2020 has brought with it a strange and rare global experience. All of humanity is daily grappling with the uncertainty, insecurity and unpredictability that come with a pandemic.
People are scared and have no idea what to do. Send the kids to school? Go to the grocery store? Pay the rent? Most of us have oscillated on these decisions multiple times if not multiple times a day. The adults are struggling to manage all of the feelings and it is clear that no one in leadership really knows what to do. So how in tarnation are we supposed to support our children in feeling safe and secure?
The answer to that question must be addressed by first defining what makes a child secure?
As a consumerist culture we tend to equate security with wealth and status. While those elements of privilege can protect people from poverty and the stresses that come with it, no amount of money can make anyone feel deeply secure within. Of course every parent wants to impart as much external security as we can to our children, but our most effective and long lasting gift is the gift of a secure relational experience.
The experience of security is not the same as feeling confident, certain, or even fearless. Rather the word comes from the attachment research and is in fact a relational term. It is indicated by a child’s ability to reach for, turn to, and utilize connection and relationship to effectively soothe their bodies when feeling distressed.
In one of the most important research protocols related to attachment, The Strange Situation, babies are given scores based on their ability to seek out their caregiver upon reunion of being separated (having their attachment system stressed). Babies who are able to easily reach for their caregiver, and then be quickly soothed (within 3 minutes), are categorized as having a “secure” coping organization and categorized as such.
The longitudinal (long term) studies on these babies have found that the babies who were most likely to actively physically reach for their caregiver for comfort were also the least likely to struggle with mental illness, addiction, and even other health issues like diabetes and heart disease.
Being able to seek others for comfort is not just warm and fuzzy, it’s integral to our whole well-being.
Does your child know that you are a predictable, safe, comforting source when they feel scared, angry, distressed, or ashamed? Do they feel that you are able to accurately understand and meet their needs for closeness? Will they be able to feel their feelings with you without being dismissed? Will they be able to share their feelings in your presence without you spiraling yourself into a state of distress?
The beauty of our attachment bonds is that they were designed for EXACTLY such a scenario as corona-virus. We are meant to find co-regulation during times that are scary, scarce, and sad. The beauty about attachment is that our attachment styles are not hardwired, rather they are coping skills that can adapt and grow. The way in which we are available for our children’s tender needs and feelings is something we can work on, improve, and even repair if we’ve struggled to do so well in the past.
I have come to think of a pandemic as an experience of perpetual loss. Not only the loss of lives, but the losses that accompany the insecurity inherent in having a microscopic virus run rampant and out of control in our communities. The loss of the ability to eat normally at a restaurant. The loss of the ability to enjoy previous conditions of community interaction (like not wearing a mask). The loss of school. The loss of celebrations like birthdays, weddings and graduations. The loss of jobs and finances. Social gatherings. Even something as simple as the ease of going to a pool without a reservation.
In the time of COVID 19 we are riddled with losses, and so are our children. So as they come to us with their pain, (Mama? Why can’t we go inside grandma and grandpa’s house anymore? Mama? Why can’t Charlie come over and play with my toys? Mama? Why can’t I see my school friends or teachers?), we must find a way to be available for connection to help our kids regulate through this disaster.
In oversimplified terms here is a map for establishing, or continuing a secure relationship with your children:
Though no one has gone through this specific pandemic before, humanity has certainly weathered similar storms. Our attachment system is designed for these times. Our ability to use closeness to survive is our finest trait in my opinion and not to be underestimated in its effectiveness.
While you cannot predict the future or promise your child that there won’t be more losses, you certainly can help them manage all that they are feeling through the most important human experience of all: connection.