Finding Comfort in the Controllable

By Melissa Stefanec

If there is one thing our fractured society might actually be able to agree on right now, it’s none of us like to feel helpless.

The lack of control we have over our present circumstances is something most of us are grappling with. Our collective discomfort with the unpredictable is a uniting stressor.

Parenting in uncertain times

As a parent, I face many challenges (and have many blessings) during quarantine, and one of them is navigating the fear of the unknown. My family is learning how to thrive in a world lacking definition and certainty. The day-to-day stuff is easy enough to plan for. We can set clear expectations for the perfunctory.

What I can’t offer my children are many long-term answers. Anyone who knows how children work understands this is a mini disaster in the making. Children want to know what’s next. They want to know what’s happening 10, 15 and 20 minutes from now, as well as what’s happening tomorrow and the next day. Children desperately crave plans and control.

Regaining and sharing the control

With so much out of our control right now, how can parents give children the structure they crave? How can we give it to ourselves?

We can strive to control the controllable and relinquish some of that control to our children. When people feel like they have control of their choices, they often feel more at peace with their circumstances.

When my kids are frustrated because they feel powerless, I can delegate minor choices to them. I can offer myself and my family some security by recognizing what we can control.

Here are some ideas for how to regain control in our lives.

The division of power

I can control how often we go to the store and how much exposure I have to the public. My children can make a small grocery list or contribute to meal plans, so they feel like they have some control of their food. When it comes time for lunch, I can give my kids two choices. I don’t care if I throw PBJ or cold cuts on bread, so why fight over it? I can control what snacks go in the snack basket. They can choose which snack to eat today. Whatever snack they don’t eat will be what’s left on Friday.

I can control how much and what types of news I consume. By doing this with prudence, I can choose what narratives I expose my kids to. I can offer them age-appropriate and factual information regarding the pandemic. I can remove much of the fear factor for them. I can guide how they feel by controlling my own reactions.

When my kids act up out of frustration or boredom, I can control how I react to their behavior. I can teach them to be accountable for their own behavior and help them work through difficult emotions. I’m not responsible for their bad behavior and they aren’t responsible for mine.

I can decide what crafts and experiments are options. My children can decide which ones to do and in what order. I can control what time my kids go to bed and keep them on a schedule. They can control what books we read before bed and what songs we sing.

When it comes to schoolwork, I can control how much work gets done. In most cases, the order it gets done is inconsequential. Thus, I can let them choose how they reach the finish line. When it comes time for tablets, I can control how long my children play them and what games they play. They can control whether or not they get to play them (by finishing their schoolwork first).

I can give them a list of chores to do, and they can choose which ones to finish and finish well. They know there are consequences for unfinished or sloppy chores, so they can decide if they want to deal with the consequences and forgo rewards.

I can control how much my family helps other families and loved ones during this crisis. I can give my kids a list of family members to call and let them decide whom to call on what days. I can decide to send cards to others; my kids can pick whom we send cards to. I can choose to bake and share with neighbors; my kids can choose what to bake (sometimes). I can choose to take the kids on walk to chalk driveways; they can choose what to draw.

Lastly, I can control how I manage my own emotions during this pandemic. I can allow myself to feel the many complicated feelings I have. There will be off days, and that’s ok. However, I owe it to myself and my family to recognize the ephemeral nature of our situation and keep a hopeful tone in my home.