• Kayte Thomas

Parenting during a pandemic

As weeks turn into months of stay-home orders, families are feeling more than a little bit of strain with all of the changes and restrictions in place. In many ways, this is to be expected just because of the severity of changes that have occurred all at once. For those who are isolated with children, stress levels may be higher as parents navigate new online school requirements while trying to maintain employment and keep the household running as smoothly as possible. Parents are thrown into roles they were neither prepared for nor given additional time to manage: who could possibly handle suddenly being teacher, playmate, and employee while simultaneously having the hands-on parenting hours dramatically increased too? This isn’t to say that people don’t love or enjoy their kids – it's just that this is a lot to expect families to endure with minimal support.

Parents are navigating their own stress responses while also having to support their children by addressing their needs and difficulties adjusting as well. Remote learning has proved problematic for many families as there are so many different learning styles and educational interests of individual children juxtaposed with the rigid environment of an online classroom. And let’s face it – parenting and teaching require very different skills and it is pretty challenging to expect someone to be able to do both simultaneously (and often while juggling multiple other tasks!) This alone has caused a great deal of increased stress for families.

More and more, I’m seeing frazzled parents feeling overwhelmed trying to keep up with everything, which in turn causes them to have feelings of frustration or thoughts of “not being good enough”. This can at times create a cascade of other issues – feeling irritable, being short-tempered, yelling, crying, or engaging in unhelpful coping strategies such as increased alcohol consumption or ignoring their own self care. And all of these things drive disconnection…which just makes the feelings of frustration and sense of overwhelm increase.

So, what can be done to deal with this? You already know what I’m going to say….First, BREATHE. Those slow deep breaths we talked about earlier can help to calm your nervous system and help you to think more clearly. Then, make sure you’re setting realistic expectations for yourself and others in the home. This is a really hard time for everyone and it’s unlikely that pre-pandemic levels of productivity can be maintained due to all of the stressors and changes. And if the adults are struggling to cope, that means that children are definitely struggling too. Remember that they are still learning how to control their emotions, and they are looking to you for guidance on how to handle everything. When all of this is over, they will remember how they felt during this time more than whether they got an A on a math test or if the house was perfectly cleaned.

Connection and attachment matter, and these aspects of relationships are closely related to resiliency and grit – the ability to get through difficult times. Ask yourself regularly if your interactions are creating connection or disconnection. If you lose your cool, remember that you’re only human and take a few moments to walk away and lower your stress levels. But be sure to come back and apologize to your child as well and model appropriate ways to handle the situation next time. Why does this matter? It’s important that children are able to see adults make mistakes and learn how to address them appropriately. It’s alright for children to see their parents feeling overwhelmed; in fact, it shows them that life can be overwhelming sometimes….and it’s okay. Often we want to pretend as adults that we have everything together and nothing is ever wrong, but that isn’t very realistic and doesn’t show children how to cope with adversity. Spend some time each day helping them to identify and label emotions, how to communicate feelings, and how to process what happened if they (or you!) become overwhelmed. Being able to do these things is part of what is called “emotional intelligence”, a set of skills which can improve empathy, awareness, and interpersonal relationships.

If you need help with how to do this, I find feelings faces to be very valuable tools as it can be beneficial to visualize the face that most closely matches the feeling. And having words for emotions helps to improve communication and reduce frustration. This is appropriate for a wide range of ages and cognitive levels also.

Parenting during a pandemic can feel extra frustrating, especially if it seems as if the same problems are occurring regularly and your efforts are under appreciated or not creating positive change. How we approach situations affects the way we feel about them though, so let me give you an analogy that I find is often very helpful with parenting and managing stress. It’s called the “Gardening Analogy” and it goes like this:

Think of a gardener who is busy planting seeds in the garden to grow. S/he places them diligently in just the right places, with the right amount of soil, at the right time, and has everything just perfect. But s/he doesn't have control over many factors....if the sun shines, how much it rains, the temperature, whether animals or pests come nibble, etc. S/he can't even control which ones will grow, only that s/he did the best to give the seeds the best conditions to do so. Parenting is just like that. All you can do is plant seeds. You have no control over the external factors or the outcomes, and you have to find a way to be okay with that because one day, maybe when you least expecting it, those seeds may grow. You may feel frustrated but perhaps the seeds you planted when helping your child now will sprout later – when they are faced with a difficult situation with peers, when they have to figure out a challenge alone, when they have their own children, etc. Ask yourself every day if you planted seeds, and trust that they will grow as and when they are meant to. Trust that the effort you are putting in today to plant seeds of wisdom, compassion, self-sufficiency, resilience, and all the other wonderful things you are demonstrating for your children will be fruitful in the future. Then let go of everything else.

There is a great resource from Better Kids as well – a calendar created specifically to help with daily connection and building a sense of attachment and empathy. If doing something everyday feels overwhelming, try doing something once a week if that is easier. Remember the goal is to build connection, not create more tasks or cause more stress. Check it out here.

Be mindful to be gentle with yourself during this time, and to set aside a few minutes each day to do something that you enjoy to recharge. If you feel that you are unable to manage feelings of anger, use of substances, or other issues be sure to reach out for help - there is a list of helplines in the "Resources" tab.

Dear frustrated parent, be patient with yourself as you navigate this challenging time. You are likely doing a much better job than you realize. We'll talk more about emotional recognition and the importance of emotional intelligence next week too!

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