Help Kids Cope by Finding Possibility in Uncertainty

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Since the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, uncertainty has been one of the only constants. Living with sky-high levels of uncertainty can cripple confident decision making[1] – information is often partial, contradictory, and contingent. Inhabiting an environment of extreme uncertainty [2]can also unlock mental patterns [3]that can pose a challenge to clear, efficient, and rational thinking. These effects may be even more pronounced in children and youth, as their prefrontal cortex (the region of the brain responsible for logic, critical thinking, and self-regulation) won’t fully develop until their mid twenties[4].

But there is an upside to uncertainty. When we don’t know exactly how things will play out, the door to possibility is thrown wide open. This is the message we can share with our kids: just because we don’t know what will happen, it doesn’t mean that the worst will.

While living with uncertainty can be uncomfortable, it can also help us and our children learn and grow[5]. Finding possibility in uncertainty can help children cope in healthier and more rewarding ways, no matter how unpredictable the circumstances. Read on for a simple practice to help children find potential in the unknown.

Zoom Out with the "What if?" Game

During uncertainty, adults and children alike tend to "zoom in" on potential outcomes that are especially frightening to them. Unfortunatley, this habit can actually magnify our fears and distort the likelihood of them occuring. We can help our kids “zoom out" and contextualize their fears in the bigger picture by playing the "What if?" game. 

How to play the "What if?" game:

  1. Invite the child to share a fear they have that is rooted in uncertainty (eg. What if schools close again? What if someone in my class gets sick?")
  2. Suggest a neutral or positive possible outcome in response to their fear (eg. What if schools do close eventually, but you really enjoy the time you spend with your friends in class until that happens?)
  3. Encourage the child to come up with another neutral or positive possible outcome related to their fear (eg. What if they close in December and it's like an extra-long winter break?)
  4. Repeat this pattern until adult and child can identify at least a couple of possible outcomes that the child feels OK about.
  5. The next time the fear crops up, the adult can remind the child that while their fear might happen, there are other possible outcomes (specify a few you discussed) that wouldn't be so bad. 

Other ways to help kids cope with uncertainty include:

 

Research suggests that the prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully mature until 25 years of age. 

Research shows that we make decisions differently - and less optimally - when they involve uncertainty. This change involves a simplification of the mental arithmetic we use to estimate the potential risks and rewards asociated with our choices. 

In an article written for the New York Times, psychiatrist Judson A. Brewer, explains how uncertainty primes our brains for anxiety.

When our brains are in an anxious state, our prefrontal cortex goes offline, taking essential coping strategies such as willpower and reason with it.  

How to play the "What if?" game:

  1. Adult prompts child to state a fear they have that is rooted in uncertainty (eg. What if schools close again? What if someone in my class gets sick?")
  2. Adult suggests a neutral or positive possible outcome in response to their fear (eg. What if schools do close eventually, but you really enjoy the time you spend with your friends in class until that happens?)
  3. It's now the child's turn to brainstorm another possible outcome related to their fear (eg. What if they close in December and it's like an extra-long winter break?)
  4. Repeat this pattern until adult and child can identify at least a couple of possible outcomes that the child feels OK about.
  5. The next time the fear crops up, the adult can remind the child that while their fear might happen, there are other possible outcomes (specify a few you discussed) that wouldn't be so bad. 

On a physiological level, uncertainty = stress. And we all know that chronic stress can be toxic for body and brain.

In a 2016 study, it was found that uncertainty about receiving an electric shock generated more stress in participants than actually receiving the shock. 

A team of international researchers have even proposed a novel defition of stress as "an individual state of uncertainty about what needs to be done to safeguard physical, mental or social well-being."

Sadly, doesn't that just about sum up living in a pandemic?

Parents, caregivers, and teachers take note: we are caring for children through enormously stressful times. While we all want to be kind to others, we especially need to be kind to ourselves. 

In a 2018 study, researchers found that uncertainty primes the brain for learning. 

Because uncertainty comes in all shapes and sizes, children can benefit from a range of cognitive and emotional coping strategies. 

It can help kids to explain to them that our hearts and minds have different roles (feeling and thinking), and it is useful for them to work together to help us feel better in uncertain times.

We can help children understand that our minds are good at "cognitive" kinds of things that involve thinking, such as:

  • making sense of information
  • asking questions
  • coming up with ideas

Our hearts are good at "emotional" kinds of things that involve feeling, such as:

  • noticing our feelings and those of others
  • having a "gut feeling" or intuition
  • motivating us to be helpful & kind.

In order to develop cognitive and emotional coping skills, we can support children to:

  1.  Develop awareness that they are experiencing uncertainty & other feelings that often accompany it (anxiety, panic, fear)
  2. Recognize what is causing them to feel that way (is it not having enough information? Not understanding the information they have? Feeling overwhelmed or frightened?)
  3. Identify one thing that their mind can do to help them feel better (eg. find more information to answer their question) and one thing that their heart can do to help them feel better (eg. cuddle a pet)
  4. Reflect together on what strategy worked best, and keep it in mind for the next time that type of uncertainty becomes distressing

A 2001 study found that uncertainty increases the depth and complexity of information processing. 

While the right information can help resolve some types of uncertainty, more isn't always better. Repeatedly hearing about the pandemic can be distressing for adults and kids alike, and can lead to a state of hypervigilance. The CDC recommends taking regular breaks from media consumption to support mental health. Read a book, tell a favourite family story, or listen to music as a distraction if it's hard to "switch off".

  • Secure and Calm

    Secure and calm describes the ability to take part in daily activities and approach new situations without being overwhelmed with worries, sadness or anxiety. To be secure and calm also means being able to cope with stress and pressure, and to bounce back from difficulties.
  • Gets Along with Others

    Getting along with others is the ability to form positive and healthy relationships with peers and adults. Children with better abilities to regulate their emotions and behaviours have more friends and experience more positive playtime with their peers.
  • Alert and Engaged

    Being alert and engaged is the ability to manage and direct one's own feelings, thoughts and emotions. In general, the ability to be 'present' and to exercise self-control.
  • Compassionate and Kind

    Being compassionate and kind is closely related to empathy. While empathy refers more generally to the ability to take the perspective of and to feel the emotions of another person, compassion goes one step further.
  • Solves Problems Peacefully

    Managing conflict effectively is about creating an atmosphere where violence and aggression are not likely. To resolve conflict means using empathy, problem-solving skills, understanding other points of view and coming up with ways to make things right in a fair way.