There are countless challenges involved in living through a global pandemic. As we face the many ups and downs along the way, we set off our stress response system more often. Every time this stress response is triggered, our cortisol levels spike. This stress response pattern is very normal but it can certainly take a toll on you when you’ve got the added demands of being a parent and working at home.
Parenting during Covid-19 is a different kind of challenge. Many health professionals would even say that individuals are experiencing what has been referred to as low-level dread – this insidious feeling that there are too many burdens placed upon us and that this crisis will never end – despite the rational acknowledgement that there is great hope with vaccines. With all the changes that have altered our society, and the added stress of caring for your children, it makes sense that parents’ stress load is at an all-time high. That’s why it’s important to keep up with your daily wellness practices to help you get back to feeling more like yourself.
Personally as a parent, I have a very different approach to integrating wellness for parents as compared to other professionals. As a clinician, I know I am supposed to say “take care of you first”, “take time for you every day”, “put your mask on first and then your child’s”, and so on. But truthfully, inwardly, I think it is unrealistic for parents of children under 7 to have "real" time to themselves – and that is okay. There are other strategies that can be used with younger children to make the difference for all of us as parents that are attainable when there is no authentic ‘me’ time because of the demands placed on parents at the moment.
Here are categories of activities that I use when working both as a parent and mental health professional. These three types of wellness practices can be implemented into your daily routine starting today.
Changing your thinking pattern is about changing your success criteria – how much you have to do (and how well you have to do it) before you consider your day a success. For example, when you have to parent, have to work and somehow also keep the house tidy, is there a way you can compromise on some of the things that you expect from yourself?
It’s possible that we as parents can let some things go and remind ourselves that it’s not critical right now. Keeping my home clean and tidy does not reflect on my sense of self as a mother, only on the amount of time I have to complete this task. Of course, in a perfect world, the house would be spotless, but tidiness isn’t as important for me as getting through the week. By prioritizing those things that need to be done over those things that – yes – would be nice to have finished, we can make a better assessment on what ‘success’ really looks like. To me as a mother, this is maintaining my job, and my children thriving in their online school environment.
Finally, one other important thinking pattern change is to add AND to the end of sentences. This is a hard time AND my children are learning valuable skills about independence. I would never have wanted this level of stress for my family AND we are surviving……and thriving – but only in the most important areas – everything else is purposefully on hold!
This grounding exercise is a personal favorite that can be done anywhere, anytime, even during a stressful situation. Engaging in short daily wellness activities helps you out as a parent when you start to have negative thoughts and start to bottom out in terms of worrying about what to do next. Fortunately, the technique is very simple. It involves being as present as possible and really paying attention to what you are physically doing at the time, down to the smallest detail. You are going to say, out loud, exactly what you are physically doing at that time. Grounding exercises are important for being in the moment and being able to focus on what is in front of you, rather than worries about the future, or frustration.
Here’s an example of how it works:
“Right now, I am sitting in my chair, I have my feet planted firmly on the ground. I have a pencil in my hand, I am reading off the screen, I have headphones on my ears, and I am typing on a keyboard.”
As you think about what you’re doing and feeling right in that moment, this technique helps to bring your mind back to the present. Continue until you feel yourself relax deeper into the exercise.
Similarly, deep breathing is a powerful tool in crisis management. In fact, military members across the world use breathing in a crisis to remain calm in the face of danger. Breathing helps to trick your mind into thinking that you are in a safe and calm place. I like to breathe in for a count of four, hold, and breathe out for a count of four. The exact speed of your count matters less than just keeping it slow and steady. These exercises take seconds to complete, and yet make a world of difference.
Creating more structure and routine around all of your parenting decisions can be done using a caring, loving, and supportive framework. Establishing this sort of habit on a consistent-basis is incredibly helpful, not only to the parent but to the child as well.
Without established boundaries and defined limits, children can start to feel unsafe. How terrifying is it to be 10 years old and be ‘steering the ship’!?
This also acts as a beneficial wellness strategy for adults because it creates a clear pathway for behaviour management. When we have a plan, it is much less stress-inducing: everyone knows what happens next in different situations.
What happens if your child is disrespectful? For example, if they act out and hit their sibling – as happens with all children? After acknowledging any sort of inappropriate behaviour, you can look for ways to gently shape this sort of outburst into expressing feelings rather than hitting. Most important is creating a structure to develop behaviour patterns that stay true to your beliefs as a parent, helping to benefit your child interacting with society, both later in life and as a member of your household right now.
We can even extend this thinking and use structure and routine to make your day easier through being strategic with toys. Think kindergarten room. These rooms have bins of toys, different toys are put in front of children at different times for them to play with and the result? Engaged children playing for 20 minutes at a time at a station. By creating bins in your household, and bringing them out at key points in the day, this can allow your child to thrive on their own for a prescribed amount of time that you can use doing something valuable at work or in your household.
Of course, it’s much easier said than done to remain cool, calm and collected as a parent. But remember, the goal isn’t to have a perfect day but instead to bring a bit more optimism into the days, weeks, and months ahead. While navigating through the uncertainties of this pandemic can feel like a never-ending battle, hope is on the horizon!
There’s no question that this is a stressful time for all of us AND that we are going to get through this! By implementing a few simple techniques and making sure you’re focused on structures and routines, you can eliminate small stressors and parenting decisions. With every one of these that you eliminate, you’ll find that they add up to make a big difference to the overall stress load you’ve been carrying as a parent through this pandemic.
Written by Rebecca Paulsen, MSW, RSW