Annie Keeling: Stress and parenting in a global pandemic
An exhausted parent called me for support. “I’m a homeschooling failure. I didn’t sign up for this,” she said. “I can’t seem to balance home and work, especially while it’s all happening at my small dining room table. The stress! I hate how angry I can get.”
She told me her inner critic was harsh and unforgiving. Her current mindset wasn’t working, and she wanted help to make a shift.
A Mindset Shift
I suggested looking through a different lens, one that takes in the reality that surrounds her.
Instead of thinking, “I’m a bad parent and a worse teacher,” she could think, “I am parenting in a global pandemic.”
She can shift her thought from “I’m their homeschool teacher” to “I’m giving my child distanced learning from home during a global pandemic and under stress.”
There is so much to be stressed about. We can easily beat ourselves up. Instead, provide some slack and know perfectionism is not realistic.
Your house is a mess, your Zoom call is interrupted, your child won’t finish her worksheet, the kids are demanding your attention all at once … whatever it is, you can add “in a global pandemic” to the end of each thought.
“My house is a mess … in a global pandemic.”
“Maybe this isn’t the year my child needs to learn how to decompose fractions … because there is a global pandemic.”
This simple reminder might be enough to take the edge off a triggering event. There is room for more grace and kindness by remembering the reality in which you are parenting.
Present Over Perfect
Our kids want us to be present parents, as much as we can. The more present we are, the more connection our child will feel. Connection actually helps to protect against stress.
While we can’t control much about the pandemic, we can control our commitment to presence with our children. Our words and actions can encourage their safety and connection.
During these stressful times, the most important piece of parenting we can give our child is connection.
Set Clear Intentions
Many working parents say, “Now I’m working from home. This is a workday and I’ll treat it like one, just as if my kids were off at school.” But I would counter that you are not working from home. For many it was not a choice with a planned change of lifestyle to accommodate that.
What you are doing is working from home during a pandemic – while trying to homeschool your kids. Work and life boundaries are blurred. It can be helpful to be aware of how elusive work/life “balance” can be at this time.
Instead, can you be intentionally aware of what you are doing in the moment? At one moment, you are working. Then, you are being mom or dad or grandparent and your brain needs to shift.
You may find your child scrolling YouTube when they should be doing their homework. This can be a big trigger for the parent. “How dare he do that when I told him to do his math!”
But wait. Take a breath. Have you ever gotten pulled off by some site or another when you were supposed to be working? Adults are rarely 100% focused. This is a chance to empathize with your son’s experience.
Perhaps your child gives you major pushback when asked to do something he doesn’t want to do, like memorize multiplication tables or read a chapter of his book.
Here’s a mindset shift: when your children are giving you a tough time, they are having a tough time.
Remember that connection is protection. Ask a question of what is up for them. Allow them to express their grievances and to be part of the solution.
Bring in a positive idea of what you can do together once schoolwork is done. Maybe it’s 10 minutes of having your child take the lead instead of being told what to do. Connect with his experience.
Even before the pandemic, many parents experienced anxiety and stress within their parenting. The pandemic adds one more layer, one more reminder, that it is essential to develop and use coping skills. While we have our kids at home, we have an opportunity now to teach them to cope with stress as well.
Create a Calm Menu to remind you and family members of what helps when they are stressed. What helps you? Is it talking a walk, five deep breaths, doing the dishes, a cup of tea, a round of yoga asanas, or 10 min of quiet? For your child it might be petting the dog, bouncing on the trampoline, pushing against the wall, or digging in the dirt.
Brainstorm together and make a visual representation called a Calm Board. This could be a whiteboard, chalkboard, or posterboard with drawings or photos of reminder tools.
Practice your tools. Talk about what the first signs of anxiety look like for each person. When stressors occur, take a visit to the Calm Board and pick an action.
During this time of upheaval, there is uncertainty. Kids don’t know if they are going to school one day and staying home the next.
Post some cards or drawings that show what is known. If today is a homeschool day, then have a card for each activity: Math, Play, English, Lunch, etc. Have your child help you arrange the cards in an order that works for both of you. This gives the child some control and consistency.
You can also have your child draw out how she sees upcoming events, perhaps what she thinks school is going to look like. This can often be very telling and give information about any fears or ideas that might be causing her worry.
Once you have her ideas and her projection of what’s next, you can prime her for what’s coming. You can ask what she will do if she feels stressed out. What could she do from the Calm Board?
One Positive Action
And … it’s really tough. Parenting in a global pandemic is hard.
While many of our kids’ actions will trigger our own frustration or anxiety, we have an opportunity to practice more mindful behavior. Even one breath can be a great pattern interrupt. One breath allows for choice in how you want to react and makes room for empathy.
Compassion and seeing things from your child’s perspective can keep a situation from escalating. Whenever there is a chance to have more connection, choose that.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-268-5086.
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