For most of yesterday morning, I did everything to the tune of whining and grumbling: I made my coffee while my toddler threw herself on the floor in frustration because I wouldn’t let her rip pages from a book. I brushed my teeth while my first-grader whined that remote school was “dumb,” and she was quitting for good. There were bouts of sister shouting matches, a lot of slammed doors, and at least one threat of living in the backyard clubhouse.
It took me until lunchtime to figure out what in the world was happening with my children, and then it hit me: they were picking up on my anxiety—soaring high during election week—and mirroring it back to me in full.
I will admit that, in the days leading up to this presidential election, my nerves have been as thin as spiderwebs. I have been jumpy, reactive, and generally depleted. So, it’s no wonder my girls are acting on-edge.
Dr. Emily W. King, a child psychologist in Raleigh, N.C., reminded me of the connection between our moods as mothers and the behavior we see in our children. “Kids feel our anxiety,” she said. And that sense of tension and unease can throw our little ones off balance and make it hard for them to regulate their emotions, she explained.
If even our smallest children can sense our anxiety and fear, how on earth can we get through Election Day, perhaps the biggest nail-biter of a day in 2020? Dr. King and Sofia Mendoza, a licensed clinical social worker in Long Beach, C.A., had some advice to share.
Young children thrive on structure and predictability. Knowing what comes next helps foster feelings of comfort and safety—and this will be even truer today. “It will be incredibly important to keep the day as predictable as possible for our kids,” said Dr. King. “Truly, the most ordinary and expected Tuesday you can make it, the better.”
Don’t hide your feelings
“It’s OK to let [your children] see you anxious and even better to model healthy coping,” Mendoza said. “We’re human and anxiety is a human emotion.” She suggested talking through your feelings out loud to your kids, telling them you’re feeling nervous about today, but also assuring them that you have a plan in place to cope.
“Keep it simple and model acknowledging your emotions and soothing yourself,” she said. When we walk our kids through this process in real-time, we’re teaching them two important things: 1. Everyone has big emotions, and that’s part of life, and 2. There’s a gentle, healthy way to work through those uncomfortable feelings.
Find what brings you peace
When you feel the tensions in your home begin to rise, Mendoza suggested a mindfulness exercise to bring you and your children back to the present moment. Some simple ideas she shared included deep belly breathing, cold water breaks, and my favorite: cuddle pauses—all to help calm our nervous systems.
“It helps for adults to stay busy on Election Day because there really is nothing we can do but vote,” said Dr. King. “Election results won’t be coming in until young children across America are already in bed anyway, so save the news for after your kids are asleep at their predictable bedtimes. [Then], process your emotions with your partner and friends.”
Do what works
Today is going to be hard for so many of us. A lot is riding on the decision our country makes at this moment and the anxiety of that is undeniable. As we move through today, let’s remind ourselves to go gently. That may look like more screen time for our kids or plain noodles for lunch and dinner. To that I say, so what? If you need permission to drop your pursuit of parenting perfection, this is it. Today, let’s just aim for getting by. And let’s not beat ourselves up about it.
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