Mental health for parents.
So, the kids are at home, taken away from structure and routine, craving your attention, and rotating between being under stimulated, out of control and full of . . . something.
You’re stuck at home trying to balance work, parenting, teaching, relationships with spouse, family, friends, and trying to stay sane while feeling bombarded with hourly news reports of a deteriorating economy, worsening disease, death, and societal decay, all the while feeling overwhelmed with stress, frustration, anxiety, depression, isolation, worries, and not knowing when it will ever end.
So, you got everything under control, right? You’re good?
If you’re like most parents, the answer is . . . no.
If you’re feeling anxious, depressed, stressed, and frustrated, its normal, even expected during times like these. Chances are, your kids are feeling the same emotions, plus a few more.
During stressful life events, our kids are looking up to us for guidance. Here are some things to consider for keeping your mental health in check and supporting your kids’ as well.
- Re-framing the situation. If all you see is doom and gloom, and all you think about are the worst-case scenarios, then chances are, you won’t be a happy camper. Every crisis has opportunities. What are your opportunities for you, your kids, your family? How this could improve your relationships with your kids? How it can bring your family closer together when its over? You can add this to your list of adventures that helped you grow as a family. Find and embrace the opportunities.
- Shifting expectations. Think about and be flexible with changing your expectations for yourself, your kids, and your family as you go through this crisis. Likely, you won’t be able to perform at 100% while working from home along with all your other roles. Your kids are going through a lot of stress from being isolated from their school, friends, teachers, extended family, and coaches. They likely won’t be functioning as they normally do. Instead, lower your expectations; think about reasonable outcomes. Allow yourself to switch from normal parenting mode to zombie apocalypse parenting mode.
- Taking media breaks. Too much is not good for your mental health. You only need enough information to know how to keep you and your family safe. About 1-2 times per day is adequate. Also, take a break at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
- Scheduling. Routines, structure, schedules work. If you can claim a degree of certainty amongst the world of uncertainty, then you will feel more in control and calm. Make it simple, fun, and flexible – because you know that’s needed for kids. For pre-teens and teens, at the start of each day, help them come up with their own schedule; talk about guidelines when it comes to their school schedule, screen time and connecting with friends, chores around the home, etc.
- Gym class (at home). Moving your body each day can make a big impact on your physical and mental health. Do fun exercises/games/activities with the kids. There are some great videos on YouTube Facebook, and other sites. You could ask a guy like me for some examples, but just ask your kids (they no more 😉).
- Navigating emotional energy. Emotions are energy and they need to be moved or released.
- Red energy is anger, stress, anxiety, panic (sound familiar?). (Many elementary-aged kids are familiar with Zones of Regulation, from their schools, http://www.zonesofregulation.com/index.html, which is similar to this concept, but the colors are slightly different).
- Blue energy is calm, relaxed, peaceful, zen.
- Emotional regulation: how we get ourselves back to calm (blue). The first step is to be aware of our triggers (e.g., media, things other people say or do). Second, when we are being triggered, take a breath and tune in to where we feel it in our body (e.g., stomach, chest, neck), and what the sensations feel like (e.g., tingling, hotness, solidness, tension, tightness). Third, choose a blue-energy activity, such as:
- Deep breathing
- Grounding – 5-4-3-2-1 is simple and effective: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5cEUenMhMoY
- Remove yourself from the situation
- Mindfulness meditation: YouTube it (1000’s of good ones). Some meditation Apps: Headspace, Insight Timer, Calm.
- Intense exercise can help us engage the red energy, and then blue energy usually happens after exercise, when we feel calm and good about ourselves, our muscles feel relaxed, etc.
- A super useful tool for parents is Gottman’s Emotion Coaching, check it here: https://www.gottman.com/blog/an-introduction-to-emotion-coaching/
- Your social support network. Try to connect, one on one, with each person in your home at least once per day. Ask how they are feeling, talk about things that are interesting to them. Also, look for opportunities to connect with family and friends outside of the home with your phone, email, social media. As well, encourage your children to connect with their social supports through social media, Messenger Kids, etc.
- Coping with conflict. Conflict will happen within your family. It’s a mathematical certainty that your home-ship will hit a few bumps, maybe even an ice burg once in a while. Prevent your ship from sinking by talking about your concerns, rather than sweeping them under the rug. Use “I feel statements”: “I feel _____” (feeling word such as upset, frustrated, disappointed, sad; google “feeling word lists”, for adults and kids), ”when ______” (the situation. When talking about the other person, talk about your senses – what you are seeing, hearing, or noticing. E.g., “when I hear you disagreeing with my parenting decisions in front of the kids”). “I would like _____”. (talk about what you would like instead. E.g., “I would like us to talk about parenting when the kids aren’t around”).
Time out. Talk with your partner, co-parent, children, family about this and how, when conflict arises, you can work together to get yourselves back to calm so you can later talk about things peacefully. Anyone can call for a time-out. When one person notices him/herself being triggered and the red energy rising, that person calls for it, then everyone goes into their own cool down area in the home and engages blue energy activities to calm themselves. Also, agree on a time beforehand to come back together to talk about it (e.g., 20, 30, 90 minutes). Some families find it helpful to have a time-out password, a word or gesture, that everyone agrees that when it is used, everyone takes an auto time-out.
- Avoid labeling people. Be aware that whatever you say to your children, especially within their first 10 years of life, may become their inner voice for the rest of their lives. Words like “bad boy/girl”, “lazy”, “stupid”, “selfish” all have the potential to hang onto children’s minds and become self-fulfilling prophecies. Instead, if you’re concerned about your kids’ behaviors, then label their behaviors. Talk about your concerns with what they are doing or not doing, listen to their concerns, and help them learn how to behave appropriately.
- As well, be aware of the labels you may be assigning to other people or yourself. Calling ourselves “bad mom/dad/parent” does not help because it does not identify what we are doing or not doing that we’re concerned about, plus it tends to narrow our focus on the negative and not help us see what we’re doing well. Once we are fully aware of our strengths and areas for growth, can we learn what we want to work on to improve our parenting even more.
- Giving to others. In your neighborhood, you may have seen some positive, inspiring messages written on sidewalks, drawings posted in the windows of homes, painted rocks, etc. These are created by kids and kids of all ages, trying to remind us of the important things – love, relationships, hope. Brainstorm with your kids; how could you work together to give to others?
- Quality time. Kids generally behave better when they have strong relationships with parents and other family members. Quality time, as a family, and one on one with each person helps everyone feel closer, happier, and more connected. Movies/shows/screen time is okay, but nothing beats old-fashioned quality time: board games, reading books, sharing happy, fun, or embarrassing stories, etc.
- Self-care (me time). Our kids are depending on us to support them through this crisis. In order to have the strength to do that, we need to invest time for ourselves to refill our tank. These can be either blue or red energy activities, things that helps us feel a sense of purpose, happiness, and joy. Communicating with other family members, your kids, and/or your co-parent may be essential for allowing this to happen.
- Parental role-modeling. Children learn the most from watching their parents (and a little from other grown-ups: teachers, coaches, grandparents, etc.). We need to set the example for them. One great parenting tid-bit that I learned from a colleague, Jerry Firth, a Social Worker who wears many hats including Rufus the Mime, is that we shouldn’t have expectations for our kids that we aren’t willing to follow ourselves. Remember – they’re watching us, always watching.
- Reaching out for help. Help is available for you, your children, your relationships, and your family. Reaching out can be challenging, but you may feel relieved and like you’re on the right path, when you do. Alberta Health Services has put together a nice collection of mental health resources, here: https://www.albertahealthservices.ca/amh/Page16759.aspx
At Associates Counselling Services, we are providing online therapy during the COVID-19 pandemic through a secure, HIPAA-compliant source. If you would like to get set up or ask questions, please call (403) 381-6000, click the Book Appointment button below, or fill out the Request Information section below.
Brad Moser, Registered Psychologist
Brad has over 12 years of experience providing therapy for youth (ages 7+), adults, couples, and families. He has a strong understanding of child development and family systems. His areas of practice include anxiety, depression, stress, suicidal ideation, separation/divorce, domestic and family violence, emotional regulation, grief and loss, abuse and neglect, self-esteem, parenting and family of origin concerns. Brad is now accepting new clients and is providing a sliding scale for those who cannot afford the normal rate.
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