Parenting at the End of a Pandemic = Burnout
Parenting during COVID is tough. Parenting at the tail end of a pandemic is tough. Parenting during the holidays is tough. Parenting during the holiday season with COVID feels practically impossible. COVID parenting was already a recipe for burnout, and now let’s add in the stresses of the holiday season, the sadness of missing family and our usual rituals, and kids who are overstimulated by all the changes. What else can the universe throw at us? Should we do all that while juggling, too?! (We kind of already are, right?)
If we’ve learned nothing else this year, it’s that we’ve got big emotions, and our kids do, too. We’ve also learned that emotions are just as contagious as coronavirus. When our emotions get too big, our kids' emotions do the same, and vice versa. All that togetherness has taught us that our emotions matter. The way we handle our kids’ emotions matter. That’s a big load for us to carry, as parents.
I like to focus on small changes parents can make that have a big impact. Let’s face it—we don’t have the time, headspace, or resources to completely overhaul our parenting plans right now. Parental burnout is real, it’s more prevalent and talked about during COVID than ever before, and it’s more detrimental to our kids than we previously believed.
The last thing I want to do with an overstressed parent is ask for too much change. Instead, let’s focus on some two-letter words that we can use to transform our parenting. Let's challenge ourselves to use these words at least once every week.
The situation is too stressful? The kids are bickering endlessly? Sometimes, distance is the best cure. Simply leaving the room and doing some deep breathing—giving ourselves a moment’s pause to reset ourselves—is golden. I call this “finding a safe space” and I like to do it when I realize I’m going to be a counterproductive parent if I remain. Better to find my own calm, and then come back in and intervene. Trust me, they’ll still be bickering over the last chocolate in the box or who touched whose stuff when we come back in.
The same also applies to our kids: When they’re feeling overstimulated and upset, having them go elsewhere and self-regulate really helps. It’s hard to lower big emotions when we’re still in the situation that sparked them. Being in the room where the fight took place frequently brings back associations to the fight. Seeing the toy they just fought over, or the sibling they just fought with, can elicit rage. Simply go to a safe space and allow yourself to feel calm.
I explain this to kids by teaching them the concept of homeostasis—it’s a big fancy word for a simple concept. Our brains and bodies are like Goldilocks: They want to be “just right” all the time. Our heart doesn’t want to beat too fast or too slow. Our lungs don’t want to expand too rapidly or too slowly. Our blood sugar wants to be even—not too high and not too low. So, if we’re furious, and our heart is pounding madly, all we should do is go to a safe space, and our bodies will take care of the rest. As our heart slows, our breathing restores itself, and our brains start to feel calmer too.
No is a word parents hesitate to use, and that’s a shame. I like to teach kids that inherent in every “no” is a “yes.” No, we’re not going to stay up late tonight. That’s a “yes” to having a great and productive day tomorrow. No, we’re not giving in to this tantrum. That’s a “yes” to learning self-control. No, we can’t have screen time until we’ve done our schoolwork. That’s a “yes” to feeling like screen time is a treat we’ve earned, and a “yes” to feeling satisfied, productive, and accomplished.
I like to teach kids the concept of accepting “no” for an answer, and how that can build social capital. Author Julia Cook has written an incredible book called I Just Don’t Like The Sound of No, where she introduces the concept of a “saying yes to no” club.
If every “no” meets with a lot of resistance and unnecessary firestorms, the entire system gets burned out. Every “no, we can’t stay at the playground right now” or “no, I don’t choose to buy you that randomly shaped expensive bit of plastic that teaches values I don’t believe in” or “no, we can’t eat lollipops for dinner” can’t be an emergency. When that happens, parents tend to tune out the reactions entirely, and that’s not good for either kids or parents.
Instead, we want to give in fantasy what we don’t give in reality, and teach children the value of sometimes accepting a no. “It would be GREAT if we could eat candy for dinner all the time, right? That would be a blast! But if we did that, our bodies wouldn’t feel very good. We’d feel tired all the time, and it would be hard to focus.” This isn’t a “no” to candy for dinner, it’s a “yes” to health.
When a child learns to reserve strong reactions for the issues that really matter, we learn to pay attention to those issues. When a child learns to “say yes to no” for all the simple things—brushing their teeth, doing homework, eating reasonably healthy food at reasonably healthy intervals, going to bed on time—then when a “no” is difficult to accept, we take notice. That’s a win for both kids and parents.
The best way to make any change isn’t to talk about it, think about it, commit to it, or post it on social media. The best way to make a change is to do it. When we want to help our children through a challenge, we need to come up with a way to break that challenge down into smaller tasks, and then do them. Until we actually do the thing we say we’d like to do, no change has happened.
Instead of thinking “I’d like to be less shy,” let’s practice giving a speech to friendly relatives over Zoom. Instead of saying “I should manage my time better and start homework earlier,” let’s figure out concrete small tasks we can undertake that will make that happen. Maybe it’s downloading an app that disables social media until a pre-determined time, maybe it’s shutting phones off til homework is done—it’s not the bigger value of “I want to be better at time management” that we can change. It’s the small concrete task of shutting off the phone for an hour.
It’s the same with parents. Saying “I really should get to bed earlier” isn’t a change. It feels good for half a second. Setting the WiFi in the house to automatically shut down at a predetermined time is a concrete action—something we can DO—that will make this behavior happen.
Whenever we’re struggling with a change that we know we should make but that seems too big, think about what we can “DO” to create the change. What are small, concrete steps we can take towards that goal?
It’s the end of a really stressful year. We have this desire to make the holidays, New Year, and perhaps school winter break spectacular, to counterbalance all the “yuck” that was 2020. Especially as the vaccine becomes more widespread, and the world gradually reopens, the temptation to go out and have a fabulous time grows.
But remember that kids are just as happy when we allow them to “be.” We don’t need to be cheerleaders, party planners, and DJs to ensure our kids have a good time. Simply let them “be.” Enjoy family time, create some memories of hanging out together, at home, with nothing major on the agenda. Even as the world reopens, take time to continue to take breaks and simply “be.”
Parenting is tough. Pandemic parenting is tough. Pandemic parenting at the end of 2020—super tough. That’s why we need to integrate these simple words: Go. No. Do. Be. Small words that make a big impact.
© Robyn Koslowitz, 2020