Parenting in VUCA times (or How to Keep It Together When the Threat is Real)


I read this article today, "Being a Mother in Hawaii During 38 minutes of Nuclear Fear." It was chilling. This came a day after Facebook reminded me that it's been two years since we had our first lock-down at school, which was my own version of living for minutes that felt like days in abject terror.

I still remember that day in flashes--a friend called, saying someone had a gun at the kids' school and they were on lock-down. I had zero further information as the system the school had in place to notify me of such things had failed. I was driving when the call came in, and somehow I managed to call the police to try and get further information. They said something mildly placating, but I was in such a complete state of panic nothing got through. I called my husband. I have no idea what I said or sounded like, but all he said was, "I'm on my way. I'll meet you there."

We were lucky. Everything was fine. Parents had not gotten accurate information, which was that someone in the area had been reported having a gun, so they'd gone into lock-down to keep all the children safe. There was no imminent threat. The kids (who were in Kindergarten) didn't even know what was happening. Their teacher treated it like a game, keeping everyone safe and un-traumatized. Well, everyone in the classroom, anyway.

It took me, literally, weeks of fairly intensive therapy to work through that incident. My mind had instantly gone to the darkest places it could. You know which ones. In my head I kept seeing those images from news reports of other tragedies on other school campuses, my deepest fears realized, my children's faces in places they absolutely could not be. Even though, like in Hawaii, everything turned out fine, that trauma was very real. The threat is very real.

How do we, as parents, live in this world where such threats are very, very real? How do we get up and make breakfast and take our children to school, knowing the violence we see on the news could knock on our own door any moment?

In working through my own trauma, I found these three things the most helpful:

1. Breathe. I know it sounds trite, but believe me, it helps! As I was driving to the school that awful day I pulled out every breathing technique I knew. Some how I made it without crashing. And as the memories crashed in on me again and again through the following weeks, breathing was what kept my lizard brain from completely flooding. Having an established daily mindful practice provided every benefit for me during that time that the literature said it would--I was able to calm more quickly, I was able to recognize the panic/fear/anxiety rising, and I was able to make a conscious choice on how I was going to handle it.

2. Screen the news. I am fully aware that the world is nuts, and a big supporter of informed, educated voters. (More of them would be wonderful, in fact!) I am also aware that subjecting yourself to the trauma of others on a regular basis is bad for you. As stated in this article, regulation is the key. For me, the answer was to read the news and stop watching it on TV. The images were too much for me; by reading I was able to synthesize the information without over-identifying with it. For you, it may be something else. I encourage you to try it--you'll be surprised at how much your mood can improve by limiting the amount of negative media you take in.

3. Enjoy the moment. This also sounds trite, with a whiff of corny. But that doesn't make it any less true. One of the things I realized after our lock-down incident was that there are a billion bad things that could happen all the time, and I don't fixate or worry about them. Wind can knock a tree limb down on me; meteorites could plummet from space and vaporize my family; lightning could strike...well, I won't go on, as the point is to NOT worry you. The thing is, there are always things we can't control. Have a plan to control what you can (having that go-bag, or disaster supplies at the ready, for example). Then learn to let go of what you can't.

If we spend our time constantly worrying about what could happen, we're going to miss what is happening...and in my case what is happening is that my children are doing delightful things every single day. There are moments of beauty that grace every day. Instead of training ourselves to focus on what's horrible, how much more pleasant if we learn to notice what's wonderful. Or as I say to my children, "Attention is like sunshine; whatever it shines on, grows."

I had the fortune to hear Dr. Dan Siegel talk last week (I cannot recommend his books highly enough, btw!). He talked about how we are living in VUCA times: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. For all of us parenting in these VUCA times, may we find the extra grit and self-care we need to move through them. Hopefully, this generation we are raising will also have the compassion and wisdom needed to move our world to a better place.

Until then, my heart goes out to everyone in Hawaii who lived through 38 minutes of abject terror, to those who were in those images scorched into my brain, for all of us tumbling through this VUCA world, trying our best to make sense of it. May peace be with us all.

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