Navigating yet another difficult year with grit, glimmers and hope

How are you doing at the moment? No, really, how are you doing? Are you finding yourself getting impatient with your children, your work colleagues, and the world around you? Are you struggling to sleep well and feeling a sense of lethargy in your body and a fogginess in your brain?

Welcome to living in 2022, with an ongoing pandemic now combined with a robust flu season plus a perfect storm of other stressors completely out of our control!

Is it any wonder many of us are feeling pretty crappy? There has not been a reassuring ‘cognitive ending’ to this pandemic, because it is still impacting families and workers everywhere. Our brains are still wired to be cautious of the threat of catching COVID (and now the nasty flu that seems to be doing the rounds).

Then, other factors that are completely out of our control have landed on our plates. Increased fuel prices, higher interest rates, accelerating power costs (and shortages) as well as the flow-on effect of increasing costs of food. In Australia, the February/March floods have deeply impacted food production in many areas. There are staff shortages across all sectors, which means everything is slower, harder to get hold of – or completely unattainable! I have noticed customers getting really impatient because shops, hospitality, and health services are seriously understaffed and things take much longer than they used to.

I do feel that as a society right now we are all a bit more grumpy, less compassionate and definitely struggling to be our best selves.

Schools are struggling deeply with staff shortages, challenges with difficult (and stressed) students, and unhappy and overworked teachers and educators. Wages have stalled while the cost of living has escalated. Rentals are harder to find and more folks are facing homelessness, particularly those impacted by the east coast floods. Things are still really tough on so many levels out there.

There does seem to be a general sense of doom and gloom…

Our children pick up on these increased stressors from their parents and teachers,  and some kids more than others.­­­ Rather than just struggling along as best you can feeling overwhelmed, it can be helpful to try to actively view this challenging time as a learning opportunity for life for your whole family.

So how can we model for our children the ability to deal with hard times and challenges that are outside of our control?

Teach your children that difficult times happen to everyone no matter how hard we try to keep adversity at bay. We can learn about how to understand, cope and navigate the pathway forward through adversity, rather than collapsing in a heap and feeling stuck.

Here are some suggestions for how to do that:

  1. Start by clearly having each other’s backs by acknowledging that everyone manages stress in different ways.

    Co-parents and other family members can model genuine compassion to each other – practice small acts of kindness that don’t cost much; even a few more hugs will be appreciated.

  2. Remember that resilience is finding a balance between your stressors and your protective factors.

This simple illustration can be really helpful for everyone, including children.

First… the stressors

If we can explain to our kids that when hard times happen, we tend to have more stressors triggering our brain to create cortisol, which is the stress hormone. We are meant to feel more anxious when there is a threat to our survival but when there is a lot going on we can become overly anxious.

Stressors can be different for each member of the family.

For example, if you have a Year 12 student at home, they will likely be finding their stress increase around tests or exams in the lead up to the end of their schooling journey. If the family budget is seriously compromised, some children may not be able to continue with their music lessons, or sport commitments, or be able to go on school camps. Some children may have additional vulnerabilities or challenges that cause stress to increase at different times of the day, week, or year.

It could be helpful to have a conversation with your children and let them know that many of the challenges you’re dealing with – especially increasing fuel costs, interest rates, and food costs – may mean that the family budget will need to change. It can be helpful to engage your older children in opportunities to work out how the family can spend less for the next few months at least.

Even though we can feel powerless, we still have some choices. Perhaps even reframe things to make it a fun family challenge to come up with ideas to waste less (especially when it comes to food), to learn to repair and repurpose things, and to reduce your consumption. There are so many fun ‘hacks’ out there to try!

It is a life skill to become a problem solver and this can start in childhood, when adversity visits.

Protective factors

Just as we consider stressors, we need to guide your children to work out ways to build protective factors, or ‘glimmers’ as polyvagal theory expert Deb Dana calls them, into their daily lives. These are things that can reduce anxiety and stress, and increase optimism and hope. Again, it can be a helpful family exercise to work out what fills each individual family member’s cup. A great starting point is choosing three glimmers for each person and then working out how and when these can become a part of family life. There are so many fun things that can lift our moods and reduce stress. Some simple ideas are playing music the family loves, walking the dog, cooking together, watching a family movie or going for a bike or scooter ride in the fresh air.

  1. Remind your whole family about stress-busting strategies and relaxation, and bring those things into daily life.

    Seriously, regularly creating pockets of calmness, simplicity, and ‘chillout times’ will improve the mental well-being of everyone in your home. Check out my Maggie Soothers if you’re looking for ideas.

  2. Get really creative about activities your family can do that cost less.

    Think libraries, free museums, national parks, beaches, creeks, building veggie gardens, having dance-offs, and baking. Remember how lots of people took up baking sourdough during lockdowns? We learned a lot about getting creative during lockdown… the same things will work now as worked then. Back then, fuel cost less, interest rates were at record lows and there was plenty of food, although possibly a shortage of toilet paper! Here are some ideas from the isolation vault…

  3. Have the whole family plan an affordable holiday in three to six months’ time…

    … and work out ways to save money or create money to enable that to happen. Spread the responsibility through the whole family and seriously, watch how kids can step up and get creative. Hope is an enormously important part of navigating through adversity. “This too shall pass” is a truism that can help the mind stop catastrophising.

  4. Flex your gratitude muscle.

    There is a whole lot of psychology research that shows that practicing gratitude makes a big difference to people’s happiness. According to this article from Harvard Medical School: “Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships”. What’s not to like about that? The best part is it is really simple to develop a gratitude habit personally and as a family. I would invite you to get everyone in the family to share something they were grateful for in their day, every night at the dinner table, or perhaps as part of your bedtime routine. You might also invite your kids to keep a gratitude journal or maybe you have a family gratitude jar and once a week you go through and take turns to read out the gratitude notes.

Raising our children to know that when hard times happen families can gather together to come up with solutions, can make life seem better. It’s absolutely okay to own your anxiety and stress, however, you then need to model how you are managing them.

Create a resting chair in your house where you might sit if you start to feel crabby, and just look out the window while playing some calming music or reading a book. Creating pockets of joy, especially with laughter, helps everyone as it releases stress, restores the positive neurochemicals, and nurtures connection within the family – no matter what is happening in the world outside.

Keep reminding each other, that together we can do hard things, and then do them.