Our second child was five weeks old when our state when into lock-down due to Covid-19. Our three-year-old stopped attending preschool, which had been three days a week. I lost the time to bond alone and rest with our infant on those days. And I was still recovering from my C-section. It wasn’t pleasant, to be certain, but it seemed that we were in a better situation than many people. My husband and I didn’t lose our jobs. We could both work from home. We could do this, we thought. Then things started to deteriorate.
Our preschooler’s behavior became worse than ever before, and my husband and I both felt the strain of the pandemic. Based on what I’ve heard from friends, we are far from alone in this. All over, kids are struggling and acting out leaving parents at their wits' end.
When I’m stressed and anxious, my instinctive response to a child’s rebellion or tantrum is not kind. I say things like, “If you need to scream, take it to your room!” or “If you whine about that one more time, you are going to time out!” For my child, at least, this only fuels the flames.
In my better moments, I know that I don’t want to teach my child to stuff his emotions down in order to stay in my presence. I want to teach him how to work through his feelings. I want to be able to help him calm down and teach him how to calm himself. I used to be better at this, before the strain of a global pandemic.
These parenting struggles make me think of this verse: “And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4-6). Noting that the root of the word “discipline” is the same as the root of “discipleship,” I interpret this to mean that we are to raise our children to know and follow the Lord. We are also instructed to respond to them in a way that doesn’t add to their anger. So I consider how God responds to us, his children.
Scripture reminds us that God sees our struggles; he keeps count of our restlessness and collects our tears in a bottle (Psalm 56:8). God is present with us in all times, in all emotions. And the Holy Spirit brings us peace, comfort, and encouragement. This is what I want for my child. I want to model how God, our heavenly parent, cares for us.
I believe the root of this worsening behavior is anxiety and stress. Even children who are too young to understand exactly what’s happening feel the stress and tension of their parents. We are all unsure what’s coming, how this will affect us short term and long term. We are all grieving losses, while realizing that worse losses may be yet to come. The world feels unstable. Our children feel this too. So they act out.
At its root, most bad behavior is a cry for reassurance and comfort in the midst of chaos. As a chaplain and pastor, an important part of my ministry is being a non-anxious presence. Being with someone in crisis, listening to them attentively, seeking to understand, and bringing them before God in prayer makes all the difference.
Bringing this same non-anxious presence into my parenting helps my child more than anything else I’ve tried. When I go to his room with him and sit calmly, my child works through his feelings far more effectively than if I command him to take his anger to his room alone.
It’s easier to talk about being a non-anxious presence than to actually do it. When we are not doing well ourselves, when we are overwhelmed and anxious, we aren’t able to be there for our children this way. It’s critical that we care for our own basic needs consistently, so that we are able to support our children. This includes caring for ourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually. When we are bringing our burdens to God, we are able to sit with our children in their struggles far more effectively. (I’ve written more extensively on self care for parents.)
Being with your child as a non-anxious presence when they act out may sound like permissive parenting, but presence does not mean passiveness or lack of boundary-setting. I do not allow ear-piercing screams, throwing of things, hitting, or anything else that could be harmful to me, my child, or anyone else, nor destruction of property. This is not allowing abuse, but being present during strong emotion. I certainly set boundaries and remove him from the original situation, but also show him that I will stick with him when things are hard.
I am teaching him that when he is overwhelmed with big feelings, I am not overwhelmed because I know he will get through them. His big feelings are not too much for me. My calm in his storm shows him that he doesn’t need to be scared of his big feelings, because I’m not scared. I’ve got him. He is my child. And I am with him--to help, to teach, and to comfort when he’s ready. If we can maintain calm in the face of our children’s meltdowns, this assures them that they will be okay. They can feel secure in our love, even as big feelings overwhelm them.
This models the way God cares for us. God doesn’t ask us to process our feelings alone and only talk to him after we’ve calmed down. God is with us always. Our feelings are not too much for God to handle. In Psalm 13:1-2 David cries out to God, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?” If David, a man after God’s own heart, can bring this depth of sorrow to God, certainly we can bring our difficult emotions to God too. We are his children. And God’s got us.
We can also show our children how to bring their feelings and their pain to God. Praying for them when they are struggling shows them that we take these things to God. We can encourage them to pray as well. Children can draw their prayers, coloring their sadness or anger or making a picture of what they are missing. Keeping a prayer journal together could also be a helpful way to bring your child’s pain and concerns to God. After talking to God about whatever is going on, I end our prayers with my children by acknowledging that we know God is in charge even when things are scary and then thanking God for always loving us.
When we step in and care for our kids and guide them to express their hard emotions without taking on their anxiety, we strengthen relationships by showing our children that we are on the same team. We are with them in their struggle, rather than seeking to squash their emotions. We model for our children that emotions are healthy and we can process them in a way that is helpful. Whatever you are going through with the children in your life during this challenging time, I pray that you know God’s love for you personally. You are God’s child; God is with you always.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra
Rev. Deb Koster