Pandemic parenting struggles? You're not alone
"At many times throughout their lives, children will feel like the world has turned topsy-turvy. It’s not the ever-present smile that will help them feel secure. It’s knowing that love can hold many feelings, including sadness, and that they can count on the people they love to be with them until the world turns right side up again.”- Fred Rogers
Delaware schools are officially closed until the end of the school year. If you're a parent with children at home, you've probably read many suggestions for how to help your family work together during this stay-at-home order: Maintain structure. Lower your expectations; children don't need to be learning every hour of the day. Make time for family fun! Get outside. Cook together. Exercise together. Crochet a blanket together, etc. There are lots of wonderful ideas, with the hope that your family will come out of this situation stronger than ever before.
But what if your family feels like it's falling apart during this pandemic? What if the joy part is lacking? What if it feels like every idea you suggest, your child rejects? Maybe the opposition has increased, or the yelling and arguing in the house has reached a difficult level? Do you feel like you're losing your mind as a parent? You're not alone.
The stress in the air in a lot of households right now is palpable. Struggles are increasing, often feeling like we’re getting past the stage of fun family time at home and just getting tired of the same people, place, stuff. And if you're feeling it mom and dad, so are the kiddos…but to a worse degree because they don't understand it. As adults, we barely understand it! What a time of uncertainty, struggle, and adjustment! As adults we can logically acknowledge that this is a weird time but we must continue to put one foot in front of the other and achieve our set goals for the day. For children, in their small world, their capacity to fully understand the situation is limited. What they are experiencing is a loss of social and academic connections, a loss of routine and consistency, which leads to a loss of feeling emotionally and physically secure. On top of that is a fear of the unknown, and a fear of this big scary virus and how it can affect people we care about. So much loss. So much grief. So much fear.
And as young minds develop, they learn how to identify, understand, and regulate all of their big emotions. But that takes time, experience, and adults who are willing to be with them without shame or judgement, allowing space for those difficult emotions and helping them feel heard and comforted. If we're struggling with regulating our own feelings right now and cannot be there emotionally for our children, our children will continue to struggle with expressing their feelings in an appropriate manner. They will continue to tantrum and noncomply as a form of self-expression. It's a developmentally-appropriate response for children who are struggling, but man is it hard to deal with as parents.
I encourage you to not let your attempts at being the “perfect parent” stop you from being good enough for your children right now.
So yes, take that walk around the neighborhood together, pick up knitting together, build a fort and have a tickle fest. Also, take a walk alone, listen to a guided meditation, dance to your favorite music, scream into a pillow, get enough rest, eat well, reach out to a support system. Once you feel calmer and more playful as a parent, the stress in the home decreases, and the children feel calmer and less emotionally distressed.
Also, take a moment to just breathe together and slow down, without expectation of a perfect result. By doing this you are helping regulate both of your nervous systems. Once both you and your child are in a calm state, talk about how hard this is with your children, share your feelings and support them in opening up about their feelings. This helps teach appropriate self-expression.
When we as parents can show up this way, the child’s developmental need for security and connection will be met and a child's distressing reactions of 'acting out' will decrease. Hopefully, you will be able to come out of this together as a stronger family unit. Everyone needs more empathy right now. Children especially. But don’t forget to have more empathy for yourself during this time too - mom, dad, grandparent, guardian. Because this time is tough. You're not alone.
Kelly Gordon, LCSW is a child and adolescent mental health therapist who specializes in family-centered therapeutic approaches for children with social, emotional, and behavioral issues, including trauma histories and mood disorders. She is a Clinical Social Worker licensed in Delaware and the owner of Embrace Wellness LLC in Rehoboth.