Many parents believe that the way to be there for their kids during a crisis is to sacrifice their own needs for their children’s. I’ve already seen this happen during the coronavirus outbreak. Parents are so focused on making things run smoothly for their kids that they’re running themselves ragged. Parents don’t eat regular meals, sleep enough, reach out to other adults for support, enlist their kids to help with the household duties, or take time for enjoyable activities like reading a book or taking a walk.
But nobody can function like this for long, and eventually parents’ own anxiety will become worse as a result. And if there’s one thing in a household that’s as contagious as a virus, it’s anxiety. Guess who’s in charge then? Not the person a kid wants in the pilot’s seat. In order to be present for their kids, parents first need to be present for themselves.
Of course, if you Google around, it’s easy to find basic guidelines on how to help your kids through this crisis, and these tips can be useful. But when parents ask me what they should be doing, I like to tell them this: Each family is different, just as each child in the same family is different, which means that there’s no one “best” way to do things. I say that, as much as change makes humans anxious, we are also an incredibly adaptable species, and evidence of this is everywhere—from an orchestra performing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” remotely from its members’ homes, to teachers demonstrating science experiments from their bedrooms, to museums letting us virtually bask in some beauty, to children eating dinner with their grandparents via smartphone, to health-care workers saving lives every single day under conditions nobody could imagine mere weeks ago.
I say to these parents that you, as the pilots, will have to reach inward before you can reach outward. Steady yourselves first, then listen to your passengers on this voyage, validate their feelings, communicate honestly as circumstances evolve, and be flexible about shifting course as conditions change. I say that if you take this approach rather than worrying about the right projects, the right amount of screen time, the right words to use, you won’t even need the PA system for your kids to hear the one message they need to feel safe right now: I’m here, and I’ve got you.
Larry, you’re doing great. Just keep flying the plane.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.