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  • Julie Baron, LCSW-C

Tolerating Uncertainty

The only certainty is in knowing there will be uncertainty.

One of the core skills we advocate in working with and raising teens is Predictability. We know that predictability creates a sense of safety and reduces anxiety and therefore increases innovation and positive risk taking. So… what do we do when something like a virus creates widespread uncertainty and disruption in our daily lives?

The current uncertainty with COVID-19 is understandably creating anxiety for kids, teens and adults alike. It is also an opportunity. Life can never be without adversity and painful moments, many of which we may not see coming. Working our muscles for Tolerating Uncertainty is a critical life skill. It also helps us tolerate the intensity of our distress.

Let’s use this unfortunate set of circumstances to teach our teens (and practice ourselves) the art of tolerating uncertainty. Here are some strategies to help:

1. Radical Acceptance- Radical Acceptance means full and total acceptance of what actually is, knowing with your whole self, and using that acceptance of reality to act in ways that are helpful and effective given the current actual situation. It means being honest about risk and taking needed precautions based on the facts, even when those steps may be inconvenient, uncomfortable or distressing. We do not have control over the pathways of viral transmission and thus far, without systematic testing to increase the known, we are living in uncertainty. It is what it is until it is something else. It also means allowing for the resulting, understandable emotions and validating those emotions as real. Sitting with difficult emotions is hard and also an important skill.

2. Look for the Positives- Any teen who just had schools cancelled for weeks at a time will tell you there are positives in this unfortunate scenario! Teachers and most school personnel likely also agree! Sleeping in, less or suspended workloads, a forced break, is a welcome new reality for those teens who grind out productivity day in and day out with academics, extracurriculars, jobs, college prep and the intensity of social stimuli in school. This is an opportunity for catching our breath, spending time with family, and perhaps giving our time to help others in need. Relax and take care of yourselves. Maybe the universe is sending a message that we need to slow things down in a hectic world for a bit?

3. Stay in the Now- While some degree of looking ahead and preparing is useful, when we are uncertain what that future will look like, staying present in the now makes the most sense. Take one step at a time. The things we may be worrying about may or may not come to be. Reserve your energy and limit undue distress worrying about things that have not yet happened. When this feels hard it means going back to radical acceptance. Ask yourself when can we do right now to make the best of the current situation and be there. When our focus is in the present, we are much more effective doing what is needed and will help us most.

4. Do what is in Your Control- I will spare repeating the list of self-care steps broadcasted on all channels (had washing, etc). Do those things within your control to keep yourself healthy, safe and to protect others, particularly those more vulnerable. We can express our honest feelings and opinions (advocate for needed systemic change and reform), support each other, rest and relax, do the work we can do from home or safe work environments, tune in for additional information, and help or take care of others in need. We can also make contingency plans and outline steps we can prepare for based on possible future scenarios. It is also important to reassure our teens that the adults are doing all they can to keep them (and ourselves) safe and healthy. There are only 2 things we have absolute control over- how we manage our physical selves (what we do/say) and where we place our attention. Teach teens to place their attention on those things they can control rather than the worries about the things they cannot.

Be well.


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