Creating Realistic Expectations During Unreal Times

Creating Realistic Expectations During Unreal Times

The creativity, ingenuity, diligence, and heart shown during this pandemic is awe-inspiring. Parents, teachers, kids, and teens have been earnestly striving to adjust to the changing landscape of COVID-19, to pivot at a moment's notice, absorb the disappointments and losses, and get back up again, dig deep into our reserves of optimism and hope and try to keep moving forward. 

Hope is a one-two combination of beliefs and expectations.

It is fair to say that we are in the 2.0 lockdown space because things have not gone as smoothly as had been hoped or expected. As parents, we are simultaneously managing work and the household while trying to assist our children in meeting the demands of remote learning—an often-frustrating situation.

The unexpected

Parents often feel frustrated and baffled as to why their once capable students seem unable to manage to do school work for only a few hours per day when their typical school day runs much longer. All ages describe feeling distracted, exhausted, and overwhelmed. 

The list of unmet expectations is long. "We don't have any extra-curricular activities; we can't leave the house; they only have a couple of hours of school per day. Why can't they get their assignments done? Why aren't they doing their chores? Why are we tired all the time? We have all of this downtime – we should be more productive." This kind of narrative is most unhelpful. 

Don't expect more of your children – accept that as the adults around them, they are all doing the best they can just to show up some days.

Almost certainly, we have all experienced unexpected losses, but we have also experienced sudden growth. From the wellbeing survey we conducted with all students at Senior Campus before returning from the first lockdown, the top five things they identified they learned about themselves during this period were:

  1. My ability to self-manage
  2. That even when things are different, I can make the most of it
  3. I need social interaction
  4. It's good to have separate spaces for sleep & study
  5. How to be a better friend

This is not reflective of everyone's experience, but it serves to highlight unexpected wins. What have been the unforeseen wins in your families?

Why does everything feel unreal?

For many, the past several months have seemed unimaginable – almost surreal, as though we were somehow cast as extras in a dramatic thriller movie. At the same time, our ability to actively control or influence our situation is restricted. When events or circumstances disrupt our sense of the familiar and what we "know" to be right about our world, it can stimulate an array of emotional reactions, including uncertainty, confusion, fear, anger, sadness, and helplessness. This experience has a name – trauma.

Scientists have shown that trauma interrupts the brain's ability to manage emotions, form memories, and think flexibly. It interferes with executive functioning, including our ability to direct and maintain attention, organise and prioritise information, set and reach goals, and control impulses. These skills are necessary for adults to keep firm productivity at work and for our children and teens to learn and perform well in school. For those with extra challenges – ADHD, learning difficulties, depression, anxiety, etc. – this becomes even more challenging as these areas are already stretched.

So, herein lies the problem. During times of heightened stress, it is exceptionally challenging to learn new things. Our brain strives to do what is comfortable and familiar – desperately seeking balance and stability. It's not a flaw. It's by design. It's our body's way of protecting us, focusing on the most important things to ensure our survival. But to cope effectively and get through this crisis relatively intact, we can't just give up or give in. We have to change and adjust.

How do we adjust our expectations?

Before we can adjust our expectations, it's essential to recognise and appreciate where we are. Everyone has needs. Our basic survival needs must be met to have enough energy to work on meeting other, more complex needs. At the height of WWII, Abraham Maslow developed a tool that may help us understand our struggles during the current crisis. Let's take a look:  

The bottom two tiers: physiological needs and safety and security. These are our basic survival needs. They are our foundation and must come first. 

The third tier, love, and belonging. As humans, we are relational creatures. We were made to be connected with others. COVID-19 has interfered with these needs dramatically. Despite their best efforts, for many parents and children, digital connection with friends and extended family is just "not the same."

Any challenges we have in these three tiers take a toll on our self-esteem (tier 4). It becomes challenging to learn, achieve, and be productive.  

Between our brain's response to the distress we are seeing and experiencing, and possibly the many unmet needs, it's no wonder we're overwhelmed and exhausted. 

We're faced with having to reboot home-based routines to get through our days of remote learning and working, by attending to our basic needs, expressing gratitude, and nurturing hope.

Hope will take you from functioning to flourishing.

How to create realistic expectations?  

  • Recognise the need for the familiar – Create, post, and keep a routine. 
  • Listen to our own needs –take time each day to just breathe and ask yourself what you need and how you're feeling. Do this with your children as well as a way to model self-care. It's okay if not everyone's needs are the same – you may need connection while your primary aged child needs movement, and your teen needs sleep. All are important. 
  • Pace yourself – We can't learn how to renegotiate everything in our lives all at once. How we do school, work, socialising, exercise, entertainment, shopping, health care, etc. all have been upended by COVID-19. Give yourself and your children permission to slow down and practice kindness when things don't go according to plan.
  • Take a break – Planning frequent breaks and varying the types of breaks is essential to maximise benefit. Our bodies need to move often, so encourage your family to get up hourly and move away from their work area for 5-15 minutes. Younger children may need more frequent breaks. Do something enjoyable or relaxing – it's okay if you find doing the dishes relaxing, but your kids may not. Breaks should be tailored to individual needs – have your kids create a list of break ideas. Encourage a balance of breaks that take care of needs for movement, rest, play, relaxation, and connection. And chores, perhaps on a separate list that are necessary for family functioning.
  • Move your body – Go for a walk/run, do some yoga, try an exercise video, play with the dog, dance, make an obstacle course.
  • Go outside - Take some time each day to connect with nature. Studies show it boosts energy, attention, creativity, mood, and our immune system!
  • Take time to connect – Engage in spontaneous play with your family. Eat dinner together without any devices. Try to focus on listening and playful conversation rather than correction. Consider conversation starters for kids and teens or have everyone share a fun fact, joke, or moment of joy or gratitude from their day. Connect with friends or extended family through phone or video calls, texts, or even online games. 
  • Ask for help – Sometimes, we don't realise our expectations are unrealistic. Sometimes we don't realize there's an unmet need that's getting in the way. Take time to check in with your kids about their schoolwork and their level of understanding. Encourage them to come to you if they're stuck, and model asking for help from teachers. Talking to others helps us realize we're not alone and may highlight possible solutions. Teachers have mad skills and can provide insight into how to help kids focus, manage transitions, and even how their child learns best. If there is a social/emotional concern, contact your child tutor/ Homestead coordinator to make them aware, and secondly, to link in for further support and or additional consultation with myself or someone in the counselling team.
  • Look for balance – We can spend a little time taking care of each area rather than focus on being productive. By doing so, we are helping ourselves develop resilience and well-being. Resilience is what we need to recover and bounce back from this crisis successfully.  
  • Practice compassion – Everyone is struggling as a result of COVID-19. We are all doing the best we can with the skills and resources we have at this moment. We all need understanding, kindness, and grace - this includes our kids, our teachers, and ourselves. Remind each other that it's okay if we don't do everything correctly or even finish everything – no one is at the top of their game. You're not behind – you're not even in a race. You're on a journey, and the reality is, everyone's path is unique. 

Acknowledgements & additional reading

Director of Counselling