When my son was barely a Kindergartener, he asked me over breakfast one day: “Mama, why are you alive?” It came out of the blue, right before a request that I pass the orange juice.
I found it strangely haunting. Now, in this moment in history—when the world our children will inherit is being remade in so many unsettling ways, from a global pandemic to climate change to political dysfunction, vast economic inequality and growing social divides—I find myself remembering that and wondering: What are we being called on to bring out in ourselves as parents now?
This is a question I’ve been asking myself for a long time. I used to ask it in the context of a world being remade by climate change, and then by the dramatic upheaval in America’s political, economic and social order over the past several years. Now I think about it in terms of this pandemic and find the same simple words come to me: be a beacon in the storm.
It’s not the only answer to be sure. We are currently in what Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician, surgeon general of the state of California and author of The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-term Effects of Childhood Adversity, recently called a “perfect storm” of stressors that can negatively impact children’s mental and physical health and behavior.
Worldwide, 99 percent of the world’s children are living under some form of COVID-19 related restrictions, according to the World Economic Forum. And while some children are contending with the trauma of serious family illnesses, death, and sudden loss of income, the risk of other negative impacts are even more widespread.
“Younger children are at great risk, as high levels of stress and isolation can affect brain development, sometimes with irreparable long-term consequences,” wrote Henrietta H. Fore, Executive Director, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Zeinab Hijazi, Mental Health & Psychosocial Support Specialist, UNICEF.
As for older children: “There is no antibody test for sadness or fear or dark thoughts. Being shut in has a unique way of bringing them out,” Tali Rosen, a junior at Beacon High School in New York City, wrote last week in The New York Times.
So, what do we do as parents?
“We need to tune in to our kids, assess their needs and help them turn stressful situations into opportunities for growth,” Burke told The New York Times. She also recommends avoiding making assumptions—social isolation affects different children differently—and finding “stress busters,” such as keeping kids connected through video chats and more.
In my own life, I have talked with many parents who have shared that their own children, while fortunate enough to not be facing the worst, are clearly struggling, with distance learning no easy thing for many adolescents to stay focused on. Deprived of what they are passionate about—namely, their activities and friends—many young people simply can’t conjure the motivation to do online schoolwork.
For a time, I got into a tussle with my own teenage son about this. But I have come around to believe that activities that inspire him and outlets for the age-appropriate need for growing independence are priorities now, right up there with staying physically healthy.
Which brings me back to the idea of being a beacon in the storm. With the tumultuous state of the world, I think it’s an increasingly important part of a parent’s role: to share in the joyful moments and help children continue to feel connected to those all-important lifelines–their hopes and dreams for the future.
And while COVID-19 is affecting us all, as adults we are almost certainly in a better position than young people to know that this difficult time will pass. Not as soon as we like. And not in some simple, magical way that returns everything to the way it was before. But life will get better again. Whenever my children or anyone else’s forget that, that is what I want to help them remember.