Kids and Feelings in the Time of COVID

This post is part of a series of articles, blog posts, and short briefs produced by EXPLO Elevate focused on supporting schools’ virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

by David Torcoletti | Head of Program, EXPLO Boston
David Torcoletti is the Head of EXPLO Boston. He has a long career in independent schools. He was a teacher, Dean of Students, and School Dean at Northfield Mount Hermon School and Dean of Students at Milton Academy. He has presented at numerous conferences, consulted with independent schools, and is an executive coach to school administrators. He is also a fine arts photographer.

When the world suddenly changes, there is a lot to think about.

Some of that is very practical – if four of us are at home, and all of us have to use the wifi to either do paid work or do schoolwork, how are we going to do that? We only have two computers. Where are we going to do that? Will our shaky wifi let us do that? And what about food? And chores? And what does recreation look like now that all of the kids’ spring sports are cancelled, mom’s basketball league has shut down, and dad is reduced to virtual yoga? And on and on…

But there is another part of our living and learning with kids in the Time of Covid: how do we deal with their feelings? Do we just stay available, without actively checking in – a kind of open door policy? Do we raise questions at family dinner (which I hear is making a comeback, for better and worse)? Can we model recognizing and accepting our feelings by revealing some of what is going on in our heads and hearts to our children?

When I was in the first grade, I watched one of the nuns come into my classroom and whisper into the ear of Miss Posco, my teacher. I watched her look up in shock, and then saw the tears come to her eyes. I don’t remember a lot from first grade, but I will never forget her look, and then her tears. I liked Miss Posco, and didn’t want to see her upset. But mostly, I figured that if she were upset, then we were in a lot of trouble. Because to my little first grade self, Miss Posco was a rock.

I liked Miss Posco, and didn’t want to see her upset. But mostly, I figured that if she were upset, then we were in a lot of trouble.

After a little while, we were told that we were going to go home, because “something terrible has happened to the world.” Yikes! I knew we were in big trouble – crying teachers and we were going home early! This cannot be good. And still, no one told me what was happening. It was only on the bus that I heard from the older kids that our president had been shot, and that he died. I was in a Catholic School, and President Kennedy was our first Catholic president, so our particular community took that very hard. But secretly, I was a little relieved. I was worried all of our parents were dead, or all of our dogs were dead, or that it was some other huge thing that would affect me personally.

When I got home, my parents were upset, and the black and white TV was on the entire time, and even the professional newscasters were upset. Even Walter Cronkite, the most reliable, most stoic of the famous newscasters, wiped away a tear. This was hard on adults, I could see. So I tried to be quieter, and more respectful, which was not easy for my hyperactive younger self.

It was not easy to see that much upset in my world, and through the TV, the larger world. But easily the hardest part of that whole event was the moment I saw the tears in the eyes of the adult responsible for me. And when she said “something terrible has happened to the world,” without telling me what it was. Having no information at all at a time when I wanted at least some was an unforgettable moment of uncertainty for my seven-year old self.

This was repeated multiple times in my grade school years. First, Martin Luther King Jr was shot. Then, Robert Kennedy (I was old enough to cry when I heard his younger brother’s eulogy). Marches and riots, and protests that turned into riots. Cities burning down. Four college kids in Ohio, shot and killed by the National Guard. A neighbor dying in Vietnam. I learned that the world was a shaky place, and that adults don’t tell you much just at the moment you want to know more. I truly wondered if it all was going to hold together.

And now, here we are, not in a sharp, piercing crisis like an assasination, but in a long, slow crisis that seems to want to whittle away at us – at our sense of community.

And now, here we are, not in a sharp, piercing crisis like an assasination, but in a long, slow crisis that seems to want to whittle away at us – at our sense of community. At the rhythm of the day. At the rituals that mark our progress through the world, such as the recital, the prom, graduation, or the Little League playoffs. It even whittles away our very selves – each night on the news, or on the newsfeed on our computers, the coronavirus death count rises slowly, but all too surely.

Our children are absorbing all that. And boredom and frustration are not the only outcomes of this current state of uncertainty. They are processing feelings of loss, they are trying to project themselves into a future that they can’t see, and that their parents and teachers can’t see.

What is the right balance of feelings and expression, and “Keeping Calm, and Moving on”? In my experience as a teacher, school administrator and, well, kid, I have some thoughts. They are culled from listening to parents and hearing from some of our kids, and also, from remembering the way we as a society have handled prior uncertain and difficult times in the world.

Adults in charge should give the right amount of information.

There is an Art and Craft to giving your child the right amount of information during a crisis. The Art is giving your child knowledge about the situation at hand – and allowing them to feel safe and secure that they know what they need to know, and that they can trust what you are saying. Society in general is lousy at keeping secrets – your children deserve to hear it from you. They need to know that they are not expected to solve it – adults are working really hard to take care of the situation, and of them. The Craft is using all of our tools – examples, analogies and metaphors – that make our explanations have some meaning to them. Parents will likely know which comparisons will make sense to their specific child. If not, you’ll be right there to check on their comprehension. Be careful about assuring them that all will be okay. They should be assured that the smartest people in the world are working on it – not necessarily that everything is okay right now. When they say, “I wish this wasn’t happening right now”, a good answer may be, “I do too.”

Loss causes complex feelings during big change.

Loss is at the center of big changes. And loss engenders all kinds of feelings. Many students lost their school year on the cusp of something meaningful to them: an athletic season, or right before the Spring Musical was about to launch, or the exciting-but-poignant weeks before graduation. Loss is a cause of complex feelings such as anger, fear, and disappointment. Maybe a blend of gratitude for not being sick and experiencing the sadness that others are suffering.

It’s ok to be scared during scary times.

In a recent New York Times article, Lisa Damour explains that psychological health does not mean the same thing as feeling good. She goes on to say, “Psychological health, however, is not about being free from emotional discomfort, but about having the right feeling at the right time, and being able to bear the unpleasant ones.” It makes sense to be scared during scary times. It is okay to feel anxious while experiencing the unknown and unknowable. Giving your children permission to accept what they feel, and to also give them coping strategies for bearing difficult feelings is really helpful – now, and for the rest of their lives.

Mix a flight attendant’s posture with age-appropriate sharing.

But this is an unusually uncertain time. Parents may have been furloughed, or have their own businesses that are in peril. Maybe grammy is sick, and we are worried that she might have COVID. Parents are filled with feelings as well. How much of that is okay to share with their children?

I have often used the Flight Attendant analogy to describe to new teachers how to transmit confidence to their young students. In turbulence and lightning, the flight attendant does not betray fear or nervousness that the passengers can see. They have been in many storms, and have felt a lot of turbulence, and they assume that this too will pass. Uncomfortable moments come, but pretty much all of them pass, and we move on. The passengers look at the flight attendant, and if he or she is not worried, then they can relax knowing it is probably not life threatening.

In a similar way, If we are able to take a long view, and if we believe that eventually things are going to be alright, then taking on the flight attendant posture and expression might be the right choice. But when your children need to know that it is okay to have feelings of fear or see that you are uncertain, then an age-appropriate sharing of uncertainty might be exactly the right thing. They can’t learn from you how to bear unpleasant feelings, as Lisa Damour advises, if you don’t acknowledge that you have them.

Practice information without rumination.

There is research about whether listening to sad music when you are sad makes you feel better, or whether listening to uplifting music can change your mood to match the music. The answers were pretty inconclusive, meaning that sometimes, it is better to be consonant with your feelings, and sometimes, it may be better to oppose them. In a similar way, when we are full of worry about the current state of affairs, are we better off watching the news and fully immersing ourselves with all the current information, or are we better off watching a comedy or a video about puppies? Our children need to try various techniques of immersion and avoidance. The truth is likely that each approach has its moments. I remember during the Challenger disaster, when I was a House Head in a boarding school, I saw my forty students sitting in the lounge, watching the replay over and over again. At some point, I shut off the TV and told them to go outside for a while. They could not be exposed to that dreadful image all day without sinking slowly into a feeling of helplessness. A similar thing happened during the September 11 attacks. We had meetings to explain what was going on, and the adults in the community were vigilant in actively checking in, but at some point, they could not watch the plane hit that building again. “Information without rumination” has been my motto when it comes to disasters and children.

Encourage alone time.

Togetherness and privacy are two sides to a see-saw. For it to work, each side has to be ascendant at some point. I find it telling that the latest trend in house design – the “open concept” – is being lamented by those trying to live inside of this design during this time. It is lovely to be together. It is also lovely to be alone – to work, to think, to daydream. If your housing allows, please consider encouraging alone time, or at least supporting those who require it. It is not a rejection of the family – it is an acceptance of the individual version of ourselves, which is as important as the familial version.

Help your child find time, space, and privacy for counseling.

Along those same lines, a friend of mine is a school counselor who is meeting with as many students now as he did when they were all under the same roof. But he is finding that his students are struggling to find a private space where they can share personal, delicate things. Often, the family car gets pressed into service, and FaceTime on a smartphone serves as the medium. Good work still gets done, but he says that some of the techniques he employs – silence, looking away to give the person space, the little vocalizations to encourage someone to continue – are lost using that method, and he has had to learn a new craft – Virtual Counseling in the Time of Covid. If one of your children is seeing a counselor, and that is continuing in a remote fashion, please help your child find the time, space and privacy that are key ingredients to the counselling process.

Show your learner you have faith in their ability to learn.

“Embracing failure” is a new(er) catch phrase describing the process of trying, failing and learning something from the unsuccessful attempt. It is pretty much required for true growth in almost anything to occur. I’ve spoken to parents who don’t know how much to help during this time of serving as the Home Schooling teacher. It is hard to watch your young loved ones experience frustration and discouragement while doing online assignments. As teachers know, the best gift you can give to learners is showing them you have faith in their ability to learn. Perhaps a small well-timed hint or nudge to get them over a hurdle may be an occasional gift. But actually doing the work for them, or even a large portion of the work, is never a gift. It is a clear and direct communication that says, “I don’t think you can do this either. Let me take this from you, because you are not enough.” You don’t want it to be understood that way, but some part of them will read the message, loud and clear.

Create opportunities for your children to feel useful.

Feeling useful is a time-tested way to overcome feeling hopeless. Teachers all over the world have employed the giving of the “special job” to a child that is struggling. It could be they lack confidence, and to be singled out by the teacher makes them feel stronger. It could be they are acting out and oppositional, and working on something positive for the class can make them feel like a welcome insider, instead of gaining attention through disruption. Beyond that, service has an emotional, even spiritual component that makes us feel like what we are doing has meaning. The trouble with our current situation is that many of the things that gave our children meaning have been removed from them. Replacing that void with some kind of positive service — making masks, mowing an elderly person’s lawn, helping the younger siblings with homework — then suddenly their actions have meaning that feels different than letting time pass with video games and the Disney Channel.

In Summary:

During a crisis, the right amount of information, delivered with the right tone and awareness of your child’s developmental stage and personal needs, is better than no or too little information. Disruption causes sadness, anger and other feelings – give these feelings room to be felt and expressed. Privacy can be hard to come by, but is as important as family time in getting through a day. One of the first casualties of large scale disruption is meaning. Help your child find meaningful work to do – service is a time-tested shortcut to meaning. Forgive almost everything, and ask for forgiveness a lot. This is going to be a bumpy ride…