Parenting Your Way Through This, the Soul-Crushingest Week That Ever Was

I’m so sick of writing — and finding, and reading, and posting, and reposting — “How to talk to young kids about. . . “ articles. About hurricanes, and floods, and school shootings, and systemic racism, and the separation of families at the border. The list goes on. And now today we add: sexual assault, binge drinking, and the very real possibility that someone who dabbled quite regularly in both will soon be a member of the highest court in the land, despite apparently being the only person ever who is an emphatic beer drinker by his own admission, yet who claims never to have forgotten even a single moment (also, he has never passed out. He has, however, just “fallen asleep”).

Yes, you are sensing my anger in the paragraph above. There’s sarcasm, and a biting tone, and disbelief bordering on stunned shock, and — perhaps underlying it all — a deep sense of loss. Loss of the fantasy — admittedly, one born of white privilege and perhaps even a deliberate naiveté — that it couldn’t possibly get this bad, that surely women aren’t this powerless, not in this country, my country. A sadly familiar refrain of late: this isn’t the kind of thing that happens here, in the United States.

And, honestly, most of the time when I wear my child psychologist hat, I do my best not to get too political (although, realistically, my clients don’t have to dig all that far). But my introductions to “How to talk to young kids about. . .” narratives typically get right to the point. I’m too tired to do that today. To be more concise, or more direct, or less personal. Because when the political not only overlaps with the personal, but is intricately intertwined within it, then this is where I find myself.

This morning, I snapped at my kids more than usual. I have two boys, a four-and-a-half-year-old and an almost-three-year-old, and sometimes they can be pretty tough to handle. This morning, however, was not one of those times. They were delightful, actually, my older one “surprising” my husband and me by getting dressed before we even asked, and my younger one asking if he could sit on my lap while he ate breakfast. I was short with them anyway. I kept pouring myself more coffee, eager for everyone to just get out the door so I could resume my compulsive checking of the news and social media.

Once they were, and I did, one of the first things that caught my attention was a cartoon from the New Yorker. Two men are in a public restroom, and one says to the other, as he places his hands under the dryer, “I just need a few minutes with the auto-sensor to regain my illusion of control.” It was spot-on. I posted it on Facebook. A friend soon commented, “Sad to report, I achieved the same end by yelling at my kids to clean up this morning.” Of course I responded with solidarity; I had been right there with her.

And so maybe that’s what today’s article is about. It’s not necessarily “How to talk to young kids” about these awful last few days, because, luckily, if you have kids under six or so, you probably don’t really need to do that. They are too young to understand these particular events, and there are some great articles already out there about how to discuss many of these topics — e.g., sexual abuse, the importance of consent — more generally (which I highly encourage you to do, although probably not today). Maybe instead it’s, “How to stay sane and not entirely incompetent as a parent” while this madness unfolds around us.

So here are the pointers that belong under that heading:

1. Eat and Sleep. Sounds kind of obvious, and yet too often when yoga magazines and meditation blogs write about self-care, they talk about massages and bubble baths. For a lot of us, that’s a tall order, especially in times like these. Start small. Have a sandwich. I took a break from CNN right before starting to write this piece and made myself smoked salmon with cream cheese and avocado on whole wheat toast. And I piled on the smoked salmon — the Resistance calls for way more than the skimpy-just-one-layer-to-cover-the-schmear approach. And so do my kids. If I’m too stressed and overwrought to eat, and I pick up my kids from preschool/daycare later having had only a banana and a few crackers all day, they are going to feel it. Our energy — stress, distractedness, hunger, exhaustion — trickles right down to them.

2. Be Honest With Your Little Ones. Not about the details of what’s going on, but about your current emotional (and/or physical state). It’s okay to let your kids know that there are some difficult things going on in the grown-up world, which is why you’re a little more tired/distracted/irritable than usual. If you don’t clue them into this, they may assume something that’s way worse in their little minds — that something is wrong in a much more immediate way (i.e., with you, with your family, etc.), or even that they did something wrong and somehow caused your bad mood.

3. (If It Feels Right) Be Preemptive and Explicit. “I’m feeling cranky tonight and so I might snap at you even though I don’t want to. It’s not your fault.”

4. Talk About the Grown-Ups Who Are Helping. Building on Mr. Rogers’ famous quote to “look for the helpers” in times of disaster, it’s important to include this piece if you are going to be honest with your kids about your emotional state, and the fact that the grown-up world feels messed up right now. If you leave it there without tacking on this reassurance, their little minds may well end up pretty anxious, and/or feeling as though it’s their responsibility to figure out what’s going on and make it better. Say exactly that: “The good news is that there are so many grown-ups who are working to make things better, and fighting for what’s right. Hopefully we’re going to get things not messed up really soon.” Be clear that they and your family are safe — that things may be bad or messed up in some ways, but nothing is dangerous.

5. Remember: Right Now, You Are, In Fact, Safe. Is there a lot at stake for our country? Yes. Is the news coverage alone re-traumatizing for many of us? Again, yes. But what’s also true is that right now, as you take in what’s happening, you’re not in a war zone, and you are not being assaulted. Right now, in this moment, if you are reading these words, then you are safe. Feel your feet on the ground, pay attention to your senses, and take a deep breath. Your children will feel safe if you do too. Alternatively, if you tell them they’re safe and you yourself don’t feel that way, your words may not be as convincing as your energy, which is communicating danger.

6. Be Aware of Your Triggers. Last night when I kissed my older son goodnight, he held on to my neck and wouldn’t let go. He’s four, and I’m his mommy; he wanted a longer hug before going to sleep. In that moment, though, I was acutely aware — in a way that was actually quite jarring — that he was male and I was female, and that suddenly his embrace felt really, really lousy to me. True story. And one that’s not easy to write. But I’m writing it anyway, to illuminate how pervasive and insidious these things can be. My kiddo is a little boy, my little boy, my adorable, delicious, loving little boy. And yet the context of the day, the personal memories and collective trauma that had been triggered, was, in that moment, steering the ship. My awareness of my reaction was a gift, and enabled me to respond calmly and appropriately. So just be aware. If your children’s normal and developmentally appropriate defiance, or entitlement, physical touch, or even aggression feels more threatening than usual right now, you owe it to them to figure that out, and to deal with your own stuff. It’s not theirs to carry.

7. Unplug, If You Can. I really want to emphasize the “if you can” part here. Because we, as people generally and parents more specifically, hear the advice to unplug frequently, and for various reasons. It’s advice with which I agree, and that I do my best to follow. Not yesterday, though. Yesterday I couldn’t. I needed my community — of close girlfriends, supportive men, and (in my case) fellow like-minded Yale alums — more than I needed the break. Or, at least, that’s how it felt, and I decided to honor that, without feeling guilty — either about the toll it may have been taking on me, or on my parenting. If you feel like you too need to be looking at your phone more than usual during this intense time, then that’s okay; give yourself permission to do that. Just let your kids know. “Remember I mentioned that there are grown-up things happening that are important right now? I want to be talking to other grownups more than usual, and so I’m checking my phone even though we’re spending time together. I know that’s not a great thing to do, but tonight I need to do it anyway.” Is it ideal? No. And I’m not going to pretend — to you or to myself — that unplugging wouldn’t be preferable. But if you can’t unplug, then being up front about that with your kids at least models intentionality and open communication, both of which are valuable for them to see.

8. Talk to Your Kids About the Good Things. Not only for their sake — to counterbalance your potentially irritable or emotional mood — but for yours too. Talk about the fun things you did over the summer, about your favorite flavors of ice cream, about swimming in the ocean, and picking blueberries, and the day you all binge-watched Paw Patrol, and how Halloween is coming up, and what kind of candy to give out, and when you’re going to get a pumpkin. . . . Look at pictures together — especially ones from when your kids were babies, the ones that make you melt every single time you see them — and watch old family videos. Sometimes this falls in the “fake it ’til you make it” category. Halloween may be the last thing in the world you feel like discussing right now, but when your little one’s eyes light up with excitement and joy, you might just find that it’s contagious.

9. Put On Some Good Music. Not just when you’re by yourself, but when you’re with your kids. Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” is my song of choice when I need to get to a better place, although Anders Osborne or Mavis Staples can work as well. What about for you? Is there a song that transports you to a place of peace or relaxation? Or one that comes on and you just have to dance? Get a play list going. When we experience things like what’s going on in our country right now, we live in our heads — in ruminative cycles of entrenched thoughts. Looking at pictures, listening to music, dancing — these are all activities that engage our senses, our bodies. When we’re in our bodies we feel more grounded, and we can be present for our kids.

10. Cut Yourself a Break. Order a pizza. Have buttered noodles for the third night in a row. Double (Triple! Quadruple!) your kids’ screen time. Use bribery to get them to do things. Knowing that this is what your home is going to look like for a little while — and embracing it, intentionally and thoughtfully — can increase your feelings of control during a time when feelings of powerlessness are bubbling up for a lot of us (of course, per the cartoon, the automatic dryer is also an option). Choosing pizza and screen time, rather than defaulting to that place in a moment of desperation, communicates to your children that you’re in charge of the situation, rather than being dictated by it (or just straight-out losing your mind). If you’re going to land in pizza and TV-land, doing so calmly and deliberately can make a world of difference. [And once you’re feeling more control, you can go back to calling your Senators.]

Let me assure you: even with buttered noodles for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and hours and hours of screen time, your kids will be OK. Also: you will be OK. It’s temporary. None of this is permanent.

And let’s hope that none of This — the capital T, grown-up stuff we’re confronting right now — is permanent either.

Dr. Rebecca Schrag Hershberg is the author of the Tantrum Survival Guide: Tune In to Your Toddler’s Mind (and Your Own) to Calm the Craziness and Make Family Fun Again, out November 2nd from Guilford Press. She is the founder of Little House Calls Psychological Services.