Erin Hartnett: Parenting in a pandemic
Parenting is hard on a good day. Throw in a pandemic and it’s anyone’s guess.
It feels like to some degree we are all flailing. It’s hard to know how to communicate with our kids at a time when nothing makes sense. It’s supposed to be our job to guide, to model, to embrace our children as they move through the world. What to do, though, when the world they are having to navigate and observe is also completely unfamiliar to us as their adults?
No one knows the answers right now, no one knows how to feel, how to show up, how to process everything that is going on. But as parents, we don’t get a day off to figure it out. This is a job that you never get a break from, there’s no professional development days to re-inspire us, there’s no vacation time.
Instead, we are learning as we go. With all the pressure, anxiety is bound to creep in, or let’s be real, barge in. And with anxiety, comes depression, and with depression comes shutting down. Giving up. Giving in.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S, affecting 40 million adults (https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics). According to the CDC, 7.1% of children between ages 3-17 have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder (https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/features/anxiety-depression-children.html).
As someone who provides mental health in a school setting, I am often flooded with concerns for children experiencing symptoms of anxiety. I don’t mean to sound bleak, but this is an easy pit to fall into right now. In some ways, we are all trapped in the Twilight Zone, waiting for the episode to end, and for everything to return to normal. But until normal happens, we must adapt to a “new normal”. And that is what I think about as a parent of two young boys during a pandemic.
Parenting at a time like this is about letting go of control where you have none and facing every day as if it’s all new. It is so important to remember where we DO have control. When it comes to children, three things are key: structure, stability, and play.
One thing I noticed when this pandemic hit us in March was how everything just dropped. Jobs, school, bills, doctor appointments, playdates, birthday parties, ROUTINE. If there is one thing that children need more than anything to stay balanced and feel safe, it’s routine, consistency and structure.
Most of us lost all of this and we had to move into survival mode. But it’s important to find structure again, and that means we have to recreate it. It will probably look a little different than it did, but it can exist, and it must.
For kids that struggle with issues like ADHD and other learning and behavioral challenges, structure is essential. Now that these children aren’t in school or have limited school time, they are lacking some of the usual routine that helps them to regulate their behaviors and emotions.
Find creative ways to provide that in the home in a new way. A simple way to do that is to create a calendar and stick to it. If this is something that you struggle with as a parent or feel you could use some support with, reach out to your school counselors and teachers to get suggestions on how to implement more routine into your child’s day. It will serve the entire family.
A feeling of constant crisis and stress makes it difficult to find stability. Parents are trying to work from home, kids are trying to learn from home, and families are having to navigate how to keep their loved ones safe. Financial, emotional, and physical health is all in jeopardy.
The stress we are currently experiencing is real, but it is imperative that we find ways to help our children feel stable during a time of crisis.
Whether we realize it or not, our kids absorb our emotions. It’s all about Positive Mental Attitude (PMA). Finding normality where we can, whether it be family dinners at home, game nights, “special time” with our kids, and communicating with each other, is key.
We can let our children know what is happening around them in a way that helps them feel informed but not overwhelmed. Fear is nobody’s friend. Try to be mindful of what our kids are being exposed to regarding the news, family struggles, and our own personal mental health.
If you are an adult who feels they are struggling mentally, or emotionally, you deserve to feel safe. Be sure to talk to your medical provider about seeking counseling and support. There are resources available to help you feel stabilized. One resource is Let’s Talk Nevada County. (https://mynevadacounty.com/2965/Lets-Talk-Nevada-County).
In order to provide stability for our children, we have to feel it within ourselves. Lean on your community and your village to stay on track.
Remember to have some fun! Find the joy where you can and seize it. Play is an essential part of healthy development. There is a way to offer it to our children even when everything else feels impossible.
Social interaction is at an all-time low due to this pandemic. Consider finding a safe pod of friends and/or family that you can interact with regularly so that children get to socialize (and adults, too).
Get outside for a hike, play a game together, and talk about what you feel grateful for in your life. Set up face time play dates for your kids to see their friends and interact. Head to an outside space when it’s safe and kick a ball or ride a bike.
Make sure to block out “special time” with your kids where you spend 15 mins a day doing a fun activity of their choice. Everyone needs connection and everyone needs play time.
In a world that seems crazy and uncertain, there is support available for you and your family. We can all use a boost as we gather our internal strength and guide our children as best we can.
Erin Hartnett, MFT, PPC, is a Nevada City resident, and mother of two boys, age 8 and 6. She is a Marriage and Family Therapist and currently works as the School Counselor at Grass Valley Charter School.
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