SOS for Parents During the Pandemic

Proactive strategies for how not to lose your mind.

Posted Oct 05, 2020

 Natalia Ovcharenko/Pixabay
Source: Natalia Ovcharenko/Pixabay

If you are a parent, you know that this pandemic has challenged you in ways you never imagined. Does any of this sound familiar: working from home in close quarters with everyone getting on one another’s nerves; trying to manage your kids’ and your own difficult emotions in the face of uncertainty and fear; trying to be parent and home school teacher and safety monitor and entertainer; being pulled in 20 directions with little chance to replenish; not having one’s usual outlets for socialization and connection; and trying to hold it together when it feels like things are falling apart? If so, you are not alone.

Here are some tips for navigating this challenging time with greater ease:

1. Create structure, schedule, routine, and predictability.  

  • Kids thrive on structure, predictability, consistency, and routine. Most adults do too. Especially in the face of so much change and uncertainty, when kids can count on clear expectations, schedules, consistent rules, and some predictability at home, this helps make their world feel safer.
  • Given the challenges of many parents needing to work from home, it can be helpful to schedule together time and alone time. If children know that parents are predictably available at certain times throughout the day this can help them be more patient during those times when parents have to work (or are taking some time to recharge). If children are old enough to work or play independently for periods of time you might set a timer or remind them that at 11 a.m. you will be available to get them a snack, help them with things they may need, and take a break to be with them. If there are two parents in the house, parent one might remind their child that “we can’t disturb parent two now, but parent two is going to read you a story and eat lunch with you at 1 p.m.
  • Additionally, scheduling (put it on the calendar!) some 1:1 time with kids, separate from routine day-to-day interactions—even in short doses—can go a long way to help children’s moods and behavior. If children know that they will have your undivided attention (no devices or distractions) for 15 or 20 minutes to play, talk, listen or do an activity together, that experience of being felt, seen, heard, and held can be an investment that pays big dividends for both of you. Think about how nourishing it is for you when a friend or family member makes time to be with you, to listen and talk and be fully present. We all need that, and when we give that gift to our children (finding their language of connection through play or activity), it helps to bring out the best in them. The length or frequency of time spent is less important than you giving your undivided attention and making this a planned event (no outings needed—play on the floor, play outdoors, pretend or draw together).
  • For parents working from home, without the natural transitions from work to home and home to work, everything can blend into one big blur of monotony and overwhelm. Taking time to create short transition rituals can help with this. For example, taking even three to five minutes after finishing work to sit in a favorite chair and meditate, listen to a soothing piece of music, or go for a walk around the house can help you shift from one role to another, while giving yourself a few minutes to decompress.

2. Know your inner landscape and be proactive.  

When we take time to take inventory and pay attention to our thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and behaviors with mindful awareness, this can provide us vital information about when our tank is running low and needs refueling. When we’re running on full, even the biggest challenges can feel manageable, but when we are running on empty, sometimes the most minor things can feel insurmountable. 

  • One way to take inventory (and this is great for kids too) is to create a “stress thermometer.” Draw a thermometer with a scale from 1-10, with 1 representing almost no stress at all, and 10 representing the highest level of stress. Think about when you are a 3 or 4 on your stress scale. What is happening in your body? What are you saying to yourself? How are you behaving? Write this down on the side of the thermometer. For example, you might notice your muscles start to get tight and breathing becomes more shallow. You might think to yourself “I can’t believe he’s starting in again, here goes my day. You might start to raise your voice. Answer the above questions for when you are at a 5-6, and when you are at a 7-8 on your thermometer. These body sensations, thoughts, and behaviors can now be cues for you to pay attention to, so that you can recognize when you are getting close to your “danger zone.”
  • Part 2 of this exercise is to be proactive and make a plan for what you might do if you notice your thermometer rising. If you catch yourself at a 3 you might be able to walk away, take some breaths, and remind yourself that your child is less likely to escalate if you stay calm. If you are already at a 7 or 8 you may need to call in some emergency back-up reinforcement if there is another adult in the house, or call a trusted friend or family member to talk you down.

3. Create Time IN.  

  • When tempers flare—and they inevitably will for parents and kids—it can be helpful to have a safe zone, a calm place where family members can go to calm down, take a break, step away when stressed, and safely let the storm pass. Each person in the family might create their own space, whether in the corner of their bedroom, or somewhere else in the house.  It can be helpful to have a container that one can go to and choose objects for self-soothing. Depending on the age of the family member this might vary from stuffed animals to markers/paper, a journal, favorite music, or inspirational quotes. Taking “time in” can be a helpful way for parents to model to children how to self-regulate and self-soothe, while at the same time taking care of themselves.
  • Another very helpful thing that families might do to navigate stress and create time-in together is to have a weekly family meeting. Adding some element of fun to it is important to make it something families look forward to. Begin by everyone sharing something that has gone well during the week, or something that another family member did that they appreciate. As the parent, give as much genuine positive reinforcement as possible about what you have noticed that is positive about your child’s behavior, how they handled a difficult situation well, what good choices they made during the week, etc. Following this, ask each family member to share concerns or difficulties that came up, and together see if you might problem-solve in a collaborative way. For example, a parent might bring up that despite a rule being set, children are not stopping video games at the agreed upon time, and this is leading to increased conflict. Come up with revised rules or consequences, but include children in the dialogue so that they feel part of the solution and are therefore more invested, having been part of the process. End with a short family activity if time permits.

These are no easy times for parents, but taking time to be proactive, intentional, and planful can go a long way in navigating daily challenges and getting through difficulties.