Parents worried about the long-term impact of the Covid-19 crisis on their children may be surprised to hear what psychotherapist and trauma reprocessing specialist Sara Waters recommends for protecting our kids.
It turns out that we parents play a bigger role in how things turn out than we might have thought. In most cases, parents "have more influence on the resilience, confidence and assuredness of our children's psychological wellness during this time than any other variable."
Because of mirror neurons — which fire off in response to emotions, facial expressions and body language — our children's experiences of the world will reflect our own.
"If a parent's thoughts are generally negative or scarcity-based, our children will feel that and develop similar negative, scarcity-based thinking patterns," Waters said. "If our limbic system is in a state of distress instead of calm, our children's own somatic experiences will be the same. If you struggle with staying positive in the face of challenges, then your children will also struggle."
So, what's a scarcity-minded parent to do? Waters shared some ideas.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: We're stressed out. Two out of five Americans report feelings of depression or anxiety, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But parents caring for children under 18 report significantly more stress than non-parents. How are you seeing these struggles play out?
Sara Waters: Everybody in my family and every single one of my clients has been touched by this and adversely affected in some way. This is bringing up issues for people — everything from substance use and addiction struggles to surfacing issues in marriages. Those of us who are parents are struggling with our own human vulnerabilities, and that struggle impacts our kids.
CNN: One of the most painful parts for parents is our inability to protect our children. Our kids expect us to have all the answers. And yet there are so many variables we can't control or predict. What can we do?
Waters: The harsh reality, whether we like it or not, is that we won't have all the answers. We need to get more comfortable with feeling uncertain and being able to authentically say "I don't know." There's something magical that happens when we share our own vulnerabilities in a way that lets our kids know they're not alone.
CNN: How do adults' emotions impact how children view the world?
Waters: Parents' ability to manage our own discomfort is the No. 1 factor determining our children's 2020 experience. Because of mirror neurons, even children who haven't yet learned language will pick up on our distress. Our children hear us vent. They watch our facial expressions when we're on a call, responding to an email or posting on social media. They pick up on whether we're relaxed or stressed and — whether we like it or not — they will absorb and experience what we feel.
CNN: It's particularly distressing that overwhelmed parents can't get out of this mess just by saying the right things.