The Mama Bear instinct in me is strong; that maternal concoction of fierce protectiveness, fear and anger that has me ready to pounce on every menace to my daughter’s untarnished world view. I remember being at her preschool sing along when mobile phones vibrated with the devastating news of Sandy Hook. We, the Mama Bears, sang on the outside and wept on the inside. That children, like our own, could fall to such horror, was unbearable. I kept her, I imagined then, oblivious to the sinking sense of security around her.
In addition to protecting children from physical threats, we strive to buffer children from the psychological impacts of toxic stress. This pandemic brings both types of dangers. Abruptly leaving school, being isolated from friends and family, and for some, having parents who have lost jobs or work on the front lines of this pandemic has been very stressful. And now, the decision to return to an untested school model or continue remote learning weighs heavily on everyone’s mind.
An efficient nervous system will respond in the face of danger with its own Mama Bear instinct. The body shifts its resources away from curiosity and creativity and toward fighting against or fleeing from the enemy. Once the crisis is over, the body returns to its unstressed state.
But what happens when the threat doesn’t subside?
Prolonged activation of the stress response system can cause a strain on the body. It’s important to support children’s healthy stress management, because we don’t always have the power to stop the crisis.
One significant factor in supporting a child’s nervous system in the struggle to return to balance is stability. Amid chaos, what we can offer is consistency.
- Honor the ritual of daily routines like bedtime stories.
- Return to children’s favorite songs, books, toys, and games.
- Acknowledge that we are not the only important relationship in a child’s life and toss some effort into nurturing your child’s friendships, even if play dates require social distancing and creative field trips.
- Strike a balance between the flexibility everyone needs to navigate these days and the consistent and clear boundaries children always need to know they are cared for.
My daughter and her peers were changed by Sandy Hook. They inhaled our heightened perceptions of danger. Then, like now, policy and practice offer few assurances of children’s and teachers’ safety in returning to school each day. This COVID-colored existence has me feeling ill equipped for another sustained level of threat. In the face of daily uncertainty, how do we nurture the security we want for our children? Even Mama Bear instincts are insufficient, in most cases, to shelter them. But we do have the capacity to support their resilience in the inevitability of stress. Holding a child’s hand through rational reactions to stress, and then helping them back to calm by reminding them that there are still some things they can count on, can be healing for the nervous system; theirs and ours. These rituals can move us, in baby steps, from simply surviving to one day, once again, thriving.
Peg Oliveira, PhD, is the executive director of the Gesell Program in Early Childhood at the Yale Child Study Center. She partners with schools and early childhood educators to translate research into an immediate positive impact on how we see and teach children. She is also a yoga and mindfulness teacher and founded a trauma informed nonprofit yoga service organization called 108 Monkeys.