The laundry’s done, the beds are made, and you have plenty to time to savor that morning cup of coffee, right? We’d be willing to guess that may not be the case for many of you… maybe most of you as summer disappeared into fall and back-to-school plans are all over the map… literally.
If you’re feeling like you’re running on empty just as fall schedules require putting your foot on the gas, know that you’re not alone. Being overwhelmed, anxious, exhausted, even feelings of malaise and boredom are all part of these unprecedented times we’re in.
The hard job of parenting just got harder.
So let’s get into the reality of what parenting looks like right now, what you may be feeling, what your kids are going through, and what to do about. And maybe, just maybe, remind you of all the wonderful reasons you became a parent in the first place.
Why does parenting feel so intense right now?
You’ve heard the term helicopter parenting: a not so flattering term describing the sometime extreme steps parents take to keep their kids safe. We can all be guilty of it. But now, in this time of COVID, social scientists have found more and more parents feel “intensive parenting” is the expectation. And it’s, as the name suggests, a little intense.
Intensive parenting is an ideology that child rearing dictates that the process is to be child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive, and financially expensive.
Three-quarters of parents of children under 12, and 64 percent of parents of teenagers, said it was more important to do parent-led educational activities with their children this summer than in previous summers. That may sound like a good thing, but it’s leading to increased expectations across demographic groups. Women and people with college degrees are feeling more pressure to lead educational activities, and because of COVID, 9 in 10 US parents worry their kids are falling behind. And 82% of Latinx and 76% of Black parents are concerned they don’t have resources or supplies to help their kids stay on track. Not to mention the extra stress on Black parents worried about their kids and racial injustice.
We want to be hands-on. We want to do our best jobs. But many of us simply don’t have the resources, and it’s leading to the highest reports of stress and anxiety we’ve ever seen.
What’s the impact of increased expectations on parents?
Increased expectations without additional resources leads to so damaging effects. Some of these may feel familiar:
Feeling selfish. Taking time for yourself for individual self-care gets harder and harder. You might not be getting proper rest or downtime, and you may be burning the candle at both ends.
Feelings of guilt. When we feel we don’t meet the expectations being set for us, we tend to blame ourselves.
Financial anxiety. Spending money on tutors, in-home activities, heightened concerned about kids falling behind and being college ready… all of these stress us as much as they stress our bank accounts.
Increased uncertainty. A generation of hyper-overscheduled kids now have a lot of time on their hands. Add in inconsistent plans across districts and grade levels, and it’s difficult to make a plan for the day, let alone the year.
Increased stress.There’s the risk of COVID exposure for the children, but also the risk of bringing COVID home to their families. Many schools do not have the funding to provide proper safety measures, and many others are unsure how to enforce measures like masks and social distancing. This is incredibly stressful for parents and kids alike.
These increased expectations will need a cultural shift to change. But when stress and anxiety are looming, we can’t wait for a major shift. We need a plan—for managing our kids’ stress and managing our own.
How do I manage my own stress when conflict happens?
Just remember when things get tough to simply take a breath. Breathing won’t stop your child from crying or your teen from screaming, but it will help you if you’re feeling overwhelmed or especially stressed. After that deep breath, ask yourself:
- Does the problem represent an immediate danger?
- How will I feel about this problem tomorrow?
- Is this situation permanent? (Not every situation needs to be reacted to…sometimes a break is all that’s needed.)
To address the conflict itself, think through these steps.
- Before yelling, look your kids in the eye, and really listen to what they are saying. If you need to, tell them “I need to walk away for a minute,” and then come back and have a conversation about the evidence you are seeing about an issue, hear what they have to say, and try to come to a resolution.
- Know your triggers. Typically, there are specific things that lead to yelling. Learning what they are and trying to mitigate those triggers prior to things escalating is important. For example, if chores are not consistently done, work on a behavior star chart to encourage your child to complete their chores by increasing their motivation.
- Identify when the yelling is more about you and not the child’s behavior. Sometimes our expectations for our kids are too high, or we’re irritated because something is more about you than the child. Examine that on your own time. For example, you might be yelling because you too feel out of control, or maybe you don’t know what the right answer is, and that’s overwhelming. Or, maybe it’s that if your child isn’t doing well in school, you feel like you failed. Investigate these feelings. Sit with yourself and try to hone in on why yelling happens. Sometimes, it’s just because we feel like yelling, too. But knowing those feelings can help you manage the habit.
- Give your kids a warning. If you feel like you are getting irritated and you might start yelling, tell your children and give them a suggestion of something else to do. For example, you are making dinner and the kids are running around and yelling. Tell the kids that this is a warning, and give them a choice of two activities they can do instead. Choices help kids feel in control.
- Make a “yes” list. Sit down together and come up with a list of things you can do instead of yelling. For example, everyone does 10 jumping jacks or leaves the room and takes 3 deep breaths. You will be amazed at how these activities can defuse the situation.
How can I prevent my kids from stressing in the first place?
The short answer, like many you of already know, is that you can’t. But you can create an environment that helps them prepare for and manage stress. You can do this a few ways:
Model how to manage feelings. Talk through how you are managing your own feelings. (“I am worried about Grandma since I can’t go visit her. The best I can do is to check in with her more often by phone. I will put a reminder on my phone to call her in the morning and the afternoon until this outbreak ends.”)
Structure the day. With the usual routines thrown off, establish new daily schedules. Break up schoolwork when possible. Older children and teens can help with schedules, but they should follow a general order, such as:
- Wake-up routines: getting dressed, breakfast and some active play in the morning, followed by quiet play and snack to transition into schoolwork
- Lunch: eat, chores, exercise, some online social time with friends, and then homework in the afternoon
- Evening: family time & reading before bed
In addition to schedules, here are a few other things to keep in mind:
- Make sure kids are getting enough sleep. Keeping screens out of the bedroom helps, and so does introducing a wind down routine in the evening. That could include warm milk, stretching, or a meditation.
- Redirect outbursts. Children misbehave because they are bored, do not have limits, or are anxious. Find something else for them to do.
- Creative play. Suggest your children draw pictures of ways your family is staying safe. Make a collage and hang it up to remind everyone. Or, build an indoor fort or castle to keep the germs at bay, bringing in favorite stuffed animals or toys.
- Direct your attention. Attention (to reinforce good behaviors and discourage others) is a powerful tool. Notice good behavior and point it out, praising success and good tries. Explaining clear expectations, particularly with older children, can help with this.
- Use rewards & privileges. Reinforce good behaviors (completing school assignments, chores, getting along with siblings, etc.) with rewards that wouldn’t normally be given during less stressful times. Steer clear of money or prizes—keep rewards focused on quality time with the family. You can use sticker charts and the kids can pick one fun family activity when they get the target number of stars. Younger children need more immediacy (stars earned over a day’s time) versus older children who can tolerate waiting the week.
- Know when not to respond. As long as your child isn’t doing something dangerous and gets attention for good behavior, then try walking away and taking a self-care break before responding to their child (depending on age.) Set a 5-minute timer to take a breath.
OK, but what do I do when my kid is officially stressed out?
First, start by answering any questions about the news simply & honestly. Talk with children about any frightening news they hear. It’s OK to say people are getting sick, but saying following rules like hand washing and staying home will help your family stay healthy.
Second, recognize your child’s feelings. Calmly say, for example, “I can see that you are upset because you can’t have your friends over.” Guiding questions can help older children and teens work through issues. (“I know it is disappointing not to be able to hang with your friends right now. How do you think you can stay in touch with them?”) Kids may be stressed and manifesting it in different ways such as carrying around a blankie or special toy/object, tantrums and outbursts. These are all manifestations of their anxiety and feeding off the tension parents are feeling.
Kids, just like adults, are faced with peers who will make different safety decisions, driving further anxiety and confusion. And a lack of structure (and constant changing structure) can cause anxiety, too, as kids no longer feel like there are any limits or boundaries. Here are some ideas for helping kids manage their stress:
- Sensory toys like squeeze balls, soft clay, buzzers, sensory jars, or sand. Or, try getting them in the bathtub at the first sign of a meltdown. The key is to pick a sensory activity your child loves.
- Calm down corners or an “escape hatch.” Be sure your child knows where they can go when they get overwhelmed, whether that’s to their bedroom, to the TV room, or maybe outside in the backyard. Create a safe space where your child can calm down and where they feel comfortable being. You many need to go with them to the “calm down corner.” It doesn’t have to be a big elaborate space—a fluffy blanket behind a chair, a weighted blanket, pillows, calming sensory tools, even a punching bag. A calming corner can be a game changer during a meltdown if it’s a fit for your child.
- Deep pressure. Hugs, lots of hugs, have huge calming effects because of something known as deep pressure, or proprioceptive input. Deep pressure helps tell your sensory system where your body is in space. In other words, it tells us where our bodies end and the outside world begins. Deep pressure can include massage, cuddles, weighted blankets and compression clothing. Some kids may not like deep pressure at all, so determine if this is an appropriate calming technique for your child.
- Breathing exercises. Try 4×4 breathing with your child, and if it works for them, help them learn to practice it on their own.
Don’t forget to take care of yourself
We’ve all heard the oxygen mask rule, but it’s a rule for a reason: it works. And let’s set one thing straight: If you’re loving your child, you’re doing enough. We’ve all read the stories about some “super mom” who’s created the perfect calm down nook, never gets stressed, and looks like she’s on a film set. Forget the image of this made-up person. And repeat after me: if I am loving my child, I am doing enough.
There are a few key things you can be doing to take care of yourself. Let’s break them down.
- Find support. Parents need communities and friends where they can be honest. Think of who you can talk to, what group chats might be sympathetic, or schedule your own virtual meet-up/vent session.
- Limit the news. If there are big sweeping changes, you will hear about it. Limit your doomscrolling and news consumption to just ten minutes a day, unless your job specifically calls for more.
- Schedule time alone. Your old routine is scrapped, but you have to carve out at least ten minutes for yourself. We know this can be especially challenging for single parents, but maybe it’s that 15 minutes right after the kids go to bed. Even ten minutes where you’re not paying bills or managing someone else’s lunches, and instead journaling or taking a bath, can make a big difference.
- Try to maintain healthy habits. This one is hard! We know! But doing a workout while watching TV is still working out. Drinking water with lemon is smart and cheap solution to soda. And limiting booze can add years to your life. These can be challenging habits, but they’re worth it
Raising kids is hard work. Raising kids through a pandemic? Good grief. But you’re doing it, and you’ll keep doing it. One deep breath at a time.
Co-authored by Roxane Battle, Vice President of Advocacy and Community at Sanvello
Roxane works to raise awareness and de-stigmatize mental health issues. Prior to coming to Sanvello, Roxane spent 20+ years as a television journalist, including work as an award-winning news anchor and reporter at NBC Minneapolis, CBS, and FOX. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota and her Master’s from University of Missouri-Columbia—both in journalism. Her self-help memoir, “Pockets of Joy: Deciding to Be Happy, Choosing to Be Free” (Whitaker House 2017), became an Amazon best seller in multiple categories.
Follow her on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook: @roxanebattle
Co-authored by Monika Roots, Chief Medical Officer at Sanvello
Dr. Roots practiced as a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist. She was also a Clinical Adjunct Assistant Professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison and was most recently the Vice President of Health Services and Behavioral Health for Teladoc Health. In 2016, Teladoc Health acquired her business, CogCubed, a behavioral health analytics company. Dr. Roots earned her MD from University of Sint Eustatius School of Medicine and completed psychiatry residency and fellowship in child/adolescent psychiatry at the University of Minnesota.