by Nick Steffen, LMHC

Attention is costly

The primary mechanism of our computer’s ability to multitask is something called “context switching.” Essentially, the processing unit saves a task off to memory in a way that it can later retrieve and then shifts over to another task. Each context switch comes with a performance cost though, if only because the act of switching is another action that costs energy.

Just like the computer, shifting our attention, even to something positive, does take a little more energy every time it happens and when it’s happening a lot, we can find ourselves struggling more and more to maintain our attention.

The modern world makes increasing bids on our attention and time whenever it shows us an advertisement, whenever we hear a phone buzz, or whenever we’re simply spending time with children. Parents understand this well. A 2017 study run by Dr. John Borrero at the University of Maryland looked a preschool classroom and found that students were trying to get the teacher’s attention 2-3 times per minute. That is one bid for attention (per child) every 20-30 seconds. When I’ve shared this in larger groups, I often see mothers in the crowd nodding with a knowing look. Shifting our increasingly worn attention is hard.

But context switching is hard in other ways too. Consider, once again, children. Is there anything more representative of the toll of context switching than trying to get a child to go to sleep? They may wail, run, twist, turn, scrape, manipulate, or find any verb they can to avoid the transition. Parents design complex rituals to make sure that every possible need is met, they create safe environments to foster a sense of security, and often try to make time to attend to their children with stories and prayers, trying to speak to their children with gentleness and care. Transitions are hard. We don’t need to make them harder.

What does the child learn from this process? They learn that the parents do not become stuck in the child’s words and actions during the tantrum, but see the child’s deeper needs and take action to meet them. As the UCLA neurobiologist Dan Siegel may describe it, they learn that they can be safe, soothed, seen, and secure. In turn, parents can learn that they actually can withstand the overwhelming barrage of emotion the child is experiencing, see the deeper needs, and feel all the more confident that they can meet those needs.

Transitions hurt

Ex-pats know transition. They know the constant companion of loss that travels with them as they leave their home, family, church, culture, language, supermarket, and even identity behind to rediscover them anew. When my wife and I joined Olive Tree during the chaotic time of COVID, we saw how quickly we felt like children, perhaps most explicitly in our fumbling attempts to learn language and culture, but in the deeper emotions that we would find emerging during times of high stress.

Transitions hurt. And they can bring us to feel like children all over again. But what if we would approach our own pain the way a good parent or even a good friend might have approached us as children when we were struggling through yet another bedtime? What if we design routines and boundaries that can help make our lives a little more predictable. What if we could speak to ourselves gently and kindly, knowing that all transitions entail loss, that they hurt? What if, rather than getting stuck in the thoughts, emotions, and impulses that seem to be streaming from our hearts, we would seek to take care of our bodies?

Set yourself and others up for success

But since we are all in the same soup, these same lessons can be broadened to our families, our teams, and communities. They have needs too and may lack the time, attention, or energy to address them. They too may feel lost in a world fighting to fracture their attention just one more time. They may even find themselves surrounded inside and out with accusing voices inflaming their sense of shame, even during times of deep loss.

So today, let’s try to be better parents both to ourselves and each other. Regardless of age, we all need the gifts of being safe, soothed, seen, and secure.

  • Take the time to invest in your routine and healthy boundaries, both for yourself and others.
  • Remember that you and those around you have bodies with real needs.
  • Speak kindly and gently to yourself and others, as a friend might.

Building these practices may provide both you and those around you with islands of stability during this all-too chaotic time. Go out of your way to set yourself and others up for success.

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