By Susan Kurlander, M.Ed.
At first, I didn’t understand. Going to the grocery store is considered an essential reason to be out in public. I was keeping my distance and I was wearing a mask. I was smiling (my normal expression wherever I am), but no one seemed to notice. Or maybe they did and were smiling back, but I couldn’t tell because we were all wearing masks. Then it dawned on me, this was another repercussion of the effects of the pandemic. Staying physically safe and healthy needs to be our number one priority, sometimes at the expense of being able to share our emotions, at least through our facial expressions.
As I tried to process this “new normal,“ I quickly realized that many of us, both adults and children, oftentimes don’t use a cloth mask or personal protective equipment to hide our emotions. We choose not to show our emotions facially because we think those feelings may not be acceptable, may upset others, or maybe because we want others around us to think we are ok even if we are not. We may not want our spouses, our parents, or our children to think that we are anxious, afraid, confused, or myriad other emotions that mean we are unable to cope with what is happening in our world.
As parents who are now with our children 24/7, we want to protect them. Our first priority is their health and safety, but a not so hidden part of our agenda is to protect them from the oftentimes overwhelming challenges and uncertainty of the immediate and long-range future. How do we decide when to put on the mask or when to share our struggles and how to do that age appropriately? Are we able to forego the mask at times when, hopefully, by letting them see us face challenges, we can help our children gain the skills they will need to deal with challenges to their own mental, emotional, and even physical health?
Here are some suggestions to encourage your children to identify, acknowledge and find ways to bring their feelings to the surface and not to hide them behind a mask out of fear, confusion, or conflict:
- Put a chart of faces showing different expressions on your refrigerator or someplace easily visible. Emojis work well for this purpose. Ask your children to point out the emoji that best shows how they are feeling. This can be a valuable first step in helping them identify what they are feeling.
- Use teachable moments. For example, if you are watching a tv show or movie, ask your child if he/she has ever felt the same way as what the characters are expressing. Does your child think the character is handling his emotions in a healthy way? Would your child handle their emotions in a different way? Then you can share how you might handle the same emotions.
- Share with your child a challenge you are facing (making sure the situation is age appropriate) and some of the options you are considering. You might even frame those options in a chart with one column for the pros and one column for the cons.
- Use the concept of rational/emotive therapy (psychologist Albert Ellis) to help your child recognize that a thought comes before a feeling. If they have a feeling that is difficult for them to manage, try helping them figure out the thought that came first. An example would be: Your child is frightened about getting sick. Perhaps that fear began because they saw something on TV that talked about some children experiencing a variation of the COVID-19 virus. Once they recognize the thought and the subsequent feeling, you can give them information, etc. to help them deal with that feeling.
- Share a happy and a not so happy feeling with others at the dinner table making sure you set ground rules that no one is allowed to comment on or judge the feeling being expressed.
- Suggest creative ways your child can express emotions if they don’t want to verbally share them. Journaling, art, physical exercise, etc. can be helpful ways to get the emotions out in a healthy way.
We all may choose to wear a mask at times. When possible, putting that mask aside and, instead, acknowledging our feelings or letting others see them can be a bridge to moving forward and connecting with the people around us. Especially now, when we need to distance ourselves physically, it is even more important not to distance ourselves from who we are, who we want to be, and to share our mental and emotional highs and lows with others.
Susan Kurlander, M.Ed., is a JCS Health Educator.
JCS provides individuals and families throughout Central Maryland with a broad array of services and resources for emotional and behavioral health, aging and caregiving, parenting, job seeking, financial stability, and living with disabilities. To learn how JCS can help you live your best life, please visit jcsbalt.org or call 410-466-9200.