We are going through an unprecedented time. The COVID pandemic has caused a tremendous amount of stress in many ways, from unexpected grief and loss to financial concerns to major lifestyle changes, such as working from home while trying to monitor your kids’ schooling, to dealing with the stress of so many unknowns. Wondering what emotional impact living through this crisis will have on their children long term is an additional, unique stress. I hear this question often these days: How can I best empower my children to come through COVID in an emotionally healthy way?
When I think about strength, grace, and courage during times of difficulty, I look to the example set by our son, Cody, during his seventeen years of life. He developed a degenerative neurological disorder at eighteen months, so his entire life was a steady progression of ever-increasing difficulty. Yet, he maintained incredible grace, a steadfast sense of joy and peace, and unwavering perseverance and hope – even during his final three years when he knew he was dying. (He once laughed when my husband shared how much he would miss Cody when he went home, saying, “Don’t you know, it’s only an interim. Either you go first and I’m still here, or I go first and you’re still here; but after the interim, we will be together forever”. Despite his many physical limitations, he played football, baseball, and even participated in the Junior Olympics in Tae Kwon Do, where he won the perseverance award, and ultimately earned his black belt. Even when intubated, he smiled at everyone who came into his hospital room, to the amazement of his nurses). His life is a testimony to the resilience of children, given the right support and encouragement.
So, what would Cody say was his secret? He was asked this question many times. He would always credit his deep connection with Jesus as his source of strength and peace. Cody’s faith was his certainty that he could “do all things through Christ,” and his faith proved itself over and over again.
As Cody’s mom (and having the advantage of also being a Christian counselor), I tried to give him these five gifts as my (admittedly minimal) contributions to the emotionally healthy manner in which Cody lived his life in the midst of terrible hardship:
1. My efforts began in the mirror.
Children learn what they are shown, and healthy responses are like colds, passed on through contact more than instruction, so, moms, look in the mirror and check your own reaction to COVID. What beliefs are guiding your responses in the face of this crisis? Are you choosing based on fear or wisdom? (There is a difference! Fear would have an anxious expectation of bad things coming and leave you feeling powerless and trapped, as opposed to wisdom which prompts you to make smart choices without anxiety). Are you giving in to negativity or focusing on gratitude? Do you take out your frustrations on others or do you express your feelings in a healthy way? Do you fix your eyes on your circumstances or on Jesus? Moms, everything you do teaches your children something. Be intentional about what you teach, both in word and action.
2. The most valuable thing we taught Cody was how to listen to God.
Early in our children’s lives, we set the expectation of God’s constant presence. One way, when they were still concrete (before age 10) in their thinking, was to set up a chair in our family room and call it Jesus’ chair. No one could sit in it because Jesus was always there. We modeled asking Jesus about everything we did and encouraged them to listen for His answers as we prayed as a family. Then, as they got older, when they asked to do something, we would ask them what Jesus said about it, and as they began to make life decisions, the conversation always centered around Jesus’ guidance. When given the knowledge that God speaks in our hearts, moms, you’ll be amazed at the kind of answers you’ll hear from your children when you teach them to listen.
3. We were always honest with Cody.
Yes, it’s hard to be honest with a child about the difficult aspects of life. You want to protect them. You don’t want to upset them. But shielding your children from the truth doesn’t protect them; in fact, this response is fear-based, so it produces the opposite result from what you intend. The more you “protect” them, the less resilience and effective coping strategies they develop. They know something is going on anyway, and in the absence of information, they will fill in the blanks with worst case scenarios. So, moms, gird yourself and be honest and open with your kids about COVID and its consequences.
4. We trusted Cody to handle it.
Imagine watching your child, his limbs weakened by disease and struggling with balance, walking up to the line to play center in youth league football, knowing he is about to be squashed under a pile of other players. You’d likely want to rush the field and take him home – I know I did. But if I had done so, I would’ve told Cody he wasn’t capable. I would’ve undermined his belief in himself. So, I held my tongue, bit my lip, and cheered for him. Something Cody despised was others feeling sorry for him. If you find yourself excusing your children’s misbehavior because they are going through a hard time, don’t. To do so inadvertently teaches your children they are victims, which gives them a lens of blame through which to see the world. Holding them accountable teaches them personal responsibility. Children can handle more than we realize, and this is certainly true during COVID. As their moms, when you believe in your children and let them handle difficulty without rescuing them from the consequences of their choices or pampering them, they will grow up to believe they are capable, independent, and strong.
5. We consistently encouraged Cody to be true to himself.
Moms, you probably know your child better than anyone other than God. Who, then, is better equipped to call out your child’s true identity? Cody always exhibited gentleness, patience, and compassion and sensitivity toward others. We would identify and encourage these qualities in Cody. We also let him know these were qualities of Jesus’ nature so that He recognized their value. What aspects of God’s nature do you see in your child? Speak aloud those qualities when you see them exhibited in your child, encourage those qualities during those times your child is struggling, and value those qualities as God does. A child who knows their God-given identity and lives true to it is an emotionally healthy child.