We are all living in a world that is confusing, stressful, frightening and sometimes overwhelming. Many are experiencing allostatic load, which from the site Science Direct is defined is, “the cost of chronic exposure to elevated or fluctuating endocrine or neural responses resulting from chronic repeated challenges that the individual experiences as stressful.” As stress accumulates, the weight of it wears us down and leaves us either without affect or emotionally unstable, unable to calm ourselves, think rationally or feel like we are in control of ourselves.
The children in our lives will notice what our affect is. Children are highly aware of their parents and intuitively know that their safety and well-being is dependent on adults who are relatively calm and in charge. Children not only study their caregivers’ body language and other behaviors; they intuitively pick up on adults’ emotions. When parents are in heightened emotional states, especially when chronically in these states, it sets off alarms for children.
What should parents, grandparents or other family members do when their children ask them what’s wrong? Often the tendency is to deny what children are intuitively experiencing. While caregivers might have the best of intentions when they deny what children are noticing and want to spare them from worrying, they actually are telling children not to trust their instincts. They are saying that their children are wrong or that feelings are not to be discussed. This can be very confusing for children and can eventually stop them from believing that what they are feeling is true.
This is not to say that caregivers should burden children with the depths of their strong emotions, especially emotions around fear, concern, or other forms of strong emotional stress. Parents, grandparents and family members should not expect children to become their emotional caregivers.
What helps children learn to trust their instincts while not feeling responsible to care for their parents’, grandparents’ or other family members’ emotional well-being is to offer basic acknowledgments that children are correct about a family member having strong feelings. But they also should reassure them that they are coping, still in charge and able to care for their children.
By acknowledging the feelings the adults around children are having without burdening them allows them the freedom to have their own feelings and to feel safe. This approach can help them trust their instincts while simultaneously helping them feel safe and cared for.
Invitation for Reflection:
- How aware are you of changes in the intensity and constancy of your emotions related to the current world situation? To what extent are your emotions indicative of experiencing allostatic load?
- Have your children noticed and commented on your feelings? How have you responded to their observations and questions?
- Are you clear that these children will benefit from you being honest in acknowledging their observations and questions while reassuring them that you still are competent and in charge?
Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute