Just when we thought we’d turned a corner in the COVID war, the Delta variant made all of us more nervous than we might already be. It’s worrisome for parents, educators, and students — all of whom are navigating wearing masks with quality instruction, engaged learning, and safe socializing. This complicated transition back to school has been especially tough for kids with ADHD, LD, ASD, and twice-exceptionality. These neurodiverse kids, who already struggle with anxiety and emotional regulation, often become more stressed, worried, and reactive. As parents and caring adults, when you too may be confused or frustrated in this uncertain time, it can be difficult to put aside your feelings and be patient with kids’ questions, concerns, or acting out behaviors. When you consider these numerous academic and social challenges, it is tough to know how to support our children and teens effectively every day. Naming and talking about these struggles, demonstrating compassion and consistency, and nurturing cooperation are the best ways to ease tension, reduce conflict and nurture resilience.
Improving cooperation with children and teens begins with listening and observing what they are saying and showing you with their words and behaviors. Many kids are well beyond their coping comfort zone. They’ve stretched and adapted to 18 months of online school, social distancing, and peer isolation as much as they can. They’ve relied on screens for their education, their play, and their socializing. Many youngsters have regressed in terms of self-reliant living skills and are depending on you in ways they haven’t in a long time. They may well be acting out towards parents or other loved ones because they can’t contain their anger, anxiety, or frustration any longer and they know you are a safe receptacle.
It’s so tough not to react in these explosive moments but self-control and compassion are what’s called for. As long as you import whatever negativity they are exporting and react strongly, your dysregulated response becomes their focus. They’ve succeeded in getting rid of their unmanageable emotions and can blame you for being unreasonable instead. But this isn’t a healthy solution. Instead, manage yourself with whatever tools you can (breathing, yoga, exercise, talking to a friend) and use reflective listening to mirror what you hear them saying. Make sure you set ground rules with logical consequences (not punishments) for physical behaviors such as kicking, hitting, breaking things, or using inappropriate language. Tell them, if you do X, you will not earn Y. Limits help kids understand that their choices affect others.
There are four common difficulties that many families are experiencing right now and how you can overcome them. Let’s examine each one:
- Increased stress:
Whether pressure from work, school, or social demands, everybody seems to have a shorter fuse these days. Some of the tension comes from having unrealistic expectations of ourselves and our children based on how people performed before COVID. Many kids, especially neurodiverse youngsters, have lost some of their coping skills. You can assist them by adjusting your expectations to the reality of the present situation. Whatever children and teens were able to accomplish in pre-COVID school and life may be very different from what they can do now.
TIP: If your child or teen is really struggling to attend classes and do the work, arrange a meeting with the school right away and talk about what types of support and alternative learning options are available. Create predictable, doable routines at home — together: by planning ahead, you’ll reduce the frustration and overwhelm for kids who have less slack for anything new and whose stress buckets may be already overflowing. Rely on some type of daily structure to help kids organize themselves so you are not a reminder machine. Use a whiteboard, chalkboard, or large calendar to collaborate on what’s expected of your child in the morning, after school, and before bed. Keep these action items limited to 3-4 things so they are not overwhelmed. Kids can check the schedule instead of asking you what’s next and they learn to move themselves through the tasks. This not only builds confidence and competence but also reduces family stress and conflict.
- Social anxiety:
As much as you would like to wave your magic wand and make their worries go away, kids need to learn how to deal with their fears and manage them. This is how they develop resilience and it’s something we’ve all done to get where we are today. Address social anxiety without solving it. Talk about their concerns, listen and reflect back on what you hear, try a role-play to figure out what to say in certain situations, and brainstorm possible phrases as responses to unkind, confusing, or provocative comments. Recall past situations when they were nervous about or confronted a friendship issue and identify what helped them get through that tough moment.
TIP: The goal is to apply tools from previous challenges in social situations where kids ultimately succeeded to what they are currently facing. Normalize — don’t minimize their anxiety and explore concerns about embarrassment or rejection. Most kids and teens, especially those who live with ADHD, LD, ASD, and 2e, feel nervous about being accepted and making friends. Saying “That’s not such a big deal or you’ll be fine” actually doesn’t give them the tools they need. Instead, try “Of course you are nervous. That’s natural when such and such happens or you’re in a new situation.” This validates their experience and reduces any shame about their feelings simultaneously. When children and teens are anxious, they expect and exaggerate negative outcomes. Giving them tools helps counteract the ‘what-if’ concerns they harbor.
- Persistent Overwhelm and Exhaustion:
Multitasking is a myth that contributes to feeling overwhelmed and over-extended. When we talk on the phone and make dinner, when we switch quickly from one screen to another, when we respond to texts while answering our email, we shift from one activity to another without giving our brains adequate time to process and adapt. You do neither thing very well. If you add the various responsibilities of daily living such as work, school, extracurricular activities, socializing, taking care of family members, etc., it’s easy to see why adults and, in particular, kids with developing brains, are overwhelmed and exhausted. Disrupted or insufficient sleep from feeling overwhelmed also exacerbates negativity, agitation, and moodiness and weakens coping skills.
TIP: To reduce overwhelm and exhaustion, we need to make a conscious effort to do one thing at a time (okay, maybe no more than two) and model how to do this for our kids. Setting limits on multitasking takes effort: most people, especially kids with ADHD or 2e, sincerely believe that they can multitask and that it’s a strength. Yes, we want to teach kids to feel productive and competent but we also want them to understand that focus is like a spotlight of attention. It can’t be effectively directed at multiple moving parts. Place homework or school on one browser and fun stuff on another; turn off phones during study periods or family dinners; try having a screen-free morning or day on the weekends to refresh your family’s brains and interact. Set up limits on electronics before bed and plan for quiet time before sleep so your kids get enough shut-eye.
4. Comparisons and perfectionism:
In this era of 24/7 social media, both kids and parents look at what others are doing and see themselves as less than. It’s the phenomenon of ‘compare and despair.’ Looking at other people’s lives and holding yourself up to their posted photos of happy moments, exciting adventures, beautiful cupcakes, and soccer triumphs is detrimental to self-esteem and devalues the life you are actually living. As a parent, it’s important to remember (and remind your kids) that nobody posts pictures of their insecurities, bad hair days, or failing test grades. Social media is a constructed reality but, sadly, for too many kids (and adults), it’s their main reality. Instead of thinking about how you don’t measure up and aiming for a perfection that doesn’t exist, focus on what you are accomplishing every day for your family and yourself. Help your kids do the same.
TIP: Learning to reduce perfectionism and its best friend self-criticism takes time and practice — a lot of practice. We live in a society that judges youngsters by how “well” they are doing and parents by the successes of their kids. You do not have to buy into that mentality. Instead, appreciate yourself for what you do well each day and teach your kids to do the same. When you have a family meal, go around the table and ask each person to share a high and a low or “a happy and a crappy” as one of my clients calls it. This helps everybody shift from negative thinking and focusing on what went wrong to reflecting on what went well and nurturing a growth mindset. Forget about the ‘shoulds” and emphasize what you and your child can actually do instead. This is what being a perfectly imperfect human is all about.
Learn more about Dr. Sharon Saline at www.drsharonsaline.com.