September 30, 2020 

We parents invest time, energy and resources in protecting our children, and nowhere is this clearer than in the way we instinctively avoid uncertainty. It reflects a deep desire to be SURE: that our children are well-educated, that they are safe, that they can reach the highest level of their individual capabilities. We may not always admit it, but when it comes to our kids, we dislike — and sometimes fear — ambiguity. We want to be certain our children are safe, healthy and on course to be the best they can be.

So where does this leave us in the fall of 2020?

Like it or not, we face a season of  uncertainty. The Covid-19 pandemic crept in last winter undercover and established itself among us before we were aware of it. Our public health officials were not the only ones caught unaware. For parents, the virus  poked a big hole in the invisible shields we build for our children. We no longer feel certain of their safety, even in something as routine as walking into their schools. Unlike the spring, when NYC moved to all-remote learning, this fall most of our children will be physically in a school building at least part of the time. We hope the new measures, put in place to make indoor spaces safer, will work, but we don’t yet know how successful these measures will prove. Until we do, we live with a degree of uncertainty beyond our usual tolerance.

In a recent New York Times article (updated Sept 1, 2020), Pooja Lakshmin, M.D., a psychiatrist specializing in women’s mental health, notes that while she cannot make parents’ decisions for them (either to send their children to in-person learning or not) she can help parents learn “how to deal with the uncertainty and difficult feelings that accompany this process.”

Dr. Lakshmin notes that part of the ability to manage emotions during a pandemic is to “accept feeling conflicted about the decisions” you face, adding, “even your pediatrician can’t make guarantees or promises.” She advises: “It’s helpful to remember that in times of chaos, the dogged search for certainty can itself lead to distress.”

Dr. Lakshmin cites Rachel Pearson, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at UT Health San Antonio, who points out that “the goal is not to guarantee that your child will never be exposed to a virus particle. That is impossible. The goal is to make a realistic plan that will holistically keep teachers, families and children as safe as possible.”

Dr. Lakshmin suggests practicing “flexible thinking” when confronting uncertainties this year:

Psychological flexibility refers to one’s ability to recognize and respond to changing demands in real time.” She suggests recalling times when you’ve been faced with other situations – similarly fraught with uncertainty or changes – and then try to recall what you did to help yourself “get through it.” She offers questions to ask yourself: How would I like to remember myself in this pandemic? How would I like my child to remember it?

To develop good strategies, she advocates focusing “on concrete actions you can take,” rather than succumbing to endless worry. Thinking about “how you will navigate the logistics of blended learning …. [can be] productive if you are engaged in problem solving and making concrete decisions” but not so much if you are simply worrying. Lakshmi notes that “it’s seductive to believe that if you worry about something for long enough, you can affect the outcome, but this is a fallacy.” She makes very clear the difference between planning and fretting. Do the former. Avoid the latter, because It won’t help you, and all you’ll do is make the uncertainty more obvious.

Dr. Lakshmin urges parents to “…nurture a sense of good will toward yourself for facing this hard decision….”  and points out that, though parents may not be “feeling particularly confident about the school options available to them, it is possible to feel good about the process [used] to make those decisions.”

She suggests that there is a component of self-care in all this (she calls it “self-compassion”). Blaming yourself is not helpful, but giving yourself credit for ways you’ve tried to adjust to new issues, can help She suggests asking: “Are you blaming yourself for a situation that is completely out of your control?” If you are, she says, you should let go of  “self-judgment” and instead try substituting “positive self-talk,” with statements like these:

“I’m making the best choice for my family with the information I have,” or:

“This decision works for us and our level of risk tolerance.”

Let’s face it – this is not the year we can conjure total, risk-free protection for our children’s well-being. We may love control, but this fall, we must relinquish some of it. We need to find ways, as parents, to be both effective AND flexible during an uncertain time.

We can choose to model for our children how a calm, mature adult navigates uncertainty. If we do, we give them a valuable gift, showing them what to emulate when their own lives take inevitable twists and turns. No generation can fully escape the utter unpredictability of living. How we manage our generation’s challenges will shape part of the legacy we leave our children. Demonstrating our own flexibility in the face of uncertainty may do more to help our kids grow stronger than anxiously chasing an elusive sense of control.

This fall, we can choose to reweave a safety net from new materials – flexibility, self-compassion and calm. Carry on!

Melanie Wells, Editor

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