December of 2020, ending a year with large-scale health, racial and political crises. Our children sense the daily tension and they feel the growing tedium.  Life in the present is difficult to tolerate: COVID rates are spiking, school is opening and shutting and opening again, the days are getting shorter, the weather is getting colder, warm weather activities are no longer possible, and indoor gatherings are increasingly risky. The holidays this year will be very different than in previous years. 

But now we have news of the vaccine!  Health care workers and people in long term care facilities will be vaccinated as early as this month!

There IS light at the end of the tunnel!

But can we feel ourselves lightening up yet?

Can our children feel the hope that the vaccine implies?

As far as education is concerned, learning is radically different for many children regardless of how or where they go to school. Children attending school must adhere to social distancing guidelines and pay close attention to their activities and behavior. Children learning from home need to find the emotional and physical space to focus on their virtual instruction and navigate the novel world of remote learning.  Teachers are working on overdrive to deliver their lessons in the smoothest way possible as they adjust to policies and procedures that may not fully account for the complexity of their students’ individual needs – or their own.

Children’s family members and caregivers are also struggling as they navigate these unprecedented times.  Many caregivers are spread too thin as they take on numerous roles throughout the day without natural transitions and boundaries. Normal coping strategies (e.g. going to the gym, dining at a restaurant, attending a yoga class, asking friends and family to come over and help with the kids) are no longer feasible solutions. 

A family member of mine is an experienced pediatrician, and he noted that families have been sharing with him that some of their children are starting to reach breaking points.

So, no.  Perhaps our children cannot yet feel the hope that the vaccine implies.  Children live in the present and the present is still hard.

Some children are not turning in work.  Some are logging out in the middle of class. Most children, except perhaps those with the most energetic, exceptional teachers, are bored.

The personal interaction children had with teachers is absent.  The desire to work for the teacher, to please him or her is more remote with remote learning.  The motivation to pay attention is in short supply as a result.

So what can we do, in these dark days of winter, to help our children with their feelings of  sadness, anger, boredom and loneliness, in other words, to survive in the present?

My two daughters, ages 5 and 7, continue to express frustrations about their radically different daily routines. My older daughter has been a champ with her 100% remote instruction. She signs into her classroom on time every day and seems to be keeping up with her responsibilities. While I am beyond grateful for her success, we run into difficulties after school. When I try to encourage non-screen related activities, there is usually backlash. “Mom, I don’t want to go to the playground, I don’t want to go outside and ride my scooter.” Last week as she was making these assertions, she burst into tears and said, “I really miss my friends, I want COVID to be over.” In that moment, I stopped pushing my agenda and then validated her and held her close as she cried. 

My younger daughter is faring better during COVID than she was previously.  The extra time with family and the slower pace of life has resulted in reduced anxiety for her. While this sounds all well and good, my husband and I are beginning to explore in person pre-k for her because she is not cooperative in our home schooling attempts and we don’t want her to fall behind.  As we have broached this subject with her, her expression immediately shifts, and she becomes visibly sad and anxious about the prospect of returning to school. 

I realize that my girls’ experiences may or may not be in line with the experiences of other children, but I’m going to offer some ideas that have worked with my kids and may be helpful for others during this next wave of darkness.

  1. Validate your children’s feelings and let them know that they have every right to feel the way they feel. It also may be helpful to let them know that you are struggling in your own way as well.
  2. Understand that your children’s exaggerated emotions regarding day-to-day challenges are likely reflective of deeper tensions they are holding.
  3. Praise your children when they adopt healthy coping skills on their own, for example if they engage in an activity on their own terms (e.g. arts and crafts, reading, playing with their toys.)
  4. Take a day trip somewhere new where you and your kids can spend time outside, i.e. hiking, visiting a farm, or exploring a new town. 
  5. Encourage meaningful use of screen time such as FaceTiming with friends and family members or watching learning-oriented programming on television.  My girls are loving shows on TLC right now. They also love calling their grandparents and friends to say hi! This feels much healthier than getting sucked into endless YouTube clips.
  6. Consider letting your kids have a special treat when days are tough.  Wendy’s is our go-to—we load the kids in the car and then allow them to order a meal at the drive-through. This activity is especially appreciated on a rainy day.
  7. Engage in a charitable activity and enlist the help of your kids. We have collected canned goods a couple times and, as a family, have delivered them to a local food bank. We then use this as an opportunity to focus on gratitude for the privileges we do have.
  8. Get creative with babysitting. Depending on your COVID risk tolerance, consider having a babysitter or young teenager come over. We have been in touch with families in our community and have invited a few select babysitters over to help.  The kids really love having the younger babysitters (i.e. middle school or high school age) over because they are often more interested in playing. We  evaluate COVID risk by checking in with their parents to assess how much exposure the potential young babysitters  have had and vice versa. Right now, we have a 13-year-old coming over who is in virtual school 100% of the time and has had minimal contact with people.  The kids have spent hours playing together and it feels somewhat normal.  It is fun for the younger kids and provides meaning for the older kids. 

I hope you find these strategies helpful as you navigate this next wave of darkness. With any luck, as spring emerges, and the  vaccine is delivered, we will return to some level of normalcy. Then, at that time, our children may need different guidance and support since “normal life” will not be normal, it will be new to them!

COVID-Era Nutcracker

If the Nutcracker is part of your family’s traditions during the most wonderful time of the year, you may be feeling like you’re missing out this time around. Well, San Francisco Ballet is trying out a fun, kid-friendly, and Fauci-approved alternative. This evening (6pm est) on the company’s social media one of their dancers, Tiit Helimets, will be retelling the classic story while he illustrates it live! It should be amazing to watch since this world class dancer also happens to be a gifted visual artist. You can follow along on the company’s Facebook live or on YouTube.

Enjoy!

Holidays: 2020

Dr. Corinne Masur

This is Bear and Piggy, two Native American carved fetishes.  A creative woman I know sent them as a gift to a friend.  And as she packed them up in their box and thought about the trip they were about to make, she decided to write a story about this for the children in her family.  Because she could not actually be with the children this year due to Covid, she printed up a little board book with the story accompanied by photographs of Bear and Piggy emerging from their box.
This year we are all going to need to think outside of the box when it comes to the holidays.  Many of us are used to doing the same things each year – getting together with the same relatives at the same place, in the same way.  And these rituals are so comforting and so familiar that many of us are trying to figure out how we can continue them this year.
But, really, does this make any sense?
In many places Covid numbers are way up. They are higher than they were at the beginning of the pandemic; they are higher than they were during the summer.
This year calls for creativity.  And flexibility.
One mom I know has made her garage into a playroom for her children and the occasional friend who comes over and she is thinking of setting up a dining room table there for Thanksgiving dinner – with the garage door open!
Another parent I’ve talked to is going to forego eating Thanksgiving dinner with the extended family and is going to have a brief Thanksgiving get together with masks and social distancing – just long enough to give each family member a to-go turkey dinner in take out containers!
So this year, whether you decide to write a children’s book and send it to the kids in your family, or eat in the garage, try not to let the old traditions tempt you into taking risks you really don’t want to take. 
Be flexible, be creative, and get out of YOUR box!

Why 2020 Is Warping Your Perception of Time

Source: Andrey Grushnikov

Have you been wondering why time sometimes drags and sometimes flies by during COVID? Cindy Baum-Baicker, a clinical psychologist based out of Philadelphia, explains why this is in her piece that was originally published in Psychology Today:

Have you noticed that since March, our conversations no longer begin with the weather but rather how weird time feels? Every day can feel like Groundhog Day, as tedious as the one that preceded it. Or, perhaps it feels that life is spinning so fast. Maybe you’re finding the moments ticking by all too slowly as you await the upcoming presidential election. You know it’s now the fall and that seasons have passed, but do you really feel it?  

Our sense of time is off. It may seem dissolved even though the structure of minutes-hours-days has remained the same. Suspended as it moves, why does the present seem isolated from the continuity of time? The reasons go beyond the changes to our daily routines and structures that COVID-19 has wrought.

The invisible threat of COVID-19 and the upcoming presidential election are a one-two punch to our felt sense of security. We no longer have our illusory assumptions that the future is knowable and predictable. Who will get sick? What will happen to our democracy? Will there be a peaceful transition of power? Researchers have found that without illusions of a knowable future, we tend to live more in the present moment. And our present moment—the very thing that is filling the gap of the unknown future—is riddled with stress.  

Altered time perception has been termed, “temporal disintegration” or “temporal discontinuity,” and has been shown to be related to mood state. People who are depressed are temporally desynchronized and often experience life at half its standard speed. A felt sense of slowed time is also experienced in everyday life; when we feel bored, time feels slow as molasses. The opposite is also true, as when we are in a creative flow, time seems to fly.

Have you ever been really frightened, and it felt like time stretched on and on, when in fact it was just a couple of minutes? This is because when exposed to threatening stimuli, people increase their time estimates. Daily, we are bombarded by news of rising COVID-19 deaths while at the same time subjected to unrelenting political advertisements alerting us to the disasters that may lie ahead if the other candidate wins. Is it any wonder then that time seems to move so slowly?

There is a downward spiral during stressful waiting periods. Distress makes time seem to slow down, which in turn exacerbates distress. It is a spiral of distress and time perception, making us feel ever the more like we are living in a time warp.

Time is a unique sense, and this may contribute to time distortion’s powerful effect. Unlike hearing, seeing, or tasting, the sense of time is not mediated by a specific sense organ but rather is “embodied” in a more all-encompassing way. It has been shown to be encoded in body signals governed by the insula, a fragment of the cerebral cortex folded deep within each lobe of the brain. Time sense fully embraces us because it lives throughout our brain.article continues after advertisement

Unconscious psychological defenses, too, can contribute to our altered sense of time. In a state of overwhelm, the psychological defense of dissociation often unconsciously kicks in. Dissociation is a feeling of being here and not being here simultaneously. This unreal feeling of time is analogous to an electrical system that gets overheated when overloaded. In a functioning system, the overheating trips the circuit breaker before it gets too hot. Dissociation helps us in times of powerful stress—overload—to remain as functional as possible.  

Given that we are living a collective trauma, is it any wonder so many of us are experiencing temporal discontinuity? As noted previously, when the future is unknown and the stakes so very high, we tend to abandon a sense of the future and live more in the present. And this present moment? This is a moment infused with the stress of COVID-19 and the election of a lifetime. It is no wonder, then, that many of us feel as if we’re living in a time warp. We check out because it’s too overwhelming to check in.

References

Dawson, J. and Sleek, S. (2018) The fluidity of time: Scientists uncover how emotions alter time perception. Association for Psychological Science September 28, 2018.

Holman, E.A., Grisham, E.L. (2020). When time falls apart: The public health implications of distorted time perception in the age of COVID-19. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. 12 (51), 563-565.

Rankin, K., Sweeny, K., Xu. S. (2019). Associations between subjective time perception and well-being during stressful waiting periods. Stress and Health 35 (4).