One minute I was soaking in the sun with the breeze blowing through my hair and the next I was walking across a semi-submerged submarine towards a hatch that would change my perspective on life. As I climbed down the hatch into the submarine everything changed. Above me it was a beautiful, sunny, San Diego morning. Just a few minutes earlier I was on a barge in the middle of the ocean heading out to my first assignment as a Submariner. I thought I was ready. I had been to school. I knew as much as I could (at least I thought). I was confident I was going to do great. I had a lot to learn.
In normal life we operate on a 24-hour schedule, but life on submarine under the ocean operates on a very different, 18-hour schedule: 6 hours standing watch, 6 hours doing maintenance, and 6 hours sleeping. It is a never-ending cycle with no sun or moon to tell you the time of day. When you do get to sleep, you must make sure someone else is not still in your bed.
Submarines do not have a lot of space, so younger sailors, without much seniority have to “Hot Rack.” Hot racking refers to three guys sharing two bunks based on the schedule rotation due to lack of space and an 18-hour schedule. The air you breathe is recirculated and you can forget about internet. We were lucky if we got email, let alone if it was in the correct order.
Submariners live in a tin can where they can be awakened at any time to respond to a disaster. The thing about life on a submarine is that when you awake to an alarm, you have no idea if it is real or a drill. You must respond to it as if it is real disaster every time. This reality conditions the sailor to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. It may sound like an assault on the mind and body, yet sailors are trained for this occurrence and their heart rate stays relatively low. The fight or flight response is active, but not going crazy.
Training helps the sailor adapt to be ready to respond on a moments notice. They know that change can happen at any time, and so when the situation changes, they are not surprised. Although the situation may be terrible, they were ready to adapt to the new set of circumstances.
Life on a submarine is not natural. Like life in a pandemic, it’s not meant to be. It is designed to function as best as possible for the task at hand. When I first climbed down that hatch I was bombarded by sights, smells, and sounds my mind instantly recognized the situation as not natural, or normal. I could have freaked out, climbed back up and said I am done. That would have only made things worse. I had to rely on my training, which helped me to adapt.
Our children are not submariners (Thank Goodness!). Therefore they need not be ready to fight fires at a moment’s notice.
How do we do this? What is the healthiest way to prepare our children to adjust to a situation that may change every few weeks?
1. Open Communication
Children are incredibly resilient. Their brains and bodies can adapt to new situations repeatedly. Open communication makes it less traumatic. When children know what to expect, they are less likely to act adversely in the face of change.
Imagine a school playground where kindergarteners are playing and suddenly all the teachers disappear. The children will become uncomfortable, anxious, and look for authority. Take those same children and tell them, “I am going around the corner to get the giant parachute,” and they are less stressed because they know the teacher is leaving.
Talk with your children about what is happening. Tell them the school year is uncertain; they may be in school one week and then unexpectedly at home the next. If you keep them updated, even on things that may seem silly to you, you are preparing their minds to adapt to the stress associated with constant change.
2. Maintain Flexibility
As the school year is evolves, your children’s routines may change. Children are very resilient, but most prefer dependability. Without routine and certainty they may become reactive, agitated, and just kind of grumpy. This is where maintaining flexibility as a parent comes in. Recognizing that they are going through a difficult time and their attitudes may be off, will allow you to give them a bit of wiggle room to adjust to the new normal.
3. Allow Expression of Frustration and Emotions
It is important to let your children express their frustrations. There is no need to encourage them to have an all out temper tantrum in the middle of Walgreens because you won’t buy them Pokémon cards, but they need to know they can safely and calmly tell you what is making them mad, sad, or scared. Striking the balance between structure, routine and compassion are important parenting tools. If you want to know more about ways to encourage children to express their emotions in healthy ways, you can check out other Real Good Dads blogs here: https://www.gooddads.com/insights.