Annie Keeling: Parenting, stress and COVID-19
When the future is uncertain or we are experiencing something new, we can’t rely on past experiences to inform our decision-making. We may become anxious about what the future holds, running through various scenarios and worrying about them.
Sounds a lot like the uncertainty present in parenting — and the uncertainty of COVID-19 as well.
THE EFFECTS OF STRESS
Despite feeling close to their children during the COVID-19 pandemic, 61% of parents say they have shouted, yelled, or screamed at them at least once over the past two weeks, according to a new report from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. (https://www.psychcongress.com/article/covid-19-stress-taking-toll-parent-child-relationships)
“For a large number of parents, financial concerns, other worries, social isolation, loneliness, and sadness are getting in the way of parenting,” said lead author Shawna J. Lee, PhD, an associate professor of social work, who compiled the report with coauthor Kaitlin Ward, a doctoral student.
This uncertain experience is asking a lot of parents: full-time playmate, teacher and caregiver can take its toll. What can you do to help yourself? The first step is recognizing that this is a challenging time and that there are ways to ease the effects of uncertainty and stress.
CALMING TECHNIQUES FOR THE PARENT
Take care of yourself. Parents know that they must do this so they can be a good parent, but it’s often easier said than done. The Power of Three is essential: eat well, exercise, get sleep. Put a post-it reminder on your mirror, by the stove, by the screens in your home. Check in with yourself each evening. How did you do with your Power of Three today?
Take a breath. Or five. Research shows that it takes more than one deep breath to really affect the parasympathetic nervous system. Five deep breaths can change your state.
Reach out to others. Phone calls, Zoom, and yard dates with other adults- physically distanced on lawn chairs — are a few ways.
Take (even a tiny) break. Try splashing cold water on your face, stepping outside or planning a parenting partner hand-off. Identify what you might do to take a break before the day starts. This helps our psyche to anticipate the relief that is coming.
List healthy coping skills for yourself and your family. Avoid behaviors such as excessive alcohol drinking, online gambling or taking drugs. Negative coping mechanisms further compound your stress levels and can make your situation worse in the long run.
CALMING TECHNIQUES FOR THE FAMILY
Notice what’s going well. It’s so easy to see what is going wrong, especially when the family is in close quarters. Look for opportunities to praise your child when they have done something good, however small it may seem.
Plan (a little). We all benefit from being able to predict small things and having some control. It may work to make a daily schedule. You can also chat with your kids about choices for upcoming activities several times a day.
Chores in between. Try sandwiching a chore between two child-chosen activities. When kids have choice, this increases their pro-social behavior.
Have Special Time. With family members mostly at home, parents may feel their kids get plenty of their attention. But quantity is not always quality. Take 15 minutes out of each day for each child, label it Special Time, alternate who picks the activity, lessen distractions, and give your full attention.
Engagement. Provide engaging activities to keep children meaningfully occupied. Children cope better when they help others and are busy.
Play. Encourage your child to play. Play is very important in helping children work through stress and worries. It helps them to maintain some normality in their lives.
Alone time. For all children, but especially older children, try to create a space alone or away from others, even for a short amount of time each day.
Add water or fresh air. This was my grandmother’s fix for everything. Try ice cubes, baths, colored water, a walk around the block, spotting birds outside, collecting leaves, or identifying plants.
Be generous with affection. Physical comfort and loving touch are powerful stress management behaviors. That’s often what kids (and adults) need to manage big emotions. Give them hugs or hold hands. Tell them you love them.
TALKING ABOUT THE PANDEMIC CAN RELIEVE STRESS
Your children may be sensitive to the uncertainty and stress that is going on in the world around them. Answer questions about the pandemic simply and honestly. Perhaps your child has heard some frightening news. It’s OK to say people are getting sick but remind them that following rules like hand washing and staying home will help your family stay healthy.
It is understandable for children to react to stressful situations with off-track behaviors. You might notice a variety of symptoms. They may be unusually active, aggressive, quiet or sad. They may cry or become more clingy than usual. They may have disrupted sleep patterns, be more unwilling to participate in chores, or challenge siblings and other family members. It is important that you recognize their stress and console them as is age appropriate.
Model how to manage feelings and talk through how you are managing your own. Your family may be worried about a grandparent who is living alone or a friend with an increased risk of getting COVID-19. You can let your child know that it does create some worry not to visit Grandma every day, but you are checking in more often by phone or Zoom and that really helps.
When possible, reassure your child. For instance, before you leave the house for work or essential errands you can be clear that you are leaving. In a calm and reassuring voice, tell them where you are going, how long you will be gone, when you will return, and that you are taking steps to stay safe.
We all can benefit from looking forward to something. Tell your children that scientists and health experts are working hard to figure out how to help people who get ill, and that things will get better.
If you are feeling stressed, anxious and worried during this pandemic, professional support can be found at Let’s Talk Nevada County, https://www.mynevadacounty.com/2965/Lets-Talk-Nevada-County or call 530-265-5811.
Annie Keeling, MFA, is the Parenting Specialist for Nevada County Superintendent of Schools. Currently, she is teaching parenting classes online. Contact Annie for more information or parenting support: firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-268-5086.
Quick question: If you had to walk someplace in a hurry … would you rather walk uphill … or down?
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