How to Parent Peacefully in a Pandemic — Advice from a Psychotherapist
Updated: Apr 3, 2020
In every household under coronavirus-induced quarantine, a new dynamic has emerged. Parents are now jointly responsible for engaging, entertaining, exercising, and educating (as well as feeding) their offspring at all hours of the day, with no breaks before bedtime.
The effects of the coronavirus on our collective mental health have been just as diverse as our particular situations at home. From missing playdates, babysitters, and grandparents, to juggling work with childcare, to mourning the loss of a job or the loss of a loved one, our individual stressors might vary, but the underlying truth is that we have all struggled at some point over the past few weeks.
Up against emotional instability, financial insecurity, and domestic distress — parents everywhere are in crisis — suffering from anxiety, anger, depression, loneliness, confusion, frustration, and outright terror.
Panic buying may be an unfortunate response to the pandemic, but panic parenting doesn’t have to be. EmmaWell is working to ensure that all moms — and their partners — feel supported and informed at a time when access to social outlets, in-person resources, childcare, and even non-urgent medical care seems scarce.
Last week, Hilary Waller, EmmaWell’s Clinical Director of Mental Health and a psychotherapist at The Postpartum Stress Center, shared mental health tips for postpartum moms during the pandemic. In this installment, Hilary offers insightful observations and valuable advice on how to preserve healthy relationships with your spouse and children — as well as other family and friends — in these trying times.
My partner and I are both stuck at home for the foreseeable future and are constantly at each other’s throats. How can we preserve a peaceful marriage under these circumstances?
We all need to practice extremely high levels of compassion for each other’s behavior in times like these. Everybody is under a tremendous and undue amount of stress. I love to have couples create rituals during times of high stress so that they can reconnect and remember that they’re on the same team.
When we are in an experience that is so stressful and so extraordinary, it’s a good idea to take a step away from whatever happened during the day. Once you can have some alone time, have a hug, watch a show together, or talk about something neutral so that you remember what is at the core of your relationship — whether that’s a close friendship, a romantic marriage, or the love of your children.
Intentionally remind yourselves what is at the center of your relationship even if you’ve been bickering or fighting throughout the day.
Besides coming together, you also need to practice staying separate. Each individual needs to fold time for self-care into the daily routine. Consider that, during this unprecedented time, both parents may be working from home or worried about job loss, responsible for taking care of the children, and supervising some level of education or entertainment for the kids all at the same time. That is a great deal of responsibility for a couple to take on in one day, day after day.
Make sure that you’re generous with each other and compassionate for each other’s needs. For example, if you would feel recharged after a walk alone, then your partner should try to adjust work schedules and other plans to accommodate that for you. And vice versa. You need to ensure that your own and your partner’s self-care needs are met every day.
The stressors that were in your marriage before are still there, and may become magnified in the presence of this pandemic. If you’ve been working with a therapist on any issues, continuing to do so is a good idea. For a couple who had a previously harmonious marriage, when that feels disrupted, remember that the stability of your life is different. Of course, the quality of your relationship may feel different or even like it is suffering, so really make an effort to protect a part of your relationship so that you’re able to stay connected with the core of your marriage.
I resent missing out on my previous engagements and social time. What can I do to feel connected to adults other than my spouse?
Connecting over Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, or whatever digital tools you have available might feel silly, cliche, or superficial. Virtual socializing might make you feel like you’re not really getting true human connection, but you are. One of the gifts of dealing with this crisis in the digital era is that we do have access to socialization that doesn’t require us to be physically present with each other.
Of course, take a moment to grieve the fact that your loved ones can’t be around you to offer physical or emotional support, share your joy, or whatever your needs are. It’s important to give yourself time to feel sad and grieve that loss. But also recognize that we live in a time when we can set up iPads and FaceTime with family members at the kitchen table while eating breakfast.
There are photographs circulating in the news of family members looking at each other through glass, and as parents, we find that heart-breaking. At the same time, we are seeing neighbors wave from across the street for the first time. What if you decided to sit outside on beach chairs and have a cup of coffee or tea together? Even though social distancing can look and feel sad, it can also be an opportunity to get creative if you live in a neighborhood that allows for socializing from a short distance.
My young kids are picking up on my anxiety and asking probing questions about what is happening across the world. How can I explain it to them in a developmentally appropriate way?
I tend to err on the side of honesty but through the veil of what little kids can understand. With a young child, I might explain it like this: ‘We always have to be careful about washing our hands and making sure we don’t spread germs if we have a cold, and right now there is a new germ in our world that we’re trying to keep from spreading. Until the doctors and scientists learn how to keep that germ from spreading, we’re all being extra careful to keep everyone around us safe.’
I also like to proactively frame what we’re doing as in the interest of the social good. Across the globe, people everywhere are doing a good deed by staying home and should feel proud of this inconvenient effort. By staying home, we’re not only protecting ourselves, but we’re also making sure that we don’t spread germs to other people. We can look at all the different ways people are making sacrifices and have gratitude for all the ways that we are fortunate. It’s a great opportunity to practice mindfulness. [Here are some more tips on talking to your child about the coronavirus and creating normalcy in an abnormal world.]
With emotions running high, I keep getting overwhelmed and over-frustrated with my kids. What strategies do you recommend to reset my emotions and avoid an explosion?
The Mommy Time-out is my favorite trick. To use the Mommy Time-out, first make sure your child or children are in age-appropriate, safe places. Then as calmly as you can, tell them, ‘Mommy is taking a break.’ Remove yourself from the situation in a nearby, separate, and closed space.
For instance, close the door to the bathroom or your bedroom — anywhere near your children in your house, but where you’re able to be alone. Once you’re there, take a couple of minutes to reset. It might be tuning out to check Facebook briefly, humming a familiar song, taking ten deep breaths, or doing twenty jumping jacks. Afterward, you will feel recharged and ready to create a more peaceful environment for your kids.
I’ve had it! I need social distancing from my young children. What can I do to get a much-needed mental break?
I like to use self-compassion exercises. I will literally give myself a hug and use what I refer to as my ‘Mama Bear’ voice to acknowledge my ‘big feelings’. I will say, ‘Hilary, it’s going to be okay. Today was a really hard day but you can get through this.’ I use that voice all the time with my kids, and when I can channel that same tone and message for myself, it really does help.
Separate yourself from your children to be able to take a couple of minutes to collect yourself and then resume.
There are some really great self-compassion guided meditations and exercises by a researcher named Kristin Neff, which I recommend trying when you have alone time. The cumulative effect of learning self-compassion is so healthy for so many reasons and we all need that right now.
If you’re already in therapy, consider how well you are tolerating the coronavirus crisis equipped with the skills you’ve learned, compared to how you would have handled it before. If you’re a new mother, you might find you are more resilient than others because you just endured pregnancy, labor, and delivery. You tolerated the unexpected for nine months while you were carrying your baby. You know deep down that you can stay quarantined and overcome any obstacle at home for a few more weeks or months. We mothers need to call on our maternal strengths at this time to recognize that we can get through this together!
With warmth and wellness,
Your EmmaWell Team