After countless complaints and insults from her kids during lockdown, Mom yells, “I’m done! I’m absolutely done with you ungrateful children!” and stomps out of the house (with her mask).
The thing is — we can’t be “over it” or “done with it,” because COVID-19 is not done with us. For most people, the pandemic is their first experience of a disaster that is personal, national and international all at once. And we are all learning on the job how to marshal the coping skills needed for the long haul.
Parents with children at home are experiencing elevated levels of daily psychological distress. It’s become a chronic condition — like an illness.
Imagine your distress on a meter, ranging from 1 (none — you must be sleeping) to 10 (meltdown state featuring yelling, crying, threats, abusive language, possible physical punishment). Consider a “5” as irritable and the “8–10” realm to be the red zone where all the damage occurs.
These days, you likely wake up with some pandemic-related “free floating” anxieties, which take you to a “4.” Then, with a kid who won’t get up and do school and a spouse who has already disappeared (somewhere) to work, you are about to blow your top. How do you keep your cool? How can you turn the dial down on your distress-o-meter so that you can cope with what seems like endless demands and nurture yourself and your family?
Although no one keeps their cool all the time, parents who have a toolbox of coping strategies will fare the best. Anything that lowers your stress levels, reduces the bank account of negative interactions and helps to soothe your wounded spirit is bound to help you stay out of the hot zone of destructive emotions. Here are some ways to keep your cool.
1. “Good enough” is the goal.
Many parents are threatened by the notion of not aiming for exceptional goals, but this is not the year for that. Like other disasters that create stressors that make home a pressure cooker, maintaining realistic expectations can enhance your mental health and that of your family.
2. Find your peeps.
Research on stress has shown that social support enhances resilience. Find friends who both support you in “good enough” and validate your amazing efforts to hold down the family fort. Weed and feed — cultivate the friendships that make you feel good and step away from friends who bring you down.
3. Nurture your marriage.
(And if you don’t have one, enjoy your friendships that much more!) Mothers who are overly focused on their children often neglect their partners. During this long year, a “failing to thrive” marriage may tax the psychological health of your children more than the other obvious harms of the pandemic.
4. Try for the 5:1 positive-to-negative message ratio.
Yeah, I know. It is really hard to make sure you express five positive things to your kids (spouse?) for every negative one. (And don’t forget that reminders and nags are experienced as negatives.) The “catch ‘em when they’re good” advice is a true north star for motivating desirable behavior. A more positive home environment helps everyone to keep their cool.
5. Prioritize “Special Time.”
Whether you ask about your partner’s interests (which may not interest you), or you play London Bridge with your toddler in the wet grass (which you hate as much as he loves it), or you learn Fortnite to bond with your teen, engaging in what your loved ones adore builds a relationship like nothing else.
6. But first, arrange Me Time.
You can’t give quality time to others until you give it to yourself. You can’t fake it. Even if it is hiding in the bathroom with trashy social media, whatever helps you feel refreshed and less victim-y will help you dial down your distress level. Although exercise, a nap or a healthy snack may be optimal, the goal is doing what you find self-nurturing.
7. Balance adherence to routine with chucking it.
Take advantage of the automatic pilot of daily habits, which creates natural cooperation through maintaining a regular schedule. It is a boon you don’t want to squander. On the other hand, real life can really bust up a routine.
8. Pursue Laughter.
Get silly. People underrate the power of laughter. Maybe you’ll dance to your teen’s favorite rap song while he does his dish-washing chore (likely he will cringe and complain, but it is good karma, I promise!). Laughter provides a “reset, reboot” when the distress and irritability level is high and you are craving an injection of positive energy.
9. Learn “Getting to Calm” skills.
While practicing mindfulness has solid science behind it, establishing any calming method for your acute distress is critical for keeping you out of the red zone of rage or panic. You may try the face ice dive or the 4-7-8 breathing technique, which I describe in my book “Getting to Calm,” but make sure you have ways to flatten down your stress spikes.
10. Be aware of your bodily cues.
The first sign of stress and physiological arousal is your accelerated heart rate. But you may not notice your distress is mounting until you are sniping at your loved ones. Keeping your cool requires self-awareness so that you can intervene when you register your mounting distress. By the time you hit the red zone, the thinking brain goes offline, and that is when those regrettable, messy behaviors occur.
11. Forgive yourself.
One of my favorite aphorisms is, “Guilt is only helpful if it lasts five minutes and results in behavior change.” What to do? Recommit to self-awareness, self-calming and self-care.
12. Recognize your thought triggers.
What are the thought triggers that jettison you into despair or rage? Pandemic classics are: “I’m a terrible mother”; “I can’t take it anymore — no one appreciates me”; and “The world is collapsing, and my kids’ lives will be ruined.” Valid feelings of resentment, grief and fear are attached to these thoughts. While they are understandable, feelings aren’t facts. When we are extremely stressed and flooding with emotions, we tend to suffer cognitive distortions. Self-calming allows us to get our thinking brains back online so we can challenge the extreme thoughts that result in the emotions and behaviors that hurt us and others.
13. Validate your own feelings and those of others.
While expressing extreme and negative feelings can be hurtful when we become dysregulated, they are valid. Put the “I feel” in front of your thoughts and honor them. Who doesn’t occasionally feel hopeless, helpless, unloved and terrified by visions of worst-case scenarios? The old maxim “Name it to tame it” holds true for identifying and expressing emotions. Research also shows that journaling can be a powerful way to relieve distress.
14. Get physical.
Everybody knows exercise is good for reducing stress and keeping you healthy. But even a minute or two of jumping jacks can help you get some aerobic flow going and reduce your distress level. Sometimes when you start to sing, dance or do a downward doggie, it can help shake off nervous energy and change up the dynamic of grousing and arguing. Your kids may think you are weird when you suddenly do a lunge, but it’s an improvement on yelling. And what a good role model you will be, taking responsibility for your stress level!
15. Be affectionate.
During these pandemic times when we are supposed to physically distance from everyone other than those in our pod, we need to multiply hugs however we can. The benefits of the cuddle hormone oxytocin are well documented. While teens will eschew the kisses on the cheek enjoyed by the young ones, they rarely turn down a good foot massage.
16. Eat well.
Good nutrition is another obvious way of feeling good and therefore moderating your stress level. But some have found a secret perk of our homebound state to be the joy of cooking. Consider Zoom dates with family and friends, both for the communal cooking and the eating. Put the kids in charge and try to lead from behind.
17. Sleep well.
In addition to the physical benefits to health and resistance to illness, increased sleep time during the pandemic has been another silver lining for some kids. Good sleep is an elixir that boosts coping, general health and moods.
18. Think carefully about your media intake.
Connecting virtually with family, having some laughs and learning stuff are all fabulous uses of digital media. Mindless scrolling, social comparison and excessive intake of dire world news can be super-bad. Media can really torque your distress levels in subliminal ways. Have regular meetings with yourself and make a plan (and expect do-overs).
19. Get outside.
The research on nature exposure and its benefits to your health is clear. Looking at, being in and enjoying natural greenspace is wildly underrated. Yes — mask and distance and all that — but get out in nature and absorb the beauty and awe of the planet. Hug some trees, stare into the sky and dig in the dirt.
20. Play games.
Some families have rediscovered the fun of board games, and social video games are all the rage. The goal is enjoying one another together. Geocaching and scavenger hunts are good, too.
The challenges of this pandemic disaster will be with us for a long time. The old adage “Control what you can control” is solid wisdom. And when you lose control, you can pluck a few of these ideas out of your toolbox and give them a try.