Oh, the Anticipation!
I can remember a moment from spring 1991 very clearly. I was looking forward to an upcoming family vacation in Hawaii, and I was savoring the anticipation! In fact, I can recall making a conscious decision to remember the excitement of the weeks and months leading up to the holiday – I knew that all too soon the trip would be over and all I’d have left would be memories. I wanted to squeeze all the joy out of it that I could. I love the thrill of looking forward to special events so much that I’ve told my husband I wouldn’t really appreciate having a trip or even a date night sprung on me at the last minute. I feel like I’d be missing out on an essential piece of the experience if I was denied the anticipation of it. (Truth be known, I do believe this arrangement suits my husband just fine!)
One of the things we’re learning about children from hard places is that such anticipation can be overwhelming and unbearable for them. We have noticed a definite pattern with our children: the closer we get to a special event, the less able they are to cope with daily stressors. Whether it’s a family vacation, Christmas, or the start of school, behaviour becomes incredibly challenging in the days and weeks leading up to the event. When we ask them how they’re feeling about the event, they tell us they’re excited and looking forward to it, but their behaviour doesn’t look excited. In our Empowered to Connect training, we learned that positive stress can “load” in our systems just like negative stress. Basically, our children are perpetually on high alert during these times of anticipation, meaning that the slightest disappointment or most insignificant sibling dispute can send them spiralling into a meltdown.
For children from hard places, often, the closer we get to a special event, the less able they are to cope with daily stressors.
The temptation, as parents, is to threaten the immediate cancellation of whatever special event is coming up (trust me, we’ve been there many, many times. Likely at some point this morning). When we use this threat I think we’re hoping that the fear of missing out will motivate them to behave more appropriately. Problem is, threats only add more stress to their overloaded systems, resulting in much worse behaviour. Once we’ve made the threat, we feel like we can’t back down, so the situation tends to spin out of control fairly quickly. We are learning (slowly) that we need to stick with them through these trying times and figure out how best to support them. Punishing them by cancelling something they really enjoy doesn’t teach them how to navigate overwhelming emotions. It simply teaches them that we believe they can’t handle stuff and that they don’t deserve to have fun. Rather, we need to figure out how we can help them successfully regulate themselves during times of anticipation.
Punishing them by cancelling something they really enjoy doesn’t teach them how to navigate overwhelming emotions. It simply teaches them that we believe they can’t handle stuff and that they don’t deserve to have fun.
Here are three ways to support kids during times of high stress:
One of the things we’ve started doing is prompting them to talk about their feelings. We have a variety of questions we ask to help get to the bottom of things. Examples of this would be:
- Yes and no questions – “are you feeling stressed about ____?”
- Open ended questions – “tell me about that …” ‘”how does this make you feel?”
As we give them voice and help them make sense of their emotions, we find that they are able to relax somewhat and don’t need to use their disruptive behaviours as much. It is often a struggle for us to have this conversation because it can feel like we’re making excuses for poor behaviour or somehow letting them get away with stuff. Truth is, though, we’re communicating that we care enough about them to wade through all the muck so we can figure out what’s really going on. We still have to deal with the muck, but we can’t stay stuck on the behaviour or we’ll never address what’s motivating and driving it.
Another thing we’re being much more intentional about is increasing the nurture. We find that we automatically increase structure in our home as behaviour worsens, but it’s much more difficult to increase nurture! When we’ve had a difficult day the last thing I want to do is hold a child on my lap and read a story or just snuggle. But this is exactly what they need. They need to know that I still love them no matter what, and physical touch is a powerful and primal way to communicate this. So, I’m working on pushing past my own feelings to give them what they need most, especially in the middle of very trying days.
3. Slow Down
Finally, I’ve found that I need to slow down and adjust my expectations of myself and my productivity during these times. Taking time to sit at the table and play Lego or sit on the couch and read a book can benefit the whole family far more than getting the vacuuming done. And, thankfully, I have a husband who not only understands why the house looks like a tornado hit it most of the time, but pitches in and helps get ALL THE STUFF done when he gets home from work!
As they get older, they are becoming more able to handle countdowns on the calendar. It is easy to forget how difficult these times of anticipation can be for them. I need to remind myself often to slow down, attune to their emotions, and give lots of love!
Q – What do you do to help your kids during times of high stress? We’d love to hear from you!