Uncertainty Distress

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Dr. Corinne Masur

Today I learned a new term.

I was reading scientific journal articles about how the pandemic has affected people and I came across it:

Uncertainty Distress

This term was coined to describe the “unknown-ness” in our lives right now and to highlight the distress being experienced by all of us during the pandemic, even when we are not in especially threatening circumstances at the moment.

And I am glad to now have a name for what everyone – children and adults alike – has been feeling. We don’t know what the summer will look like. Or the fall, for that matter. Will kids be able to play together? Will kids’ sports leagues operate? Will pools be open? How about camps? And later, schools and colleges?

And for the adults: will we go back to the job or the office? Will businesses that closed reopen? Will the jobs that evaporated become available again? Will people feel safe shopping in person? Getting haircuts? Taking the train or a plane? Meeting at each other’s houses and apartments?

Even though half of all adults are already vaccinated in the US, and more than half of the UK population has received at least their first dose, we STILL don’t know what the summer or the fall or the future will look like.

And this is VERY stressful.

Children are used to having their parents be able to answer their questions. But for all of us, the answer to the questions above – and all the others we have – are elusive. When we try to answer our children’s questions, we either have to be honest and say we really don’t know the answers right now – or we have to guess.

Neither option is ideal.

Kids want certainty. Kids like to know what to expect. Kids want their parents to know the answers to their questions. This makes them feel safe.

And we adults would like some certainty around now, too. It would make us feel safer, too. Will the vaccine protect us against the Covid-19 variants? Will the vaccine confer immunity to Covid 19 for at least a year? These things would be important to know.

Except we don’t.

So we all experience some degree of “uncertainty distress”.

Not knowing is hard.

The best thing we can do right now is to try to figure out how to live with uncertainty and how to help our children to live with it too. Tolerating difficult emotions is not something most people know how to do well. And yet, life is full of difficult emotions. Helping our children to learn how to live with difficult emotions is one of the best things we as parents can do.

So how do we help our children to do this?

In addition to the things you may already be doing, here are some suggestions:

-In times of uncertainty, it is best to keep the things that you CAN control stable.  Routines are important.  Try as best you can to keep bedtimes and meal times regular.  Try to maintain any family customs you have set up during Covid time – Friday night pizza, Wednesday night tacos, Saturday night movie, whatever.  Children tend to like routines and traditions even if they sometimes rebel against them.  These routines and schedules also provide some predictability in circumstances that are otherwise unpredictable.

-Provide children with something to look forward to. This gives a sense that good things CAN happen and that some things can happen according to plan.  Even if the things are small – a trip to a drive through for take out, a day trip to a State Park or a picnic at a favorite playground.

-Acknowledge children’s feelings, whatever they are. For example, if your child says, “I’m sick and tired of you saying, ‘I don’t know!'” You can respond, “You’re absolutely right! I’m tired of not knowing! It’s really hard right now, isn’t it?”

-Tell them stories from your own life of times you didn’t know how things were going to turn out – and then what happened.

-Tell them about times in your life when you were frustrated or bored or angry (tie it to what they are feeling at the moment).

-Thank your child for telling you how they feel. Even if you are at the end of your rope and the feeling your child is expressing is not particularly welcome at the moment, try to say, “Thank you for telling me how you feel”. Even if the next phrase is “but I’m sorry we cannot have pizza again tonight” or “I just can’t tell you whether camp will be open or not”, try at least to let your child know that it is a good thing for them to tell you what they are feeling.

-Reassure your child WHENEVER possible. Even if you don’t know the answer to their questions about when things will get back to normal, you can still rub their back (if they’ll let you) and remind them that you are keeping them as safe as you can and as soon as it is OK, you will make sure they get to go back to doing whatever it is they are missing at that moment.

-Talk about how hard not knowing is for you. Talk about what you do when you don’t know how something will turn out. Talk about how sometimes we all have feelings that are hard to bear.

-Distraction. After you have done all of the above, (probably over and over again), get out the cards or the board game, take everyone for some drive thru or take out food, suggest a hike or make some popcorn and put on a silly movie. (I recommend “The Pink Panther”)

-But most of all, try to model having difficult feelings, accepting that they are part of your life, that they can be talked about and that they can be survived. If you’ve gotten angry or if you’ve shown your frustration or your exhaustion, talk about it later. You can tell your kids something along these lines, “You know, I was really tired last night and I yelled. I’m sorry, you didn’t deserve that – but right now things are really hard and I think we are all having a hard time – and we need to do the best we can.

Take care, and remember, you are not alone if you are feeling distressed at all the uncertainty in your life right now. We are ALL experiencing this uncertainty, and it IS distressing.

* (Freeston et al., 2020).